In his speech before the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations in Jerusalem this week, President Reuven Rivlin said that Israel has three overriding foreign policy concerns: “Number 1: Relations with America. Number 2: Relations with America. Number 3: Relations with America.”
There is a lot of truth in Rivlin’s hyperbolic statement.
Israel’s security depends on its relationship with the US. After all, the Russians and the Chinese won’t sell Israel fighter planes. Russia couldn’t develop strategic ties with Israel even if it wanted to. Its Iranian ally wouldn’t let it.
As for China, its mercantilist view of the Middle East makes it indifferent to the power balances in the region. Beijing may not harbor hostile intentions toward Israel, but it will act in a hostile fashion if it views China’s interests as advanced by such hostility.
While Israel rightly is working to diversify its foreign ties to move beyond the narrow scope of its alliance with the US, the fact is that with or without Australia and sub-Saharan Africa, the US remains Israel’s irreplaceable ally.
Unfortunately, today even the friendliest US administration cannot be relied on to secure Israel’s long-term capacity to defend itself. Israel faces enemy forces equipped with Russian and Chinese technologies – including Russian forces in Syria – that are rapidly challenging American systems in key areas. So long as the US remains behind the technological eight ball, Israel’s long-term reliance on its military ties to the US is a dangerous proposition.
Things didn’t use to be this way. At the start of the 21st century, America’s military power was unrivaled. From the end of the Cold War until the turn of the century, neither Russia nor China could challenge the US and its status as the sole global superpower.
That is no longer the case.
In a distressing article published this week in the American Affairs Journal, David Goldman details the technological crisis the US is steeped in today.
Goldman notes that the US is lagging behind the Russians and the Chinese in air defense systems and technologies, missile technology, particularly hypersonic missile technologies, submarine warfare, cyber warfare technologies and satellite interdiction capabilities.
To bridge the gap and outpace the Chinese and the Russians, Goldman argues that the US needs to initiate massive government-funded research and development programs.
In the post-Cold War era, Goldman notes ruefully, Americans have forgotten that they were ever vulnerable, that their victory against the USSR was anything but preordained.
The actual history, Goldman reminds us, was quite different. The US victory in the Cold War was the result of conscious decisions by US leaders to outstrip Soviet technology after American technology was shown to be lagging behind.
In 1957, the Americans reacted to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik with a crash program in space exploration. That program, which benefited from lavish federal funding, ended the Soviets’ advantage in aerospace technology inside of a decade.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Americans realized that the Egyptian success in downing Israeli jets over Sinai in the early days of the war meant that the Soviet surface-to-air missiles Egypt fielded had neutralized US air superiority. The Americans realized that the Soviets’ technological advantage meant that they would win a land war in Europe.
Consequently, Goldman explains, the US initiated détente to avert a war in Europe. At the same time, the Americans began to develop the technologies to defeat the Soviets. Massive public investments in defense R&D followed. A decade later, Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative; the Soviets realized they couldn’t compete, and eight years later, the USSR collapsed.
The Americans weren’t the only ones to respond to Israel’s air losses in 1973 with a massive investment in defense R&D aimed at destroying Russia’s technological advantage with its surface-to-air missiles.
Israel responded to its exposed vulnerabilities by developing the electronic warfare capabilities to neutralize Soviet SAM batteries. As Goldman recalls, in 1982, Israel matched US air platforms – the F-16 and F-15 – used in combat for the first time in the Lebanon War – with its own homegrown computer- based electronic warfare systems. So equipped, Israel eliminated Syria’s Soviet-built surface-to-air batteries and its Soviet-supplied air force, in a stunning air victory.
Whereas in the 1950s and the 1970s, the US had the domestic scientific capacity to quickly regroup in the face of Soviet technological advances, today the US’s path to rebuilding its technological advantage is less clear. Since the Cold War, the US government slashed its investment in military R&D.
According to Goldman, as a percentage of GDP, today US government investment in R&D is barely half of what it was in 1978.
Goldman bemoans the self-imposed evisceration of America’s capacity to develop the knowledge it requires to regain the technological advantage over the Chinese and the Russians.
In his words, “The national laboratories are hollowed out, and the major corporate laboratories (at IBM, the Bell System, General Electric, and RCA among others) that contributed significantly to defense R&D during the Cold War no longer exist. Within the shrinking defense R&D budget, a disproportionate share has been squandered on the F-35, a poorly conceived and executed weapons system with the highest price tag in defense history.”
And it won’t be easy to rebuild them. For 25 years, the US has not only shut down its own laboratories, it has done little to encourage its citizens to acquire the knowledge they need to rebuild that capacity.
Goldman notes for instance that currently, China graduates twice the number of STEM PhDs from its universities as the US.
This brings us back to Israel. In the 1980s, the US regarded the stunning technological advances Israel had made with suspicion. America feared that Israel’s growing technological capabilities would diminish its dependence on the US, at a time when the US was most concerned with keeping the Arab states inside the anti-Soviet bloc and keeping the Soviets out of the Middle East.
Last year, then-president Barack Obama forced Israel to agree to a multi-year military assistance package that if implemented will diminish Israel’s independent technological capabilities while expanding Israel’s technological dependence on the US.
While the aid package increases the amount of US funds Israel is permitted to spend on US systems from $3.1 billion to $3.3b. per year, the deal phases out Israel’s right to use a quarter of the funds on its domestically built systems.
Obama’s aid package also denies Israel and Congress the ability to initiate joint projects to meet new challenges as they arise.
In short, Obama’s deal ensures Israel will be incapable of acting on its own and will remain dependent on US goodwill and technologies for the foreseeable future.
This then brings us back to the US’s swiftly vanishing technology advantage.
Unlike the US, Israel has used the past generation to develop cutting edge technological capabilities in almost all of the areas where the Americans are lagging behind their competitors. Under these circumstances, Obama’s military assistance is exposed not merely as bad for Israel. It is bad for the US as well.
Israel can help the US compensate for its current scientific disadvantages. Israeli technological innovations can help the US to rebuild its independent capabilities and leapfrog its competitors far more rapidly than it can do on its own today.
An R&D partnership with Israel is also aligned with Trump’s vision for a renewed role for the US in global affairs. As Defense Secretary James Mattis told the US’s NATO allies this week, the US will not continue carrying the load of protecting the West on its own. It wants its allies to be its partners, not its dependents.
In Mattis’s words, “America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.”
Earlier this month, Prof. Hillel Frisch published a short paper for Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center showing the utter dishonesty of the claim that Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid. Frisch noted that US military assistance to Japan, Germany, Italy and South Korea far outstrips its assistance to Israel. All of those states receive US military assistance in the form of US forces permanently deployed to their territory to protect them. Israel, on the other hand, receives aid in military equipment only. No US assets are endangered, no US forces are required to defend Israel. And the financial burden of the former is far great than that of the latter.
Trump is interested in states like Japan and Germany transforming their strategic relations with the US from relationships based on dependency to partnerships by increasing their military spending.
What Israel’s technological and innovation prowess shows is that as far as Israeli defense assistance is concerned, the US should base its relations with Jerusalem on each sides’ complementary capabilities.
America and Israel should abrogate Obama’s military assistance package and replace it with a partnership based on US finance of Israeli R&D projects geared toward developing weapons systems and technologies that both the US and Israel require.
The deal should stipulate the modalities for both sides sharing the technologies with third parties, and their rights to use the technologies developed by Israel with US capital for civilian commercial purposes. Israel should be permitted to purchase US platforms based on Israeli-developed technologies.
Such a partnership would enable Israel to ensure that its continued dependence on the US won’t place it at a disadvantage vis-à-vis its enemies such as Iran, which are able to purchase advanced weapons systems from Russia and China. Such a partnership would ensure that both the US and Israel have the systems they need to outpace Chinese and Russian technological advances and develop the weapons systems they need to win tomorrow’s wars.
In his remarks before the Conference of Presidents, Rivlin voiced concern at the fact that Israel has become a partisan football in US politics. His concern is well placed.
Assuming that Israel’s dependence on the US will be a fixed variable for the foreseeable future, Israel needs to consider the best way of ensuring that the alliance will persevere regardless of the partisan attachments of future presidents.
The best way to ensure the resilience of the US-Israel alliance over time is for Israel to transform its military dependence into a mutually beneficial alliance with the US. A new military relationship based on joint technology development rather than Israeli purchase of US platforms is the best way to accomplish that goal, for the benefit of both countries.