Monday, August 16, 2010

Israel's buying Joint Strike Fighters, and it's really not as bad as you think

I know a lot of my friends and acquaintances in the defense policy world get anxious about Israel. That's often justifiable, particularly when we get to talking about Tel Aviv's adventurism vis-a-vis Lebanon and, more worryingly, Iran. So this morning I've noticed a little bit of agita on Twitter about the recent announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has approved purchase of 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, a deal that will be financed by American grant military aid. Does this deal threaten Middle East peace? Probably not, but the reality is that it doesn't much matter. This sale is actually a security-assistance success story.

Let's deal with one thing up front: Israel is the recipient of the largest chunk of American military aid, and that's something that's not going to change. In fact, the State Department and Congress have a plan to increase annual funding over the next several years with the aim of delivering a total of $30B in Foreign Military Finance (FMF) in the coming decade. Israel gets a whole bunch of American cash to spend on arms. That's a reality of American foreign policy, one that obtains no matter which party is in the White House or who controls Congress. So if your complaint is about the money, then you've got bigger issues. (I'm not saying those issues aren't legit, but they're not what this post is all about.)

So why is the JSF thing not only not a big deal, but actually kind of a good deal? Well, for one thing, Israel is the only recipient of FMF that isn't required to spend those U.S. aid dollars on U.S. materiel. They can use a quarter of the cash to support their own defense industrial base, so the choice to purchase a U.S. system is really a best-case-scenario when it comes to big-ticket, sophisticated defense articles. If that cash is headed to Israel no matter what, at least they're buying F-35s and not Rafales, Gripens, Eurofighters, or whatever else: foreign military sales help to keep U.S. production lines open and warm, lower unit costs for the U.S. military, and generally mitigate system risk.

Further, Israel finally backed down on the persistent demand that they be able to modify the F-35 for integration of Israeli components and weapons, something that the USG is not one bit interested in. The JSF is a "closed package," meaning that you buy the standard configuration and that's it. Not only does this help the program folks to maintain and sustain the aircraft down the line, but it avoids any potentially nasty complications with industrial espionage and whatnot. (You know, not that our Israeli partners would EVER engage in something like that.)

So don't panic! This deal worked out about as well as it was ever going to. This is a boost to the F-35 program, which needs pretty much all the help it can get. The conditions of the sale are generally pretty good for the U.S. And let's be serious: do you think the Israelis are going to have a less difficult time threatening their allies with F-35s than they currently do with F-15s and F-16s? Especially in light of the fact that QME considerations already limit U.S. sales to Israel's neighbors to less capable systems?


  1. The question is if Europe is going to dump it...

  2. The question is if Europe is going to dump it...

    Meh, I don't see that question as hugely relevant to this particular case.