Israel hasn’t operated a strategic bomber since it retired a few B-17 Flying Fortresses in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the perceived need for an option that could penetrate Iranian air defenses and deliver heavy payloads might make the IDF reconsider its commitment to fighter-bombers. Whether the United States would ever consider exporting the bomber (which will likely fall under a variety of legal restriction associated with nuclear-delivery systems) is a different question entirely.
With only a few notable exceptions, Israel can buy whatever it wants from the United States, generally on very generous terms associated with U.S. aid packages.
(This first appeared in 2016.)
Notwithstanding the availability of weapons, however, Israel must still make careful decisions regarding how to spend money. Consequently, Israel can’t have quite everything that it would like, despite the continued good relationship with the United States and its arms industry. Here are a few US military systems that the Israelis could use:
Littoral Combat Ship:
For a long time, the sea arm of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has examined the potential for warships somewhat larger than the corvettes that have historically dominated the force. As Israel’s maritime security interests increased (the necessity of maintaining the Gaza blockade, and of patrolling offshore energy deposits), this need has become more acute.
Over the last decade, the IDF extensively studied the possibility of acquiring heavily modified versions of the U.S. Littoral Combat Ship design. These would have had significantly different features, mainly making them less modular and more self-sufficient than their American cousins. On paper, the plan made a lot of sense; a high-speed, networked platform would fit in very well with the IDF’s operational concept. However, the necessary modifications drove up the cost of the warship, pricing it out of Israel’s range. Future changes in the market (or in Israel’s perception of need) might well shift the equation, however.
The Obey amendment, which prohibits the export of the F-22 Raptor, was developed with Israel firmly in mind. Concerned about Israel’s transfer of high-technology equipment to Russia or China, the United States decided that domestic considerations meant it could not bar Israel from acquiring the Raptor without a blanket ban.
And so this has meant that only the USAF flies the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft. Historically, Israel has preferred fighter-bombers that can conduct both air superiority and strike missions, and the Raptor doesn’t yet have much in the way of a strike profile. However, the IDF purchased the F-15 when it was still primarily an air-superiority platform, then made the necessary modifications on its own to transform the fighter into a devastating bomber. The F-22, which otherwise serves Israel’s air superiority needs nicely, might have gone through a similar process.
Long Range Strike Bomber:
Setting aside the periodic nonsense about Israel acquiring American B-52s, the long-term stand-off with Iran has demonstrated that Israel really could use a plausible long-range strike option. While Israeli F-15s and F-16s can, with refueling, reach targets in Iran, the immense distance would put them at a disadvantage as they tried to penetrate defended airspace. In this context, the Air Force’s B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber might seem attractive.
Of course, Israel hasn’t operated a strategic bomber since it retired a few B-17 Flying Fortresses in the 1950s. Nevertheless, the perceived need for an option that could penetrate Iranian air defenses and deliver heavy payloads might make the IDF reconsider its commitment to fighter-bombers. Whether the United States would ever consider exporting the bomber (which will likely fall under a variety of legal restriction associated with nuclear-delivery systems) is a different question entirely.
Massive Ordnance Penetrator:
And what good are planes if they don’t have bombs to drop? Rumors of Israeli interest in the thirty-thousand-pound precision-guided bomb began to emerge at the beginning of this decade, fueling ideas in Congress about transferring the munition and an aircraft capable of delivering it. The MOP interests Israel because of its “bunker busting” capacity, which would give Israel the ability to hit deeply buried weapons facilities in Iran and elsewhere.
The United States has thus far declined to send the bomb to the Israelis, in no small part because the IDF still lacks a plausible delivery system. The Obama administration also worried about giving Israel the tools it needed to strike Iran would upset the regional balance. But geostrategic changes (or domestic political shifts in the US) might alter that calculation.
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Ballistic Missile Submarine:
Israel’s submarine force teeters on the very edge of presenting a plausible deterrent. The IDF submarine arm has done excellent work with its group of transferred Dolphin-class subs. However, diesel-electric submarines carrying long-range cruise missiles simply cannot match the performance, endurance, or security of nuclear boats.
This is not to say that Israel needs, or could use, something analogous to the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. However, a more modest boat with a smaller number of missiles of limited range could indeed prove very useful to Israel’s efforts to create a robust second-strike capability. A flotilla of four such boats would provide a nearly invulnerable retaliatory capacity.
Israel has most of what it needs from the United States; in several areas, the technical capabilities of the IDF exceed those of the U.S. military. But in some areas the Israelis could take more advantage of U.S. technology, especially if strategic necessity and financial reality came together in more productive ways. Given the dynamism of Israel’s economy, the IDF may have the chance to avail itself of some of these opportunities in the near future.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Image: U.S. Government