US gives Israel a powerful strike force: The F-15I fighter-bomber will enable attacks on targets deep in Iraq and Iran without refuelling, write Said Aburish and Tim Llewellyn

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The Independent Online
AN ARMS deal with the United States that will give Israel 25 of the most sophisticated fighter-bombers in the world, with a range of 3,600 miles, has slid through Congress with no objections by legislators and virtually no comment in the American media.

Defence experts describe the aircraft, the F-15I (a version of the US Air Force's own F-15E), as the most technically advanced air attack system sold to a Middle Eastern state. First deliveries are due to take place in 1996, a year earlier than originally planned. The two-pilot, twin-engined aircraft would enable the Israelis to carry out strikes deep into Iraq and Iran without refuelling.

The sale, valued at dollars 2,400m (pounds 1,600m), brings with it a new electronic system, the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-red for Night (Lantirn), permitting the sort of low-level, bad-weather or poor-visibility raids the Allies were so successful with in the 1991 Gulf War. The F-15I can carry 11 tons of bombs and various missiles, including Sidewinder and Sparrow.

The plane's makers, McDonnell Douglas, won the deal against strong competition from Lockheed. But the company is having to give Israeli firms hundreds of millions of dollars of associated work, and the US government will, in effect, be picking up the bill anyway. Israel will fund the enterprise largely from dollars 2,000m in annual US military aid.

'Basically we are giving Israel the plane,' says Arthur Atkins of the Arms Control Association in Washington, 'and, through the gear that goes with it and the off- set deals, a lot of advanced military know-how and research and development opportunity. We are really bending the rules.'

Critics of the sale say this is the first time such high-performance US military equipment has been sold unrestricted and unamended anywhere abroad since the Second World War. They say it signals a decisive enhancement of Israel's military capabilities, giving it the power to strike at potentially dangerous nations far beyond its borders: Iran, Iraq, Algeria and Libya, for example.

The US, which is known to be worried about the development of weapons of mass destruction in the region, particularly weapons of a nuclear capability by Iran, appears to be reappointing Israel as local deputy sheriff, a role which ended with the disappearance of the communist threat in the Middle East.

Israeli intelligence sources confirm their country's preoccupation with the alleged Iranian nuclear threat and say that an Osirak-style strike - copying the raid against Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 - would become feasible and even more effective. ButSaudi Arabia's leaders would have to try to contain the domestic political turmoil of such Israeli violation of their air-space at a time of growing religious opposition to the Saudi Royal Family.

The sale neatly fits into the American policy of 'dual containment', in which countries such as Iraq and Iran which pose a threat to American interests in the Gulf, are to be ostracised until they behave or change their regimes.

The trouble with this argument is that the delivery of such enhanced military hardware to Israel is hardly likely to encourage the Iranians, or any future Iraqi Government, to be compliant or co-operative with the West. Attempts by Washington to orchestrate disarmament moves in the region cannot be taken seriously when American and other Western arms industries are pouring in missiles, ships, tanks, aircraft and guns while their governments maintain that Israel remains outside their Gulf protection equation.

The Saudis will remember how when they bought a version of the F-15E, the F-15XP, two years ago, the planes were stripped of their long-range fuel tanks and targeting systems after a clamour in Congress. Members of the pro-Arab tendency in Washington were not surprised by the ease with which the Israeli deal went through. One former ambassador to a Middle Eastern state was not aware that the F-15I could bomb deepest Iran without refuelling.

President Bill Clinton, who leads the most unswervingly pro-Israel administration in US history, says it is his country's duty to reward Israel's peace efforts, by making Israelis 'as comfortable as they can be with the (Middle East) peace accord . . . more secure, not less secure.'

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