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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge: Dilemmas for the Bush Administration

Filed under: U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 12    December 16, 2001

Three times in recent decades the United States has approached Arab countries to join broad coalitions in support of military objectives: ousting the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s, ousting Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and the current war on terrorism. In each case, efforts to garner Arab support created tensions with the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” against all potential adversaries. Proposed sales in 2001 of AGM-84 Harpoon “Block II” missiles and MLRS rocket systems to Egypt indicate that once again there is a danger that a fundamental strategic principle may be sacrificed for ephemeral diplomatic gains.

The Historic U.S. Commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Edge: From Nixon through Reagan

The principle behind the U.S. commitment to Israel’s qualitative edge is straightforward: Israel will always be militarily outnumbered with regard to the artillery, tanks, and combat aircraft that can be deployed by a coalition of Arab states. While Arab states structure their ground forces on the basis of standing active service formations that can be battle-ready with little preparation, Israel’s army is organized primarily around reserve units, requiring at least 48 hours to reach full strength.

Thus, prior to the Israeli reserve mobilization, Israel suffers from acute numerical inferiority in the balance of forces with its neighbors (Israel faced an 8 to 1 Syrian advantage in armor in October 1973 on the Golan Heights), which is worsened by the fact that the Arab world has historically been able to erect multi-state military coalitions. A military balance in Israel’s favor, therefore, cannot be achieved by matching the quantities of Arab weaponry, requiring that Israel maintain its edge on the qualitative front.

As early as the late 1960s, the United States supplied Israel with sophisticated weapons systems, years in advance of any Arab country. Israel received its first F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft in 1969 — four years before a Phantom sale was even considered for any Arab state. U.S. F-16s were delivered to Egypt in 1983 — three years after the first F-16 delivery to Israel. This de facto commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge was first made explicit by the Reagan administration, and has been reiterated by every U.S. administration ever since. But the deepening of the declaratory commitments to Israel’s qualitative edge has been accompanied by a marked erosion of the policy on both the practical and definitional levels.

Dilemmas of the 1990s: Qualitative Edge Against Whom?

Before the policy had a name, for example, the commitment to Israel’s qualitative edge was manifest at the level of weapon systems, and the idea was that this advantage would be maintained indefinitely, rather than just a brief “head start” on almost identical arms sales to Arab countries. During the Reagan years, however, the gap in weapon systems between Israel and Saudi Arabia was largely closed, most controversially with the 1981 sale of AWACS airborne radar systems that were qualitatively superior to anything Israel possessed. Qualitative edge was in danger of becoming an empty slogan.

As Israel’s advantage in weapon systems was allowed to erode, the U.S. argued that it was maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge at the subsystem level — e.g., Israel would receive the same airframe but with more sophisticated avionics. The U.S. also recognized that Israel could contribute to its own edge, particularly in subsystems, if the U.S. supported Israel’s defense industries by allowing a portion of U.S. military assistance to be spent in Israel ($475 million was allocated yearly for “off-shore” procurement), rather than in the U.S. The U.S. would also argue that even if Arab states possessed the same systems and subsystems as Israel, Israeli training, tactics, and communication systems gave Israel a military edge.

Another factor in eroding Israel’s qualitative edge was the question over which countries are counted as part of the combined threat potentially facing Israel: qualitative edge against whom? The issue of how to treat countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel was delicate. On one hand, the United States has argued that Egypt is not a threat to Israel, and the entire military aid program to Egypt is based on the premise that Egypt is at peace with Israel. On the other hand, the U.S. tacitly accepted Israel’s point that it cannot ignore Egypt’s capabilities when calculating the military balance in the region, because a change of government in Egypt could change matters. Additionally, the U.S. began in the early 1990s to remove Gulf Arab states from its calculus of the Arab-Israeli military balance, focusing on Israel’s qualitative edge “over any likely combination of Arab foes.”

The Challenge of New Arms Sales to Egypt in 2001

President George W. Bush reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel’s qualitative edge after his first meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (White House Background Briefing, March 20, 2001). Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly backed U.S. efforts to “preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge” in his address to the AIPAC policy conference on March 19, 2001. Yet in order to achieve backing for its coalition efforts against terrorism, the Bush administration has been considering a new round of arms sales to Arab states, including Egypt.

Specifically, the U.S. is considering the sale of 53 AGM-84 Harpoon “Block-II” anti-ship cruise missiles to the Egyptian Navy. According to Boeing, which manufacturers the Harpoon, the “Block-II” version “improves strike capabilities in congested littoral environments and adds the ability to attack land-based coastal targets.” This ship-based cruise missile, which has satellite-guidance, has a range of 100 miles and can deliver a 500-pound warhead within 30 feet of a target, up to 30 miles inland. In other words, Israel’s densely-populated and narrow coastal plain, containing 70 percent of Israel’s population and 80 percent of its industrial capacity, would become vulnerable to the Egyptian Navy in the future. Degrading the land-attack capability of this anti-ship missile might only relieve Israeli concerns for a short period, until Egypt upgraded the system to its full potential in the future.

Additionally, the U.S. plans to sell Cairo extended-range MLRS mobile missile batteries, and kits to assemble 100 M1A1 tanks in Egypt. The U.S. will be upgrading 35 Egyptian AH-64A Apache attack helicopters into next-generation AH-64D Apaches. New 199-foot Ambassador-class patrol craft are under consideration, as well, to be the platform for the new Egyptian Harpoon missiles. At the end of the 1990s, Egypt already had 66 combat vessels and 83 patrol craft in its navy, in comparison with 21 combat vessels and 35 patrol craft in the Israeli Navy (The Middle East Military Balance, 1999-2000, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies).

A Pragmatic Approach to Qualitative Edge

Israel and Egypt signed a treaty of peace in 1979 that has been properly characterized as a “cold peace” with little normalization of relations. Indeed, anti-Israel incitement, with even strong anti-Semitic overtones, has been rampant in Egypt’s government-controlled press. Moreover, under Annex III of the treaty, Israel and Egypt agreed to exchange ambassadors, that were described as “resident ambassadors” in the accompanying exchange of letters to the treaty.

Egypt’s withdrawal of its resident ambassador, Mohammad Bassiouny, in the fall of 2000, in response to the Palestinian intifada, is a violation of the treaty of peace. Not only has Egypt failed to provide a “resident ambassador,” but this also contradicts the Egyptians’ obligation “to fulfill in good faith their obligations under this Treaty, without regard to action or inaction of any other party” (Article VI). In other words, Egypt is prohibited from linking its implementation of the treaty to other issues — like the Palestinian question.

Israel obviously cannot rely on Egyptian intentions alone when it seeks to safeguard its security with respect to its southern neighbor; it must take into account Egyptian capabilities as well. A new round of state-of-the-art U.S. arms sales to Egypt can be offset by new U.S. arms sales to Israel. But this would only create a spiraling arms race between the two countries. After all, Egypt does not need such a high level of technological sophistication for dealing with threats from Libya or Sudan; Egypt has not been invited by the states of the Arabian peninsula to provide an umbrella for their security, either.

The U.S. has its own interests in state-of-the-art weapons sales to Egypt. In order to limit possibly destabilizing effects of these weapons transfers, the following points should be placed on the agenda of U.S.-Israel relations:

  • A renewed effort needs to be undertaken to return the Egyptian resident ambassador to Israel, as called for in the 1979 Treaty of Peace. Additionally, a new diplomatic initiative needs to be undertaken to improve Egyptian-Israeli relations.

  • Destabilizing U.S. weapons sales of new technologies to Egypt should be seriously reconsidered and halted, where possible, like the Harpoon “Block II.”

  • If the U.S. feels compelled to transfer its latest weaponry to Egypt, then Israel’s own military research and development need to be enhanced by increasing the portion of U.S. military aid to Israel that can be utilized by Israeli industries (off-shore procurement).

Discussing the implications for Israel of U.S. arms sales to Egypt should not be a taboo subject. Israelis are confident that Egypt, under President Mubarak, does not want to return the relations of the two countries to their pre-1979 status. Still, even the U.S. and Russia, under Bush and Putin, carefully examine the relative strengths of their missile forces as they consider new weapons acquisitions, like National Missile Defense. There is a military balance — even after peace agreements are reached. Israel’s qualitative edge is an inherent component of any strategy to safeguard Israel’s relations with its neighbors, given the built-in asymmetries of the Arab-Israeli military balance.