WASHINGTON – Israel and the United States have set up a joint command post next to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv at which Israeli army officers will be able to view real-time pictures of the movements of American war planes over Iraq in the event of a war.
In addition, an American early warning system that is hooked directly into U.S. intelligence satellites over Iraq was transferred to Israel a few weeks ago, giving Israel direct access to information on any Iraqi missile launches at its terrority, with no delays and no filtering.
Both of these are unprecedented measures, according to a report in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. The aim is to prove to Israel that the U.S. is doing everything in its power to prevent Iraqi missiles from landing here, and therefore to convince it not to retaliate should any missiles nevertheless hit.
According to the Journal, Israel will be the only country other than the U.S. hooked directly into the U.S. Central Command’s communications system. The joint command post in Tel Aviv will enable Israel Defense Forces officers to view what is termed the “common air picture” – essentially an upgraded version of a flight command and control system that enables the viewer to follow the activities of all American and Iraqi aircraft in real time. Israeli officers will thus be viewing exactly the same pictures as the U.S. officers running the war from the CENTCOM base in Qatar.
A senior U.S. official told the Journal that this decision was made because the Americans’ experience in the 1991 Gulf War convinced them that the best way to restrain the Israelis was to let them see for themselves that the U.S. was doing everything possible to eliminate the Iraqi threat.
However, Israel will not be able to use this real-time information to launch its own attack on Iraq, since the Israeli air force will not be able to enter Iraqi airspace unless the U.S. supplies it with the IFF codes that distinguish friend from foe.
The other measure, the loan of the early warning system, is equally revolutionary. During the Gulf War, Israel received U.S. information about incoming Iraqi Scuds only three minutes after the missile launch – greatly shortening the available reaction time, since a Scud takes only six or seven minutes to travel from western Iraq to Tel Aviv.
The satellite data was first relayed to America’s ALERT system in Colorado, then to the U.S. Army command and only then to Israel. In 1996, the Clinton administration decided to hook Israel directly into the ALERT system, but even with this improvement, there was a 90-second lag time before Israel received the information.
The loan of America’s JTAGS early warning system will reduce the lag time to almost zero, giving Israel ample time to operate its Arrow and Patriot anti-missile batteries. The truck-sized system is linked directly to American intelligence satellites, thereby eliminating the time spent in transferring the data to Colorado and from there to Israel.
In addition, unlike the ALERT system, JTAGS does not filter out any of the data. Thus Israel will have full access to all the information collected by American satellites over Iraq, even if it does not relate to Iraqi missile launches.
The U.S. has also decided to set up a special sub-command, headed by a general from one of its special forces units, for the destruction of missile launchers in western and southern Iraq. The subcommand was established pursuant to America’s promise to Jerusalem that destroying missile launchers in western Iraq would be given high priority in the early phases of the war. The command will seize one or two airfields in western Iraq even before America begins the ground war and will use them as bases for anti-missile operations in the area. The U.S. will employ pilotless drones to locate and destroy the missile launchers.
America’s hope is that all these measures will persuade Israel to exercise restraint even if Iraq scores a successful missile strike on Israel. The U.S. has also warned Israel that should it respond to an Iraqi attack with non-conventional weapons, it would immediately forfeit all international support.