Israel's Military Is One of the Best on the Planet. America Needs to Keep It That Way.

November 12, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IsraelIDFAmericaAlliesMiddle East

Israel's Military Is One of the Best on the Planet. America Needs to Keep It That Way.

A large-scale U.S. pivot out of the Middle East would not be prudent, but Washington can and must find a way to address persistent threats there economically. Where it serves the interests of both countries, greater integration of U.S. and Israeli military doctrine and weapons development represents a great place to start.

In a September speech, Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell noted that China’s President Xi “sits on a central level steering committee that directs a national plan to break down all barriers between the civilian and military technological spheres.” Beijing calls this policy “military-civil fusion” and, Stilwell notes, Beijing is not letting its export license obligations, promises to foreign officials, or contractual commitments stand in the way. Thankfully, America is not alone in this realization. Australia’s foreign investment regulator reportedly rejects the notion that private companies in China are free of Communist Party control.

According to written testimony earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community believes that China continues to use, among other techniques, joint ventures, research partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, and front companies to acquire technology to modernize its military. In light of Beijing’s state capitalist model, this is hardly surprising.

Prudence, therefore, demands that both Washington and Jerusalem banish the concept of a Chinese "private sector" when it comes to technologies even remotely related to national security. One should assume a Chinese company is already working for the Chinese Communist Party or People's Liberation Army—or would be after one call from Beijing. The burden of proof should be on any Israeli or American government official or business leader, suggesting otherwise.

Israel has taken positive steps to protect its military technology. In 2005, it signed a bilateral agreement with the United States in which Israel committed itself to defense export transparency. It has also launched its own arms export control agency, the Defense Export Control Agency, which aims to protect sensitive defense technology. Last week, Israel announced that it will form a new advisory committee to review foreign investment in key sectors. It remains to be seen whether the new committee will be as robust as the U.S. Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Today, Chinse companies are building new facilities at Israeli ports in Haifa and Ashdod, threatening the ability of U.S. warships to conduct port calls there. Moreover, Chinese companies connected to China’s military have sought dual-use technology through Israel’s civilian sector.

If not addressed properly, different views on China could become a serious and persistent source of friction in the U.S.-Israel security partnership. The United States will be rightly reluctant to deepen intelligence sharing or integrate national security and innovation bases if concerns persist that sensitive information or technology could end up in Beijing’s hands. On the other hand, if concerns related to China are thoroughly addressed, the sky is the limit on U.S.-Israel defense cooperation.

The Path Forward

With some important exceptions, the United States and Israel mostly develop military doctrine and new weapons independently. In some cases, that makes sense. In others, it does not. Washington’s failure to team-up earlier with Israel on weapons R&D has resulted in dangerous gaps in U.S. military capabilities.

Consider the case of the Israeli-made Trophy Active Protection System (APS), which was recently delivered to the U.S. Army to protect its M1 Abrams main battle tanks from rockets and missiles. Despite the fact that the system has been operational in the Israeli military since 2011, it is only now making its way into the U.S. Army’s arsenal. In fact, in May 2018, congressional testimony, General Mark Milley, then-Army chief of staff, acknowledged that U.S. companies were still "not ready yet for full-rate production."

How many years earlier could the U.S. military have fielded this capability if the two countries had combined R&D efforts from the beginning to address common capability gaps? The same is true with Iron Fist, another Israeli APS system acquired by the IDF in 2009 and belatedly ordered by the Pentagon last year to install on its M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Once fielded, both of these systems will fill important U.S. capability gaps—but much later than they otherwise might have.

By contrast, Russia has fielded APS since the early 1980s, and both its newest tank and its newest infantry fighting vehicle are equipped with the system. In a 2017 readiness hearing, then-U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff General Daniel Allyn noted that the Army “requires modernized equipment to win decisively, but today we are outranged, outgunned and outdated.” Had a conflict erupted between the United States and Russia in Eastern Europe in recent years, American soldiers could have faced Russian tanks that had the kind of APS protection U.S. tanks lacked.

Thankfully, that did not happen, but Washington may not be so lucky in the future. Earlier U.S.-Israeli cooperation on APS could have addressed this vulnerability sooner. Indeed, one of the first moves the U.S. Army has made upon acquiring Trophy is to incorporate the capability into an upcoming large-scale European defense exercise focused on deterring Moscow.

While Israel is by no means ahead of the United States in most types of military technology, there are nevertheless select areas in which the U.S. military could benefit from Israeli experience and technological innovation. As the Senate Armed Services Committee Report implies, it would be strategically negligent not to do so.

In addition, increased cooperation with Israel is about more than one country benefiting from the innovation of the other. It is also about reducing costs for each country. That is particularly important given constraints on future defense spending. In much the way that NATO has tried to encourage individual countries to focus on particular military capabilities or niches, the United States and Israel could, in carefully selected areas, establish a division of R&D labor that would result in greater military capability at a lower relative cost for each country. This would require the United States and Israel to develop common military requirements and then allocate responsibility for each—integrating efforts and sharing results along the way.

The U.S. Army’s modernization priorities, for example, offer a good place to start. The 2019 Army Modernization Strategy seeks to “transform” the Army into a “multi-domain force” by 2035 as part of retaining its “position as the globally dominate land power.” Six core acquisition priorities – Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF), Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, Army Network, Air and Missile Defense, and Soldier Lethality – form the backbone of this effort and provide multiple potential opportunities for additional mutually beneficial U.S.-Israel cooperative R&D.

Israel has extensive real-world experience, for example, in dealing with hostile unmanned aerial vehicles, swarm attacks, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and information warfare campaigns. Israel has also developed fires and standoff missiles as well as impressive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Consequently, it seems reasonable to assume that Army Futures Command (AFC) might benefit from a more systematic partnership with Israel in support of doctrinal development and AFC’s top modernization priorities.

It is important not to confine any new U.S.-Israel military cooperation simply to weapons development. While it is true that strategy and doctrine should guide weapons development, it is also true that doctrine is determined by the capabilities of the weapons and systems that a military possesses or plans to possess. That fact—combined with the urgency of the threats both countries confront—suggests that combined efforts on both doctrine and R&D should begin without delay. One need not wait for the other. Indeed, there is no time to waste.  

A more comprehensive and systematic program of U.S-Israel cooperative doctrine and weapons R&D would link two of the world's most advanced innovation bases and two of the world's most able military forces. Americans could benefit from Israeli-specific regional knowledge, while Israel could benefit from American resources and economies of scale. Jointly developed weapons and systems could then be fielded to both militaries simultaneously, facilitating improved bilateral training and enabling more effective combined operations. As a result, both militaries would be more capable and lethal on their own—and even more effective when operating together.

The United States faces a daunting set of grand strategic imperatives. China’s ascension and increasing collaboration with Russia challenge the U.S.-led world order in ways not seen since the Cold War. Threats from Iran and international terrorism remain as dangerous as ever. Meanwhile, U.S. defense planners cannot safely assume they will enjoy growing or even stable defense budgets in the future. How, then, can the United States focus finite resources on great power competition while addressing persistent threats emanating from the Middle East? A large-scale U.S. pivot out of the Middle East would not be prudent, but Washington can and must find a way to address persistent threats there economically. Where it serves the interests of both countries, greater integration of U.S. and Israeli military doctrine and weapons development represents a great place to start.

Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst. Follow Bradley and Andrew on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @Andrew_B_Gabel. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

This article by Bradley Bowman and Andrew Gabel originally appeared at Real Clear Defense. This article first appeared in 2019.