Eretz Yisrael Time

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Years ago when touring an IDF naval base someone in the group asked, “Why doesn’t Israel have an aircraft carrier? The senior officer giving the tour basically laughed at the guy’s question and said that Israel is one big aircraft carrier, so why would it need another one. (I bet they get that question a lot).

We all laughed at the time, but over the years, I’ve come to realize that this was a very serious and important question, and the answer given was simply wrong.

(As an aside, I just heard a related joke. An Israeli helicopter pilot flying over the sea had to crash land. He spotted a US aircraft carrier and quickly landed his crippled chopper on the deck. The Captain ran down to the deck screaming at him for landing without permission. The Israeli pilot responded, “Sorry, I thought it was one of ours.”)

Politically, the State of Israel is not into empire building. It’s not into the expansion or extension of power or influence, and let’s not even talk about power projection. Israel’s political worldview has traditionally been inward, about looking not much beyond its immediate borders (with a few notable exceptions), and looking outwards only to the extent of maintaining a defensive posture and relationship (FM Lieberman is actually trying to change that a bit).

In the military arena, Israel has excused itself from the international playing field. There are arguments both ways why this is good or bad. But outside of joint training exercises (mostly) in the Mediterranean basin, Israel is simply absent.

This is obviously not true in terms of global assistance (think Haiti, agriculture, water resources, etc.), where Israel is the undisputed world leader (and has shown surprisingly incredible logistical capabilities) but as a military or political power Israel has purposefully kept to its shell.

I am not suggesting that Israel start becoming an aggressive global player, sending forces to UN trouble spots, or getting ourselves involved in other people’s civil wars.

(At this point you could comment on Israeli military sales and training – in which we are among the world leaders, but that is a different type of involvement).

But I am suggesting that this kind of thinking has detrimentally affected our deterrent and military capabilities, by having us look at our situation from only one direction.

While Israel has subs (who knows where and capable of doing who knows what), what Israel does not have are reliable, always available forward airbases from which to carry out major (non-second strike) remote operations – such as what’s needed against Iran.

Aircraft carriers (even little ones) are not cheap things. They require a lot of defense and support vessels as well as supporting infrastructure and friendly foreign ports. They’re juicy targets, and a major expense that perhaps the State of Israel could not (or can not) afford. But they are one way a military can extend its arm.

And it’s unlikely that we’ll find many friends in the region willing to let us set up forward IAF bases on their territory (but that could eventually change if we were to start supporting Kurd rights in the region).

On the other hand, we see our situation right now.

America is essentially blocking any action we might want to take against Iran by air. Turkey is now blocking all IAF air traffic. Our targets in Iran are very far off and we'd have to go over a lot of enemy territory to get there, significantly increasing the risk of any long-range operation.

Israel is simply finding its access routes to its desired targets blocked, which means we have minimal effective force projection against Iran.

Now it might simply be politically or fiscally impossible for Israel to maintain an aircraft carrier or a remote airfield. And if that’s the case, then that should have been the answer the officer gave. And those are at least acceptable answers (that need to be worked on).

But to dismiss the question as a joke, indicates to me that (at least back then) our military and political thinkers unquestionably relied on the US to provide us the support we would need (something we repeatedly see has not been the best of ideas), but more importantly, their primary thinking was limited to immediate border issues and not how to deal with larger regional or global threats.

Having said all that, I do think that a typical (even small) aircraft carrier couldn’t work for Israel for the reasons I said above.

But that doesn't leave us stuck. Not at all.

That’s what is so interesting about Israel. Our navy vessels employ some of the most unique defensive and offensive home grown weaponry and systems on board. Ships that should be nothing more than Coast Guard vessels are capable of real naval warfare. That’s the result of out-of-the-box thinking.

I can see an Israeli aircraft carrier following that same train of thought.

Imagine small, fast vessels with multiple (armed) UAV/RPV launching capabilities. Instead of an on-deck runway for landings, it could carry a very long inflatable runway which it would deploy only on demand. Perhaps even a UAV designed to be launched from a (modified) submarine, which would provide even more safety to the remote pilot’s vessel.

With a solution like that, Israel would be able to project a reasonable level of remote air power, without the expense and risk of an aircraft carrier. It would be able to carry out remote air missions from multiple directions. It wouldn’t find itself locked out of the battlefield. It could quickly launch multiple sorties against remote enemy targets.

Israel has recently sent a few warships through the Suez these past few months. Imagine if they actually had these capabilities.

I think it’s an interesting concept.


Anonymous said...

I like the concept too

Anonymous said...

During the first Gulf War, the US Navy operated Israeli made UVAs that were launched from a ship and recovered by being caught in a net on the ship.

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