ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Military edge in peril as weapons flood region, general warns

Israel’s air superiority keeping threats in check, but that could change amid Mideast arms race, air force chief of staff says

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Brig.-Gen. Tal Kalman, chief of staff of the Israeli Air Force, discusses the changing threats against Israel during the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies' annual conference in Tel Aviv's Hilton Hotel on April 3, 2016. (The Fisher Institute)
Brig.-Gen. Tal Kalman, chief of staff of the Israeli Air Force, discusses the changing threats against Israel during the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies' annual conference in Tel Aviv's Hilton Hotel on April 3, 2016. (The Fisher Institute)

A top Israel Air Force general warned that Israel may be losing its military edge amid a growing arms race in the Middle East, during a conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday.

Brig. Gen. Tal Kelman, chief of staff of the air force, warned that weapons flowing into the region could shift the balance of power away from Israel, hinting at growing Iranian hegemony without naming the country.

“There is the potential for the erosion of the IDF and IAF’s qualitative edge,” Kelman warned, alluding to a US commitment to make sure Israel is better equipped militarily than its neighbors.

Kelman called the air force the “dominant and central figure” in successfully defending Israel against the threats facing it, but warned that could change.

“Advanced Western and Eastern weapons have entered the equation and have been received by the countries surrounding us,” he said, referring to military equipment coming from Europe and the United States, as well as from China.

“Fighter planes, ballistic missiles and advanced surface-to-air missiles. An arms race, along with instability, created a great danger,” he said, alluding to Iran and some Islamic extremist groups, but without identifying them by name.

Since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of economic sanctions from the Islamic Republic, Tehran has been working to acquire military equipment, including the S-300 air defense system from Russia — something Israel has been protesting vehemently.

Despite Russia’s nominal withdrawal from Syria, the more advanced S-400 air defense system, along with other pieces of Russian military equipment, will remain in the war-torn country, according to Russian media.

While Kelman said the Iran nuclear deal did serve to delay the threat of nuclear annihilation from Tehran, he hinted that conventional war with those funded by the Islamic Republic was still an ever-present threat.

“The nuclear deal pushed back the nuclear threat, but [Iran] provides much of the resources and weapons that are given to the organizations working against the State of Israel,” Kelman said. “In my opinion, this threat will be with us for the next decade at least.”

A senior air force official quoted by Defense News last week said Russia had merely shifted its air power in Syria without withdrawing in any significant way.

The general’s comments came amid ongoing negotiations with the United States over a military aid package, with Israel reportedly requesting additional assistance from America beginning in 2018.

Israel currently receives approximately $3 billion (NIS 11.32 billion) a year from the US, but when the current aid package ends in 2017, Israel has reportedly requested that amount be increased to closer to $5 billion (NIS 18.87 billion) a year in order to maintain a qualitative military edge over its enemies.

This $5 billion a year request will reportedly be denied, US sources told Reuters news late last year. However, negotiations between Jerusalem and Washington over the aid package are ongoing.

The general, a former fighter pilot, described the Middle East as “teeming and erupting,” warning that many of the developments in the region have been “unexpected.”

“The enemy of today is the friend of tomorrow, and the friend of today is the enemy of tomorrow,” Kelman said.

The brigadier general spoke at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies’ annual conference in Tel Aviv’s Hilton hotel on Sunday.

The F-35 jet, a fifth-generation stealth fighter recently rolled out by the US, was the center of this year’s conference.

Kelman lauded the state-of-the-art aircraft, which is slated to arrive in Israel in December 2016.

An F-35 on the tarmac on May 12, 2012 at Edwards Air Force Base in California (AP Photo/ Lockheed Martin)
An F-35 on the tarmac on May 12, 2012 at Edwards Air Force Base in California (AP Photo/ Lockheed Martin)

“This plane is better than other planes on the market and its price is smaller than some of the other planes available,” he said.

“The cost of the plane” — approximately $100 million (NIS 377 million) per airplane — “has gone down and the maintenance of it is cheap and will become cheaper with time,” he said, responding to criticism of the platform’s high cost.

“The plane’s software, which is still being developed, is a leap forward from our current planes,” Kelman said.

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