TEL AVIV - The Israel Air Force (IAF) is finalizing extensive upgrades to its precision strike arsenal, part of discreet and ever-expanding bilateral security ties unharmed by the unusually high-profile political rift between the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and the rightist coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a series of meetings last week between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Obama, national security adviser Jim Jones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others, both sides sought to contain tensions over Israeli settlements and stalled Palestinian peace talks and prevent spillover into the security sphere.
Barak - a decorated war fighter, former prime minister and one of the few centrist leaders of the Netanyahu government - aimed to redirect the bilateral focus from the hot-button, seemingly intractable issue of Jerusalem to urgent strategic matters where both sides share an interest in cooperation rather than confrontation. And according to officials involved in his various meetings, he was largely successful.
"Our defense relationship is stronger than ever, to the mutual benefit of both nations," Gates said April 27 at a joint news conference with Barak.
Without going into detail, Gates reaffirmed previous Obama pledges "to continue to ensure Israel maintains its qualitative military edge."
Gates added, "The U.S. commitment to Israel's security is unbreakable."
Officially, both sides prefer to keep most aspects of security cooperation under wraps. Most operational and technical initiatives are considered sensitive, if not classified. Exceptions include joint missile defense development and training programs, such as the bilateral Juniper Cobra missile defense exercise held here last autumn, and the well-publicized nearly $3 billion in annual aid that flows from the United States to Israel.
But privately, sources here and in Washington cited several initiatives now nearing completion, and others in the offing - all of them aimed at improving Israel's offensive as well as defensive capabilities.
For example, Israel is about to field its first squadron of F-15I fighter bombers equipped with GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs, part of a 1,000-bomb acquisition and integration program notified to Congress in 2008. Known by some as "the bunker duster," the 250-pound-class, all-weather, precision-guided weapon can penetrate more than 6 feet of reinforced concrete, according to manufacturer Boeing and U.S. Air Force data.
Defense and industry sources said over the next year or so, multiple F-15I and F-16I squadrons will get the U.S.-provided kits. The bombs will allow IAF planes to strike more targets per sortie with greater accuracy and less unintended damage, defense and industry sources said.
In parallel, the IAF has also equipped its F-15Is to carry the 5,000-pound-class GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrator, designed to burrow 100 feet into earth or 20 feet into concrete.
The Pentagon approved the transfer of an initial 100 so-called "bunker busters" to Israel in 2005, after years of hesitation. The Pentagon's Defense Security and Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a potential follow-on order for another 50 in 2007. U.S. and Israeli sources say the Air Force has not yet acquired the preapproved quantitiy of either weapon, nor has it used them in anger, reserving the former, at least, for a possible military strike on Iran.
In a technical report published by Air Power Australia, an independent think tank, analyst Carlo Kopp described the GBU-28, with its BLU-113A/B penetration warhead and specialized guidance control unit, as "an excellent conventional deterrent weapon."
"It can crack targets which otherwise would require a surface burst nuclear warhead to take out," Kopp wrote.
Finally, the IAF is concluding fast-track fielding of the Laser-Guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (LJDAM), a cooperative development between Boeing Integrated Defense Systems and Israel's Elbit Systems. Washington has approved the conversion of more than 6,000 JDAM tail kits into Israel-specific LJDAMs. Additionally, Elbit continues to provide the laser seeker for LJDAMs designated for use by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and U.S.-approved foreign military sales.
Industry sources said the JDAM can be tailored to specific aircraft, C4I networks and - in the case of foreign sales - export licensing restrictions.
When To Use Them?
"Solid and strengthened ties with the United States is a strategic asset of the highest degree, and the many activities going on between the Israel Air Force (IAF) and the U.S. defense establishment are an excellent example of these ties," said Assaf Agmon, president of Israel's Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies.
Agmon, a retired IAF brigadier general, noted that both allies must deal with hardened bunkers and other critical targets concealed underground.
"We see it in North Korea, Iran and other places, and the most effective way to address the threat is through precision, deep penetration airstrikes," he said. "I think both governments - despite their differences from time to time - realize that a strong, technologically advanced front-line Israeli force promotes mutual strategic interests in this region."
But even as Washington continues to support upgraded Israeli airstrike capabilities, sources from both countries acknowledged stark differences regarding the timing and conditions under which Israel should use them in anger, particularly against Iran.
While Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and other issues remain a permanent part of continuous dialogue at all levels, sources say the Iranian nuclear threat - and the point at which Israel could no longer support Washington's dual-approach of diplomacy backed by sanctions - is clearly dominating the bilateral security agenda.
In his joint April 27 appearance with Gates, Barak offered obligatory support for Washington's Iran strategy. But while Gates said he was "satisfied with the planning process [for Iran policy] both in this building and at the interagency level," Barak offered a subtle, but clearly distinct view.
"Only time will tell to what extent [sanctions and diplomacy] will be really effective," Barak said. "We expect sanctions to be effective, but limited in time, so that we can judge ... what kind of results stem from a sanctions regime."
He added, "In the way that an individual can't choose his parents, nations can't choose their neighbors, and we are here to stay. We will never sway or blink at these challenges." å