U.S. European Command (EUCOM) has deployed to Israel a high-powered X-band radar and the supporting people and equipment needed for coordinated defense against Iranian missile attack, marking the first permanent U.S. military presence on Israeli soil.
More than a dozen aircraft, including C-5s and C-17s, helped with the Sept. 21 delivery of the AN/TPY-2 Transportable Radar Surveillance/Forward Based X-band Transportable (FBX-T), its ancillary components and some 120 EUCOM personnel to Israel's Nevatim Air Base southeast of Beersheba, said sources here and in Stuttgart, Germany.
Among the U.S. personnel is at least one representative from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), though officials said the agency had little to no say in the deployment decision. MDA involvement has been confined to providing equipment and advice on technical aspects of its deployment, one official said.
The Raytheon-built FBX-T system is the same phased-array radar that was deployed to northern Japan with the U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) in 2006. The high-powered, high-frequency, transportable X-band radar is designed to detect and track ballistic missiles soon after launch.
Its ancillary gear included cooling systems, generators, perimeter defense weaponry, logistics supplies and dozens of technicians, maintenance specialists and security forces to operate and defend the U.S. installation.
EUCOM has repeatedly deployed troops and Patriot air defense batteries for joint exercises and Iraq-related wartime contingencies, but has never before permanently deployed troops on Israeli soil.
A EUCOM spokesman declined to comment. MDA officials referred to the U.S. State Department, which did not provide comment by press time.
An Israeli military spokesman said the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) enjoys longstanding strategic cooperation with all branches of the U.S. military.
"This cooperation is varied and comes in multiple forms, and it is not our practice to discuss details of our bilateral activities," he said.
Nevertheless, in previous interviews, U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed that the X-band deployment plan was approved in July, first by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi; and then by. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The radar will be linked to the U.S. Joint Tactical Ground Station (JTAGS), which receives and processes threat data transmitted by U.S. Defense Support System satellites. According to U.S. and Israeli sources, JTAGS will remain in Europe, but its essential cueing data will stream into the forward-deployed X-band radar, where it instantaneously shares information with Israel's Arrow Weapon System.
Once operational, the combined U.S. and Israeli system is expected to double or even triple the range at which Israel can detect, track and ultimately intercept Iranian missiles, according to Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.
During a visit to Israel in early August, Obering said the X-Band radar could add precious minutes to the time in which Israel has to respond to incoming missile attacks.
"The missile threat from Iran is very real, and we must stay ahead of the threat ... that's why we're working so hard with all our allies to put the most optimized, effective, anti-missile capabilities in place," Obering said.
"In the context of Israel, if we can take the radar out here and tie it into the Arrow Weapon System, they'll be able to launch that interceptor way before they could with an autonomous system," he added.
Ilan Biton, a brigadier general in the Israel Air Force (IAF) reserves and former commander of the nation's air defense forces, could not comment on the latest developments associated with the X-band radar. However, he said that an IAF air defense brigade established during his 2003-2006 tenure has continuously demonstrated its ability to interoperate well with American forces.
"We advanced tremendously on multiple levels and have developed very impressive cooperation," Biton said at a Sept. 22 conference in Herzliya. Referring to bilateral Juniper Cobra air defense exercises and the 2003 deployment of Patriot batteries prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Biton noted: "At the human level, we've developed a common language and at the technical level, we've put in place the interfaces that allow our systems to speak to one another."
The end result, according to Biton, is a combined ability "to manage battles, execute debriefs and implement corrections, all in real time."
As U.S. public affairs officers last week mulled whether to publicly disclose the Israel deployment, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, continued to defend his country's nuclear enrichment and missile development program.
"Iran's [nuclear] activities are peaceful," Ahmadinejad said Sept. 23, adding that in Israel, "the Zionist regime is on a definite slope to collapse."
A U.S. government source said the X-band deployment and other bilateral alliance-bolstering activities send parallel messages: "First, we want to put Iran on notice that we're bolstering our capabilities throughout the region, and especially in Israel. But just as important, we're telling the Israelis, 'Calm down; behave. We're doing all we can to stand by your side and strengthen defenses, because at this time, we don't want you rushing into the military option.'"
But in Israel, frustration is mounting at what is roundly perceived as a lack of international resolve to halt Iran's nuclear weapons drive. At a Sept. 21 meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, an Israeli military intelligence officer reported that Iran is accelerating the pace at which it enriches uranium, and that Tehran already possesses possibly half of the fissionable material needed to produce its first nuclear warhead.
Reflecting Israeli concern about the ineffectiveness of sanctions against Tehran, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of Military Intelligence's research department, reported: "The international front against Iran is weak and not consolidated, and isn't putting enough pressure on the regime to stop enriching uranium."
According to selected excerpts from the briefing released by the Israeli Prime Minister's office, Baidatz warned that Iran is "galloping toward a nuclear bomb." He added, "The sanctions have very little influence and are far from bringing to bear a critical mass of pressure on Iran."
Vago Muradian contributed to this report from Washington, Barbara Opall-Rome from Tel Aviv.