Is the US worried about the security of its radar installation?

This happened in September:

TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. and Israeli officers broke ground in Israel on Monday for a permanent U.S. Army base that will house dozens of U.S. soldiers, operating under the American flag, and charged with the mission of defending against rocket and missile attack.

The American base, officers in Israel say, will be an independent facility co-located at the Israel Defense Forces Air Defense School in southern Israel, near the desert capital of Beersheba. Once completed, the base will house U.S. operational systems to identify and intercept a spectrum of aerial threats, along with barracks, recreational and other facilities required to support several dozen American air defenders. …

According to [IAF Brig. Gen. Tzvika] Haimovich, the co-located, permanent U.S. presence will enhance Israel’s ability to detect and defend against the growing rocket and missile threat. “The purpose of their presence is not for training or for exercises, but rather as part of a joint Israeli and American effort to sustain and enhance our defensive capabilities.” …

In his briefing to reporters, Haimovich said the IDF has been working with its U.S. counterparts for nearly two years to establish the new facility. He emphasized that the American presence “would not hamper the IDF‘s ability to act independently against any threat to the security of the State of Israel.”

Israel has had an American X-band radar installation on Har Keren, not far from the location of the new “base,” for nine years. The unit, which is operated and guarded by US personnel, is off-limits to Israelis. The IDF does not have direct access to the data it produces, which is first sent to California where it is analyzed. Of course, the Americans have promised to let Israel know right away about any incoming missiles! The radar is technically capable of extremely high resolution, able to track ballistic missiles in their “terminal” phase, when they are descending. But it also has the ability to track missiles in their launch phase – or aircraft taking off. More about this later.

Haimovich’s statement implied that the new facility will add new “operational systems” to “identify and intercept” threats in addition to providing housing and other facilities for the US personnel who operate them. But the next day, the US European Command, which operates the radar, claimed that  there was nothing new about it except the American flag. The “base” was no more than a new barracks for the radar operators and guards.

But back to the radar itself. When it was installed some Israeli defense officials complained that it was too good, able to see even a small drone taking off anywhere in Israel. Israel would have no secrets from its powerful partner. An unnamed Israeli official referred to it as “golden handcuffs.” In 2012, Time Magazine noted that

The workaday reality of the U.S. radar — it has been operating since 2009 — also undercuts the notion of Israel launching a surprise attack on Iran that would also take Washington unawares. Not only does it see all traffic at Israeli air bases, it would certainly detect any large scale or other unusual patterns, including preparations for a massive air assault. Allowing the Americans that capability was a trade-off Israeli officials conceded only grudgingly, as TIME reported when the radar installation was announced in 2008.

It’s been revealed that Israel was close to launching an attack on the Iranian nuclear program late in 2012, which was strongly opposed by the Obama Administration. It seems reasonable to believe that part of the reason Israel decided not to go ahead anyway was that it would be impossible to keep the Americans from finding out about it, even before the start of the operation.

Although President Trump and his close associates seem to be far more understanding of Israel’s security concerns than Obama – who in my opinion was personally in the anti-Israel camp and was only restrained from expressing his beliefs explicitly by political considerations – there are elements in the permanent bureaucracy of the CIA and State Department that would be happy to see Israel disappear.

In any event, recent incidents like the theft of sensitive cyber-warfare code from the NSA show that no data anywhere is totally safe. If information about an Israeli preemptive strike were to fall into the hands of her enemies, it might allow them to take defensive measures or even – in the case of Iran or Hezbollah –  to launch a massive rocket barrage before their launchers were hit. This could cost thousands of Israeli lives.

No matter how much Israel trusts its American partners, this isn’t a risk she can afford to take. I am probably not the only one who thinks that it will be necessary for Israel to somehow neutralize the X-band radar before beginning any large-scale operation against Iran, Hezbollah or even Hamas in Gaza.

Tension in the region today is probably the highest it’s been since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. And this leads me to speculate about the purpose of the new American installation being built in Israel. Is it really no more than a new barracks for existing personnel?

The 120 American radar operators and guards are not sleeping in tents now – they’ve been here since 2008. So perhaps the new building is intended to provide living quarters for additional troops.

Perhaps the Americans feel that there are not enough guards on site to prevent the IDF from seizing and shutting down the radar in an emergency. But beefing up security at the site itself would draw attention to their concern. So the solution is to garrison some troops nearby that could rush to its defense if necessary.

It’s interesting that Brig. Gen. Haimovich felt the need to emphasize that this wouldn’t interfere with Israel’s self defense (which of course it does), and that they had been working on it for two years (don’t ask why now).

And it’s just as interesting that the US European Command wanted to make as little fuss about it as possible. And that there’s been nothing in the news about it since September.

Nothing to see here, folks. You can go about your business. Move along.

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One Response to Is the US worried about the security of its radar installation?

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    Didn’t Israel always make the proud claim that it has always defended itself and would not require or allow any American troops to defend it?
    That is perhaps a more theoretical concern than the one raised in this article the truly worrisome one that this radar would deprive Israel of its preemptive capacity.

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