Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, leads U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta through an honor cordon in Tel Aviv on Aug. 1. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / U.S. Defense Department)
TEL AVIV — As visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was engaging in high-profile attempts to placate Israel anxieties over a nuclearizing Iran, his acquisition chief was working under the radar here all week on a package of programs to bolster Israel’s military edge.
Last week’s visit by Frank Kendall, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, went unannounced, in contrast to the enormous publicity generated by Panetta’s two-night trip. Both visits followed that of presumptive Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney and aimed to drive home the message that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama solidly supports the Jewish state.
But the Pentagon’s parallel push to expand Israeli capabilities and cajole its leadership from precipitous, unilateral action in Iran yielded mixed results, sources said.
While defense officials here welcomed efforts by Kendall to expedite Israeli requests for Iraqi-drawdown equipment, explore new research-and-development projects and ease F-35 acquisition hurdles, Panetta’s appeals for patience on Iran appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
In public and private discussions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Panetta’s host, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, made clear they were more convinced than ever that sanctions and diplomacy would fail to derail Iran’s nuclear weapons drive.
“The Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program,” Netanyahu told reporters Aug. 1 in a joint appearance with Panetta. “This must change, and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”
In a joint news conference with Barak on Aug. 1, Panetta once again reaffirmed Washington’s “rock-solid commitment to Israel’s security,” which he said is “backed not only by words, but deeds.”
On the Iranian issue, Panetta said, “My responsibility as secretary of defense is to provide the president with a full range of options, including military options, should diplomacy fail.” He insisted, however, that the steadily increasing pressure being applied on Tehran “was having an effect.”
Barak hailed U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, which he characterized as “stronger than ever before.” Nevertheless, in obvious reference to the differing assessments regarding action plans for Iran, Barak acknowledged, “There are things we disagree on ... and we need to deepen the understanding.”
A week earlier, in a July 25 address to Israel’s National War College, Barak warned that the second half of 2012 would present challenges for Israeli defense leaders “never before experienced in the existence of the state.
“We likely will be compelled to take difficult and fateful decisions… to ensure our future horizon,” Barak told officers here. In his war college address, Barak acknowledged differences with the Americans on the pace of “ticking clocks” driving respective Iran threat assessments. He also referred to disagreements pertaining to “strength and constraints” of prospective military intervention in Iran.
Despite the differences, however, Barak said he believed “with all my heart” that Israel’s government would be able to preserve “the complete sovereignty of our decisions in all situations” without jeopardizing “our special relationship with our most important ally, the United States.”
When asked about differing U.S. and Israeli assessments on possible military confrontation with Iran, Panetta told reporters, “We respect Israel’s sovereignty and independence. … Their effort to decide what is in their interests must be left to the Israelis.”
He added, “My hope is to work together in common cause … in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Package of Enhancements
Speaking at an Aug. 1 joint news conference near the Gaza border, where Israel has deployed one of its partly U.S.-funded Iron Dome short-range rocket intercepting batteries, Panetta reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to improving Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge in the region.
The Pentagon chief cited $275 million in U.S. funding for Israel’s Iron Dome as an example of Washington’s commitment to Israeli security. Hailing the active defense system as “a game changer … that prevents wars,” Panetta said the Pentagon is seeking additional funding in the years ahead.
“Our goal is to ensure that Israel has the funding it needs each year to protect its citizens,” Panetta said.
He noted that Israel is the only country in the Mideast participating in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and that the Pentagon has been working with Israel and prime contractor Lockheed Martin “on a package of enhancements to ensure Israeli superiority for years to come.”
Panetta also highlighted Obama’s July 27 signing into law of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, which calls for an unprecedented strengthening of military, intelligence and technology cooperation.
U.S. and Israeli sources said Kendall’s visit here last week, his second official trip in 18 years, was designed in large part to advance the laundry list of security enhancements prescribed by the new law.
Specifically, Kendall’s meetings with Udi Shani, MoD director-general, and other officials here focused on finalizing a production contract with Lockheed to provide for unique electronic warfare, C4I and munitions planned for Israel’s future F-35 force.
The so-called System Design and Demonstration (SDD) agreement with Israel — a precursor to the production contract the Pentagon will sign with Lockheed — covers all costs associated with modifying the baseline aircraft to accommodate customized changes.
At the same time, Kendall sought to reassure officials here that realignment in the multinational Joint Strike Fighter program would have minimal effect on cost and delivery schedules planned for Israel’s first F-35 squadron. On the contrary, sources here say the Pentagon is working with Israel to streamline the acquisition process to potentially allow for 20 F-35s instead of the 19 aircraft covered under an existing $2.75 billion contract.
A U.S. source noted that such streamlining measures, as well as costs calculated in the SDD agreement, presume that Israel will exercise options codified in an October 2010 contract for up to 75 more fighters.
Other issues tackled during Kendall’s visit here included an upgrade to U.S. weaponry and munitions stockpiled in Israel, an expansion of Israel’s authority to make direct commercial purchases with U.S. military grant aid, new opportunities for joint development, and Israeli requests for armored trucks and other gear coming out of Iraq.
While the bulk of frontline U.S. gear is slated for transfer to the Pacific theater, sources here said Kendall pledged to expedite the process of designating equipment as excess defense articles eligible for transfer at cut rates.