US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will finalize a huge arms deal with Israel during his visit starting Saturday, under which Israel will for the first time be permitted to purchase US aerial refueling planes and other ultra-sophisticated military equipment that could prove vital to any Israel strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The deal is to be finalized during Hagel’s visit — his first stop on his first overseas trip since taking over from Leon Panetta — during his talks with Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. But most of its content was agreed upon with Ya’alon’s predecessor Ehud Barak. Hagel’s first meeting with a foreign counterpart after taking up his post was with Barak at the Pentagon in early March. Hagel said at that meeting that, while the US continues to believe there is still time to address the threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons through diplomacy, that window is closing.
Prominent among the Israeli purchases are an undisclosed number of KC-135 aerial refueling planes. Previously, the US refused to sell such planes to Israel. “The change of policy,” Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Friday night, constitutes “something of a hint over the understandings between the two nations regarding the possibility that Israel will seek (US assent) to strike at Iran.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long indicated a readiness to resort to force if all else fails to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and has repeatedly alleged that the West is being duped by Iran in diplomatic contacts, and that Tehran is merely “buying time” while it advances toward the bomb. The danger posed by Iran was the key issue discussed by Netanyahu and Barack Obama when the US president visited Israel last month.
The “new generation of KC-135 refueling tanker planes would let Israel’s warplanes stay in the air longer, an ability essential for any long-range mission — like a strike by Iran,” the New York Times reported Friday.
KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft “would allow Israeli war planes to stay in the air for longer to carry out long-range missions — such as a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations,” echoed London’s Daily Telegraph.
Also being purchased by Israel are V-22 Osprey aircraft, a tilt-rotor hybrid that can take off and land like a helicopter and then fly like an airplane, as well as precision-guided missiles and advanced radar for Israeli fighter aircraft. It would be the first sale of the V-22 to a foreign nation. “Israel could use the Osprey for patrolling its borders, coastline and out to sea, and for moving troops to troubled areas,” Friday’s Times report said.
The Times added: “Israel also would receive antiradiation missiles. Launched from a warplane, they can home in on an adversary’s air-defense radar signals and destroy those sites. New, advanced radars for Israel’s military jets also would be in the package.”
One goal of the overall arms deal, the Times said, was “to ensure that Israel continues to field the most capable armed forces in the region to deter Iran and counter a range of threats.”
The arms sale was outlined to Congress on Thursday, the Times said. “Congressional officials said members were seeking assurances that the package was in keeping with American policy to guarantee Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’ while not recklessly emboldening Israeli hawks,” it added — a presumed reference to any possible Israeli military intervention in Iran. Obama made clear while in Israel that he did not believe time had run out on a diplomatic solution.
In all, the US Defense Department is working out final details of a huge $10 billion in sales of warplanes, transport aircraft, and advanced missiles to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, amid concerns about the growing threat from Iran, Pentagon and congressional officials said. Israel’s purchases will largely be financed out of the annual US military aid package to Israel.
The US has spent the past year negotiating with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates on the deals.
The United Arab Emirates would purchase 26 F-16 warplanes under the deal, as well as advanced air-launched missiles. Three Pentagon officials who briefed reporters on the arrangement Friday said the UAE segment of the deal is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion. They did not specify the value of the sales to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are expected to buy advanced air-launched missiles.
One official said the deals were briefed to Congress on Thursday by Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, and James Miller, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy.
Hagel will visit Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Associated Press contributed to this report.