A festive ceremony on an Israeli Air Defense Command base drew no special attention. The Sept. 18 ceremony in the Negev desert dedicated a first of its kind in Israel’s history: a permanent American military base, to be staffed with dozens of uniformed American soldiers, within an Israeli air force base. It’s an open secret that the Americans have warehouses for ammunition and strategic equipment in Israel for emergency situations, but until now there were no real military bases. For the first time, the American military will have a physical foothold within Israeli territory.
“This is a historic day when we dedicate a base with our most important ally, the United States, here in the Negev,” said the commander of Israel's aerial defense at the ceremony, which was attended by American generals as well. Brig. Gen. Zvika Haimovich went on, “This is the first time a permanent American base is situated within one of our bases, and it proves the strategic commitment of the two militaries and two air defense commands. It is an important moment in the State of Israel’s air defense against high-trajectory fire that would attack us from far and near. And it adds to the capability that is growing year by year.”
This coming February, Israel and the United States will cooperate in the “Juniper Cobra” exercise, which takes place every two years — a strategic exercise of the two countries' joint air defense capabilities as well as radar systems and the identification and interception of ballistic and high-trajectory threats to Israel.
It all started at the end of the past decade: Sen. Mark Kirk, one of Israel’s biggest supporters in the US Congress, suggested situating in Israel the sophisticated X Band Radar, a defensive system that gives early warnings of missile strikes. To the surprise of decision-makers in Jerusalem, the US administration's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quickly authorized the exceptional request and within two months, by September 2008, the huge radar system was built in the Negev. It includes two towers of sophisticated sensors, the tallest of their kind in the world.
The radar is operated by the United States, and the base is considered an American extraterritorial location in Israeli territory. Essentially, Israel receives the intelligence collected by the radar in real time from the Americans, and not from the facility itself. The system was tested in special exercises in Europe in the presence of Israeli staff and senior officials before it was brought to Israel.
The Israeli security establishment very gladly accepted the reinforcement. The Americans did not grant, sell or transfer the system to Israel, but only placed it in its territory. In the first years, the radar was operated by American civilians working for the US military. Now the US military has changed its policy and decided to replace those civilians with regular uniformed soldiers. To that end, the US base was established within the Israeli base.
“This is a radar system that consists of the best American technological capabilities,” a senior source in the security establishment told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “It allows us to identify threats to the state even from the longest ranges. It allows us to identify rocket salvos precisely and quickly, and it can determine exactly where the ballistic threat would hit before it’s too late.” According to various reports, the radar can identify a threat from a distance of 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) away and offer Israel a relatively long warning period (around eight minutes), enabling effective civilian defense and the use of various means of interception such as Israel's Arrow missile.
“This cooperation works with great efficiency,” reported a senior Israeli security source in a private conversation with Al-Monitor. “The capabilities of this radar are amazing. It opens before us the whole map of the Middle East and identifies all the threats. It’s connected and synchronized with additional systems, Israeli and American, and it dramatically enhances our capacity to defend ourselves. The cooperation between the air force, its supervision system and air defense units — and the radar and its American staff — has proven to be perfect.”
The placement of the American radar in Israel is perhaps the most interesting testament to the depth of the security relationship between Israel and the United States, to the American commitment to Israel’s security and to the willingness of Washington to strategically partner with Israel.
“We must remember that the Americans could take this radar from here and bring it somewhere else tomorrow morning in a simple operational decision,” said a senior Israeli security source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “As far as we know, they haven’t considered it. Even in the worst days of the relationship between President [Barack] Obama and Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, it was clear to all sides that when it comes to the security of Israel there are no conflicts and no rivalries.”
The radar is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It is indirectly connected to the Israeli air force’s monitoring systems. The US staff transmits any threats detected in real time to the Israeli air force, which is synchronized and connected to the various parts of the “Magic Wand” system (also nicknamed the "David’s Sling" missile defense system), which is intended to intercept ballistic missiles and high-trajectory threats to Israel. According to estimates, it would take mere seconds between the identification of the threat and the launch of the means of its interception, providing precise forecasting of the missile's point of impact.
“Without a doubt, this is an exceptional gesture,” a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “With such a radar system at our service, we can sleep a little bit better at night.”