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Top defense official: Israel must replace aging aircraft before it’s too late

In wide-ranging briefing, Defense Ministry director discusses budgetary woes, arms sales and the push to shore up Israel’s military edge in light of F-35 purchase by UAE

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An Israeli Yasur heavy transport helicopter flies over Hatzerim air base in southern Israel on June 24, 2015. (Oren Rozen/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
An Israeli Yasur heavy transport helicopter flies over Hatzerim air base in southern Israel on June 24, 2015. (Oren Rozen/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Before Israel can address the potential damage to the country’s military supremacy in the region from the US sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, it must first find a way to pay for the aircraft and weapons systems it needs to replace its already aging fleets and inadequate arsenals, Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel said Monday.

The Israeli Air Force currently operates 50-year-old heavy transport helicopters and refueling planes that are nearly the same age, and requires additional fighter jets to replace outmoded ones, according to Eshel.

“No other military in the world flies aircraft this old,” he told reporters in Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“Flying 50-year-old helicopters with 50 people on board during wartime and 30 people on board in peacetime — that’s not safe,” Eshel said.

Eshel warned that without new equipment Israel could find itself without the tools it needs to win a future war.

“If there should be a large-scale conflict, these platforms, which are critical and need to be available and up-to-date, will not be at the quantity or level of availability needed,” he said.

Former head of the air force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2019. (INSS)

Currently, the Israel Defense Forces is waiting for final approval to purchase a new fleet of helicopters to replace its fleet of Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions, known in Israel as the “Yasur”; a new fleet of Boeing refueling jets; new F-35 and F-15 fighter jets; and other military equipment deemed critical, like interceptor missiles and munitions for aircraft.

However, the Defense Ministry does not yet have a clear way to pay for the replacement aircraft Israel hopes to purchase from the United States, in light of ongoing disagreements with the Finance Ministry and the lack of a national budget principally due to political differences between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his briefing, Eshel also discussed the incoming Joe Biden administration in the United States, with which he anticipated having good relations.

Joe Biden pauses while speaking to supporters in front of an Arizona state flag, at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America’s training center, on October 8, 2020, in Phoenix. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

“They know us, and we know them,” he said, referring to the fact that many of the people expected to join Biden’s defense team had previously served under US president Barack Obama.

Eshel acknowledged that while on certain diplomatic fronts, notably on the Iran nuclear deal, Obama and Netanyahu did not always see eye to eye, military cooperation between Israel and the US had been “unprecedented.”

Paying now or later

Purchasing the aircraft and other equipment that the IDF has deemed critical would cost roughly NIS 8 billion ($2.37 billion), a significant amount of money at any point in time, but even more so during the current global financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Eshel said.

As a result, the Defense Ministry advocates delaying payment for these systems for 10 years, despite the fact that such a deferral would not come cheap, costing at least an additional NIS 800 million — or 10 percent of the original amount — and up to NIS 1.5 billion in interest.

“But we can stomach that,” Eshel said.

The Finance Ministry, however, opposes such a move, seeing it as an unnecessary price.

The Defense Ministry’s proposal relies on the military aid that the United States has historically provided to Israel. Before leaving office, Obama signed the latest so-called Memorandum of Understanding that set that amount at $3.8 billion a year for 10 years, from 2018 to 2028, the largest such package in history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with US President Barack Obama in New York, on September 21, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

As the aid money that is part of the current MOU is tied up in other deals, the Defense Ministry is basing its proposal on the assumption that the US will sign another aid package with Israel before the current one expires in 2028. The NIS 8 billion and the interest that would accrue from delaying payments would be paid for with funds from that future MOU package.

“The bottom line is that it’s either paying NIS 8 billion right here and now or paying additional interest of NIS 800 million in another decade, which the Defense Ministry will pay for with dollars from the aid budget,” Eshel said.

He noted that this would not be the first time the Defense Ministry used such a scheme: Israel’s current fleet of F-35 fighter jets and, before that, some 100 F-15 fighter jets were purchased in a similar way.

“It doesn’t add up to me that the State of Israel right now — at the peak of a budgetary deficit — would take NIS 8 billion and put it in America. There are other techniques to solve this,” Eshel said.

Picking the aircraft

While the main holdup preventing Israel from purchasing replacement fighter jets, refuelers and transport helicopters is the lack of budgetary approval, the Defense Ministry has also not yet made final decisions on which aircraft it wants to buy.

Israel is currently considering several options to replace its fleet of CH-53 heavy transport helicopters. One would be to buy a new fleet of Sikorsky’s new model, the CH-53K, which would likely be more expensive upfront but cheaper to maintain; another would be to buy a new fleet of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters, which would likely be cheaper to buy but pricier to maintain.

A US V-22 Osprey takes part in a training exercise during the joint Israeli-US military Juniper Cobra air defense drill at the Tzeelim urban warfare training center in southern Israel on March 12, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Additionally, Israel is again thinking about purchasing the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft — like a cross between an airplane and a helicopter — that would allow the military to carry out rapid transport missions that it currently is not able to perform. Israel first planned to buy the V-22 Osprey in 2014, but scrapped the idea following the costly Gaza war that summer.

Gantz, who as IDF chief of staff supported the plan to purchase the V-22, ordered the Defense Ministry and military to reconsider the matter upon becoming defense minister earlier this year.

According to Eshel, the Defense Ministry is completing these assessments and may recommend purchasing the aircraft to complement a somewhat smaller fleet of either CH-53K or CH-47 helicopters.

He said a final decision on the matter should be made by the end of this year or the very beginning of next.

Defense exports

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to cause defense spending to decrease in the coming year, as countries are forced to invest more heavily in their healthcare systems and welfare services.

For Israel, which has a robust weapons manufacturing industry, this is especially worrisome, according to Eshel.

An Aeronautics Ltd. drone (Courtesy)

“We need to strengthen our defense exports, strengthen Israel’s qualitative advantage, and strengthen the market,” he said.

According to Eshel, this will mean making it easier for Israeli defense contractors to sell their goods abroad.

“We need to allow exports in larger quantities and faster,” he said.

At the same time, the government must ensure that this does not come at the expense of exposing the secrets of Israeli military hardware, Eshel said.

He scoffed when asked about Israeli arms sales to countries accused of human rights violations, dismissing the matter out of hand. Over the years Israel has been accused of selling weapons to such nations, including recently to Myanmar while the country was accused of ethnically cleansing its Rohingya population, and to South Sudan during a brutal civil war there.

Eshel commented briefly on the role Israel played in this year’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in which Israeli weapons were used extensively by the former.

In this Oct. 4, 2020 photo, an Armenian soldier fires an artillery piece during fighting with Azerbaijan’s forces in self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan (Press office of Armenian Defense Ministry PAN Photo via AP)

He denied reports that Israel had made new defense agreements with Baku during the fighting and generally defended sales to the central Asian country, with which Israel maintains close and warm ties.

“What we’ve supplied to Azerbaijan has been based on previous deals. No IDF warehouses were opened and nothing new was created from the ground up. We have a supervised and controlled export policy. We don’t sell them everything. But if we can sell [them things] and strengthen defense industries and the economy, what could be better?” he said.

What about the QME?

The revelation that the US plans to sell F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates in light of a normalization deal between Abu Dhabi and Israel came as a shock to Israel’s Defense Ministry, which had been excluded from the negotiations.

The fifth-generation aircraft represents a major leap forward for the UAE military and would threaten Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, its superiority in the region, which the United States is by law required to ensure remains in place regardless of any arms sales in the region.

After news of the proposed sale came out, Gantz immediately began working with his American counterpart — Mark Esper, who has since been fired by US President Donald Trump — to negotiate an agreement that would ensure Israel’s QME remains in place.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper hold a joint statement in the Pentagon on October 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

Gantz signed such an agreement with Esper late last month, just ahead of the US election. The details of the deal have not been released, and few people in Jerusalem and Washington are aware of the full contents of the agreement, Eshel said.

Eshel, who negotiated large parts of the deal, said it would “ensure Israel’s qualitative edge for decades to come.”

Asked about the potential effect that Esper’s firing and Trump’s loss in the election would have on the agreement, Eshel said these were not expected to cause problems.

“I say to you: What was signed there will be handed over and honored by administrations to come,” he said.

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