In a stunning reversal of policy, it has been announced that the US Defense Department will now allow the sale of the Boeing made KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling planes to Israel, according to a recent report by the New York Times.
On Saturday, April 20, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel embarked on his first visit to the Middle East since taking office. According to media sources, it is expected to be the culmination of a year of “secret negotiations on a deal” that officials in Congress said will be second only to the $29.5 billion sale of F-15 aircraft that was made in 2010, according to the Times.
For the first time in history, Israel will be permitted to purchase not only aerial refueling planes but other ultra-sophisticated weaponry that could prove essential to any possible Israeli military attack on the growing number of nuclear facilities in Iran.
The KC-135 Stratotanker was the US Air Force's first jet powered refueling tanker and was used extensively during the Vietnam war and later conflicts such as Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf to extend the range and endurance of both Air Force and Navy tactical fighters and bombers.
In order to expand the KC-135's capabilities and improve its reliability, the aircraft has undergone a number of upgrades. Among these was the Pacer-CRAG program which ran from 1999 to 2002 and modified all the aircraft in the inventory to eliminate the Navigator position from the flight crew. The latest block upgrade to the KC-135 is Block 40.5 which allows the KC-135 to comply with Global air-traffic management.
Hagel is expected to finalize the deal in his talks with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, although the content of the deal had been previously agreed upon between Hagel and former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Pentagon in early March when the two met. During that meeting Hagel said 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”, according a report on the Times of Israel web site.
One objective of the deal is to ensure that Israel continues to maintain a qualitative military edge in the region in order to represent a formidable deterrence to Iran and to counter a range of security challenges. Senior US administration officials have said, however, that the deal was crafted in such a way that it would not be interpreted as an "American endorsement of accelerated planning by Israel to strike alone at Tehran's suspected nuclear facilities," according to the New York Times.
In order to buttress the military readiness of such countries as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which the US considers to be important Arab military partners, the agreement also calls for them to be allowed to purchase sophisticated armaments from American contractors, as reported by the New York Times. The sale of the new weaponry to all three countries is estimated at $10 billion, with Israel's purchases to be largely financed out of the annual US military aid package to the Jewish state.
Despite the fact that the US had previously permitted Israel to purchase such planes, "the change of policy", according to a report on Israel's Channel 2 on Friday evening, April 19th 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," according to the Times of Israel
Another senior administration official told the New York Times that while US policy proclaims that Israel has the right to defend herself, "the president believes there is still time and pace for diplomacy to work" in preventing the Iranian regime from building a nuclear weapon.
The new and technologically advanced KC-135 refueling planes would allow for Israel's warplanes to stay in the air for longer periods of time which is a necessity for any proposed long range mission, such as a pre-emptive strike on Iran. Securing the borders of Israel would be made more efficient, as the tankers would also be useful for air patrols.
The New York Times also reports that the deal would also allow Israel to receive anti-radiation missiles. When launched from a warplane, these missiles can specifically target an enemy's air defense radar signals and destroy those sites. Moreover, Israel's military jets will now have advanced radars which are included in the package.
Additionally, the terms of the deal will allow Israel to buy the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, according to the New York Times. It is described as an aircraft that has the capability to take off and land much like a helicopter but has the power to fly with the speeds and range of an airplane. The Osprey could be utilized by Israel for patrolling its borders, its coastline and even out to sea as well as transporting troops to troubled areas.
Officials in the administration declined to precisely identify the new missiles to be sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but in the package that could possibly reach $5 billion on its own, the United Arab Emirates would be purchasing 26 F-16 warplanes, as well as the precision missiles that could be launched from those jets at distant ground targets. Saudi Arabia would buy the same class of advanced missiles, according to the New York Times. One senior official said that the missile is to "address the threat posed by Iran."
In order to provide Israel with some level of assurance, officials in the administration said that the use of the advanced missiles would be monitored by US Air Force personnel who train alongside both the Saudi and UAE militaries. They assert that deployment of the missiles would occur only after consultation with the US, according to the New York Times.
The outline of the arms deal was briefed to Congress on Thursday, April 18, by Wendy Sherman, the State Department's undersecretary for political affairs and James Miller, the Pentagon's undersecretary for policy. The deal is expected to encounter little opposition from lawmakers, especially from members representing the many districts where defense contractors are concerned about the impact of cutbacks in the Pentagon's own weapons budget, according to the New York Times.
As the growing danger posed by Iran's uranium enrichment program was the focal point of the meetings in Jerusalem between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama last month, Netanyahu has steadfastly indicated a willingness to resort to a military option if diplomacy does not prevail in halting Iran's nuclear program. According to the Times of Israel, Netanyahu has repeatedly alleged that the West is being duped by Iran in diplomatic contacts. The report also says that Tehran is merely "buying time" by agreeing to participate in "negotiations" on its nuclear program, while it advances toward possession of the lethal bomb.