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Posted by Jeff from ( on Wednesday, April 10, 2002 at 5:44PM :

MIDEAST MILITARY BALANCE: Israel has become a superpower

It can now thumb nose at U.S. aid

April 9, 2002


WASHINGTON -- There was a time, in the history of Israel and the Arab world, when the United States was the unquestioned military superpower in the Mideast and drew obedient if grudging respect from all sides.

Now Israel is the region's superpower, and where it once looked to the United States for diplomatic support and for military rescue, now Israel can thumb its nose at Washington and go its own way.

Israel's air force, which flies souped-up U.S. F15 and F16 fighters, can complete nearly 3,000 combat missions per day. The United States can carry out about 1,600 missions a day. That has given Israel vast freedom of action, not just against Palestinian street fighters, but against its traditional rivals, Syria and Egypt, as well.

"We have created an 800-pound gorilla," said Kenneth Brower, an independent military consultant in Washington, assessing decades of U.S. military aid.

The United States has given Israel about $3 billion a year for weapons purchases since the late 1970s, and has transferred new or used weapons and military technology for free or at deeply discounted prices under other government programs and commercial arrangements.

Also, the United States has stored millions of dollars worth of ammunition, fuel, spare parts and even a field hospital in Israel, ostensibly for use by U.S. forces. The agreements under which the equipment was stored in Israel are secret. But most analysts assume Israel has access to the storage sites.

The increase in Israel's combat clout comes less from size than from other, intangible factors. For instance, Israeli technicians have added digital and other improvements to their F16 fighters, making them even more capable than versions used by the U.S. Air Force, Brower said.

And Israel has a huge pool of seasoned combat pilots. Its air force can use one aircraft again and again while exchanging fatigued pilots for fresh ones. The United States does not maintain as many combat pilots per airplane as Israel.

Israel relies heavily on its reserve forces. There are almost a million Israelis younger than 48 liable to be recalled to duty. All have done three years' active duty as well as reserve training. Reserve troops are organized into units already matched up with vehicles and weapons.

"It's one of the most efficient military forces around," said Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "Can they thumb their nose at us? Well, for a while."

He estimated it would take about two years of fighting before Israel needs outside help.

It was a much closer thing in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, one of the Jewish high holy days. As Egyptian tanks swept across the Sinai Peninsula and plunged through Israeli defenses, the Israeli government pleaded with the United States for help.

Then-President Richard Nixon quickly stationed two aircraft carriers off the Israeli coast and put U.S. combat forces on alert. Eight days later, U.S. cargo planes began delivering more than 22,000 tons of supplies to Israel, including tanks and jet fighters.

The deliveries tipped the military balance. Israel counterattacked with its tank forces, under the leadership of then-Gen. Ariel Sharon, chasing Egyptian troops back across the Suez Canal and reclaiming the Sinai.

Out of that experience came a U.S. pledge that Israel would never lose its edge in military power to any of its Arab neighbors, and the U.S. military aid to Israel that backed up the pledge.

As for igniting a wider Mideast war, most analysts said the Israelis are confident they can handle any contingency -- at least in the short run. Syria's military forces have atrophied since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main benefactor. Egypt is said not to have the stomach for another wider war.

In any event, "The Israelis are not depending on us to come rescue them," Brower said.

-- Jeff
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