When the drums of war reach a fever pitch throughout the Middle East, cooperation with Israel’s most important ally assumes even more urgency than ever. The IDF is, of course, a powerful and independent army but in the event of an extensive confrontation, even Israel — a regional power — may run out of ammo. Meanwhile, six secret American bases are spread out throughout the country. According to foreign reports, these depots are chock-full of ammunition, smart bombs, missiles, an assortment of military vehicles and a military hospital with 500 beds. If Israel will be forced to take action against Iran, whether alone or together with the US, there is high probability that it will need a strategic home front — in the guise of those bases full of goodies.
According to the reports, the bases are situated in Herzliya Pituah (in the vicinity of Tel Aviv, on the coastline), Ben Gurion Airport, and air-force bases Ovda and Nevatim (Israeli Air Force bases in Southern Israel). These bases are crammed full of expensive equipment worth more than $1 billion. “These [supply] depots do not constitute the central consideration in deciding when to go to war, but they definitely figure in the overall calculations,” says David Ivri, former Israeli Air Force (IAF) Commander at the beginning of the negotiations with the Americans regarding establishing the depots. Later on, Ivri served as Director-General of the Defense Ministry and as Israel’s Ambassador to the US from 2000 to 2002.
Negotiations between Israel and the US over the emergency reserve depots in Israel extended over a 10-year period. The Israelis asked for huge depots filled with heavy equipment and tanks, while the Americans agreed at first only to store medical equipment. Finally, the US began to build the depots in the early 1990s; according to foreign reports, some were built as underground bunkers. High-echelon Israeli (and American) sources are very familiar with the emergency installations and their great importance to Israel’s warfare deployment. Three weeks ago, the White House issued a special announcement mentioning the existence of these storage sites: “The Israeli forces have access to the American emergency depots.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, in internal discussions in the Defense Ministry, that the United States will allow Israel to use equipment from these depots during an emergency.
“The fact that we have these depots definitely improves the way we feel,” says Dani Yatom, former Knesset Member and former head of the Mossad, who served as the Head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate of the General Staff in the period when the US began to transfer emergency reserves to Israel. “I was in favor of the depots. My instincts told me it was a good idea. These depots give us the feeling that we have more equipment than we actually possess. Our military inventory is never sufficient, a prolonged war can lead to a shortage of shells, bombs and other [military] equipment but inventory is always slashed in the defense budget. When we have to decide between stocking up on inventory or transferring funds to [military] training or acquisition of MRPVs [Mini Remote-Piloted Vehicle] or tanks, inventory is usually the lowest priority. The American storage depots alleviate our planning of military operations because we can take into account the American equipment as well. Officially we are not allowed to use anything without American authorization, but there definitely might be someone out there who thinks that if we really will need this equipment, and the Americans won’t allow our access to the emergency depots, we’ll take it anyway.”
In his book Code Names (2005), military researcher and former intelligence analyst for US ground forces William Arkin revealed the locations of some of the American bases in Israel, called “sites” in his book. Arkin writes that the sites do not appear on maps, and their exact locations are classified. According to the book, some of the sites are located in the Ben Gurion Airport, Nevatim, the Ovda base, and in Herzliya Pituah. The sites are numbered as “site 51,” “site 53,” site 54,” “site 55” and “site 56.” Some of the depots are underground, others were built as open hangars. According to Arkin, site 51 holds ammunition and equipment in underground depots. Site 53 is found in the Israeli air-force bases, site 54 is an emergency military hospital near Tel Aviv with 500 beds. Sites 55 and 56 are ammunition depots.
“Israel can definitely rely on the emergency depots,” said Arkin this week to Maariv’s Saturday Supplement on August 17. “Israel can also rely on the United States to continue to do what it always did in the past: the American interest is that Israeli unilateral measures should have as little political effect as possible. If Iran will attack Israel the United States will recommend restraint, if Israel will attack without consulting with the United States, the current government will try to prevent an escalation.”
Eight years ago, Hazofe (an Israeli right wing-religious daily) revealed the existence of an additional base on the border of Samaria, near the city of Elad. According to Hazofe, the base was built by a German company (with American funding) west of the Green Line. Yatom clearly recalls the infrastructure work that was executed by the Americans. “The American engineering corps built the bases, most of the contractors were Americans. There were some Israelis who participated in the work, but the American inspections were so stringent that the Israelis regretted taking on the project.”
Israel’s insurance policy
The agreements between the US and Israel stipulate that the US finance the maintenance and guarding of the bases. Israeli soldiers and security companies guard the facilities with the help of sophisticated security devices, while American officers from the EUCOM headquarters in Germany oversee the maintenance. According to the EUCOM website, 150 American soldiers are in Israel “on various missions.” According to the site there are no American bases in Israel, but collaboration between Israel and the US includes military equipment reserves as part of the War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel agreement (WRSA-I). Incidentally, the American inspectors complained of negligence during a routine inspection five years ago: some of the doors lacked digital locks, some of the facilities lacked security cameras and other items. “The findings are being dealt with,” said an IDF spokesman in response.
Ariel Sharon, as Defense Minister in the early 1980s, was the first to conceive the idea of American emergency reserve depots in Israel. The US has similar reserves in Europe, Saudi Arabia and other places. Sharon suggested to create emergency reserves — called “advance positioning” — of tanks, aircraft carriers, ammunition and medical equipment to be close by and available to the American army in the event of a conflict in the Persian Gulf. In addition, he said, Israel could use the American equipment in the event of an emergency. In his talks with the Americans, Sharon emphasized that Israel was asking for emergency reserves but refused to have American soldiers stationed on its land, due to the concern of “a psychological weakening effect and unhealthy sense of dependence on a foreign agent to defend the country.” Sharon also viewed the bases as an economic opportunity. He proposed that the US underwrite the cost of their maintenance and that they acquire some of the ammunition in Israel. Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin supported the idea. Begin, like many other government ministers, felt that the emergency bases would be a de facto expression of real American commitment to Israel’s security.
The Labor Party opposed the reserve depots with the argument that it indirectly might cause Israel to have to defend the US. The State of Israel is only obliged to defend the borders of its state and not American interests, claimed the opposition. Labor Knesset Members even worried that the emergency bases in Israel might be targets of a Soviet attack. The Americans were also not enthusiastic about the idea. Alexander Haig, American Secretary of State at the time, refused to commit himself though he expressed interest in some of the Israeli proposals. The Americans were concerned that these bases would damage US relations with the Arab world. On the other hand, they understood the logistic importance of having bases precisely in Israel.
An American expert who visited Israel in the early 1980s told the New York Times that not only was Israel more technologically advanced than the Arab countries, it could also offer better and cheaper maintenance and medical services than the Americans. A Pentagon study that was publicized in the New York Times in October 1981 stated that military equipment stored in Israel, could reach Western Europe and the Persian Gulf quickly. According to the study, the US could transfer 70 thousand tons of equipment from Israel to Saudi Arabia within several days. A parallel transfer from the Ras Banas port in Egypt would take 10 days; from Oman, 8 days; Somalia, 2 weeks; Kenya, 22 days; Diego Garcia on the Indian Ocean, 27 days; and 77 days from the US. The distances to Europe are shorter but even here, Israel has a relative advantage: the transfer of equipment from Israel to Munich takes 11 days, from Egypt, 12 days; from Oman and Somalia, 20 days; and from the US, 24 days.
The negotiation with the Americans about building the bases was long and cautious. In an interview with the American media in September 1981, Yitzhak Shamir (then Foreign Minister) said that the term “bases” should not be used. “The term ‘American bases’ is unclear. People talk about facilities.” Three months later, Sharon said in an interview with the New York Times that he demanded that a large inventory of tanks and heavy equipment be stored in Israel. According to the newspaper article, the Americans only wanted a general agreement of understanding to store only medical equipment in Israel. Israel refused; Israeli sources claimed that such an inventory would turn the agreements between Israel and the US "into a joke."
Natan Sharoni, who was Head of the Planning Directorate of the General Staff at the beginning of the negotiations with the Americans, says that the peace agreement with Egypt was the foundation for the discussions with the US. “When there is progress in the political process, a relationship is formed in which these types of things also happen.” Sharoni says that Israel asked for three military hospitals during the negotiations. “We told the Americans that if something should happen in the Persian Gulf, they could send their wounded to Israel instead of to Germany, and that in an emergency we could also use the hospitals. The Americans didn’t agree — not for strategic reasons, but because of the people involved.”
Hoping for authorization
Yatom says that Israel asked the Americans to fill the depots with the kinds of military equipment that Israel would need during an emergency. “We tried to tailor the contents of the depots to our own interests, but did not always succeed. They did not agree to introduce ammunition items that they refused to give us for our use. For example we asked for Tomahawk missiles, and they would not authorize that.”
At the beginning of the 1990s the US finally agreed to build emergency military depots in Israel for the use of its army, with the stipulation that Israel would also be able to use the equipment when necessary provided that it is given permission to do so. In a report of the US Congressional Research Service that was publicized in April 2012, an Israeli officer was quoted as saying that “officially all the equipment belongs to the United States but in the event of a conflict, the IDF can ask permission to use some of it.” According to the report, the US permitted Israeli access to the emergency reserves during the Second Lebanon War.
According to the report, the value of the equipment in the early years was insignificant, only a hundred million dollars. Arkin wrote in his book that the value of the equipment reached half a billion dollar. According to the Congressional Research Service Report, an increase in the quantity of equipment in the emergency reserves was authorized by the American Congress and House of Representatives in December 2006, a short time after the Second Lebanon War. Then in 2010 the US increased the inventory to $800 million. This year, Congress allowed the President to increase the inventory to $1.2 billion.
Almost everyone who dealt with or managed the bases, believes that the American depots are of priceless assistance to Israel. “I was in favor of these depots,” says Uzi Dayan [Res.Gen in the IDF, and Politician. (Nephew of General Moshe Dayan)], who served as Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate of the General Staff. “It is an excellent thing. First of all, to give regional support to the Americans and also to us. No army in the world has enough [military] supplies of its own. Egypt, for example, has enough supplies for only a short time period. Some countries have enough for 3 weeks of warfare. You have to find the right balance between supplies, and the length of the war. Inventory is expensive and tends to become obsolete. Let’s assume that the army decides to establish inventory for a period of 40 days. It’s pretty clear that this inventory would be slashed in the defense budget. This American equipment is of enormous help. We don’t have to deal with it every week, they come for inspection and that’s it. It also supports cooperation with the United States.”
David Ivri agrees. “These bases are very important. During the Yom Kippur War it was necessary to organize special transports of military equipment, and most of the stuff arrived after the war was over. When you have emergency depots, you are not dependent on supplies transported across the ocean when you are fighting.”
Attorney Israel Chayut, who served as Chief Logistics Officer when the Americans built the depots, says that “the larger our inventory, the more the State of Israel will have capacity for endurance during an emergency, the better our position will be. Wars have become longer in recent years, no more once-and-for-all lightning wars as in the Six Day War. Therefore your quantity of supplies must match the length of the war.”
Dani Yatom makes it clear that the question is whether the Americans will authorize use of the equipment in the event of a war with Iran. “I assume that if we attack Iran without prior coordination [with the US], it is unlikely that they will authorize use of the emergency supplies. But if we are attacked by the Hezbollah, presumably they will agree. Iran has only several hundreds of missiles that can reach us, while Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets.”
“In a crisis situation, when Israel will need to be resupplied such as what happened during the Yom Kippur War, I assume that the Americans will allow us to use their supply depots,” says Itamar Rabinowitz, former Israeli Ambassador in the United States. Natan Sharoni suggests that we examine the issue from another vantage point. “It is clear that the emergency supply depots help us,” he says. “But our endurance-capacity is a function of the steadfastness of the home-front, more than the number of tanks [we possess]. As Colonel David Marcus used to say during the War of Independence ‘Our spirit fills the gaps.’ From this point of view, nothing has changed. Our national spirit and morale are more important than the American emergency depots."