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Qualitative Military Edge, Part I: What it is and Where it Went

JINSA Report #: 

January 21, 2010

The Forward started it in December. Ha'aretz picked up the theme this month, writing, "The Bush administration violated security related agreements with Israel in which the U.S. promised to preserve the IDF's qualitative military edge (QME) over Arab armies, according to senior officials in the Obama administration and Israel," and suggesting that National Security Adviser Jim Jones's trip to Israel in mid-January was to discuss the QME. (Actually it was to push Israel into more pointless talks with Palestinians, who declined to cooperate.)

The objective appears to be PR for the Obama Administration, the standing of which is very, very low among Israelis. Trashing the previous administration is a favored tactic - but the truth is both less and more than it appears.

  • The concept of a QME is "iffy" to begin with;

  • The Bush Administration did several things that reduced Israel's capabilities against certain of its enemies, while strengthening Israel in other ways;

  • The Obama administration is repeating the mistakes, doubling down on them and adding its own new ones;

  • Israel, in very important ways, isn't protesting where it might.

The QME began as a Johnson Administration promise (not a treaty) to maintain Israel's ability to prevail over any reasonable combination of Arab forces in a non-nuclear war. The promise has been repeated by successive administrations-unquantified and unquantifiable. Weapons themselves can be counted, but Israel's edge over Arab armies was always more than that. It was-and remains-a combination of:

  • The quality and quantity of weapons in both Israeli and Arab arsenals;

  • The tactics and training of Israeli and Arab soldiers; and

  • The quality of the soldiers and their leadership.

Only in the last is Israel independent.

In the beginning, it was easy. When the Soviets supplied the Arabs and the United States supplied Israel, the quality of Western arms would prevail over the quantity of Russian arms. The tactics and training of Israeli soldiers was an exclamation point-after the 1982 Lebanon War, when Israel shot down 82 Syrian (Russian) MiGs over Lebanon, Israeli pilots said that had the Syrians been flying F-16s and the Israelis flying MiGs, the ratio might have changed but the end result would have been the same.

But those days are over. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, the United States has been selling to the Arabs apace (beginning with President Reagan's Saudi F-16 sale in 1981) including depleted uranium tank rounds and bunker buster bombs, and training Saudi pilots and Egyptian tank drivers and Kuwaiti radar operators. Israel, at formal peace with Egypt, does not actively oppose arms sales there, preferring or understanding the need to work to reduce the bells and whistles-keeping the edge in the technology if not in the platform. This is one reason Israel consistently "tweaks" what it buys from the United States, to extend the technological edge with indigenous capabilities.

Similarly, at one point in the 1980s, Israel declined to participate in certain U.S. air exercises, knowing that tactics the IAF developed for use in U.S. aircraft would be shared with American pilots and then shared with Saudi pilots. ("It's one thing for our lover to take pictures in the bedroom," said an Israeli pilot at the time. "It is another for them to sell the pictures on the street.")

The U.S. administration certifies that each specific arms sale to each individual Arab country will not upset the balance in the region and Israel generally retains the right to buy more of almost anything it needs (see exceptions on Apache helicopters and the F-35 next generation fighter coming in Part II of this report). But Israel does not have unlimited resources-if the Saudis have about 153 American F-15 fighter jets of various types and six Eurofighter Typhoons (as it does), and then signs a deal for 71 more Typhoons (as it did), how does Israel compete when the Obama Administration announces 24 more F-16s for Egypt and 24 additional F-16s for Morocco (as it did)?

Israel, as previously noted, retains control of the quality of soldiers entering the IDF and their leadership.

That hardly seems enough.

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