Does it matter if Israel’s located under US Middle East command structure?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Decades ago, the US decided to create a series of combatant commands for regions of the world. US Central Command became the kind of proconsul of the Middle East in the 1980s. The command soon took on not only the important new world order of crushing Saddam Hussein’s conventional army but also fighting the “Global War on Terror.”
However, a bureaucratic and historical anomaly has meant Israel is not included inside Central Command’s area of operations and is instead part of US European Command.
On the face of this, it is because Israel historically doesn’t do joint training with countries in the region that are key US allies. In addition, Israel wasn’t involved in US military campaigns.
The US Central Command heads have always had a good working relationship with Israel. Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official who is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), recently wrote an article with US Gen. (ret.) Charles Wald, a former deputy commander of US European Command who is a distinguished fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.
“For all the well-deserved attention surrounding the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, the logical next move – one that would quietly be impactful – is actually a bit of bureaucratic arcana,” they wrote. “Shifting Israel to the area of responsibility (AOR) for America’s forces in the Middle East could achieve important strategic dividends for both countries and the broader region.”
Is it time to correct a historic anomaly or to leave things as they are? The reason Israel was excluded was largely because countries in the region were hostile to Israel. But that is no longer the case.
Turkey and Iran are hostile to Israel. Turkey is part of European Command and NATO. That means Israel shares many things with Arab states today, and it is conceivable that more joint work could emerge.
It is also true that CENTCOM has been conducting joint drills with Israel using F-35s flown from Al-Dhafra base in the UAE. These drills are called Enduring Lightning and three took place this year.
Makovsky says the issue of moving Israel to CENTCOM was raised several years ago, and the Abraham Accords have changed these discussions.
“I think it will enhance operational cooperation with Israel, the UAE and Gulf countries, and they will work in the same AOR [Area of Operations] and combatant command,” he wrote.
But there is bureaucracy and tradition. Militaries don’t always like to change such things.
THE US CONGRESS could show more support for this move in the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual behemoth bill that spells out funding and support for the US military.
It is in these pages that one can find support for other joint programs with Israel, such as missile defense, counter-drone technology and anti-tunnel technology. There is also discussion about greater research and development cooperation.
Makovsky indicates there are other aspects that could be streamlined through a move to CENTCOM. JINSA has recommended the US support supply for precision-guided munitions (PGMs) for Israel, but the US also needs these munitions.
“The War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel, or WRSA-I, is a forward-based arms depot of US-made ammunition and supplies based in Israel, which is intended as a readily accessible reserve – an insurance policy – for Israel to obtain vital munitions in wartime,” JINSA wrote.
Could having Israel under CENTCOM make that stockpile supply more streamlined and easier to host in Israel or the region?
“We think it’s important that it is upgraded, and in terms of PGMs, which Israel needs a lot of, if there is a war with Iran and Hezbollah, the US recognizes this need, and the concern at the Pentagon is the US needs them also,” Makovsky wrote. “Therefore, our idea is that a compromise is for the US to put these PGMs in the stockpile, and they would remain under US control, and Israel could use them in emergencies and in a major war with Iran and Hezbollah. But for that to happen, the stockpile needs to have more regional value for the US.”
Countries have shifted combatant commands in the past. On December 8, US Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota), Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) introduced the Israel CENTCOM Reclassification Act (ICRA).
It is “a bill which would require the Department of Defense to conduct a study, in consultation with the Israeli government, on transferring Israel from the United States European Command (EUCOM) area of responsibility to the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility.”
This could put the ball in motion. The US president and Joint Chiefs of Staff head would need to support the move. A new US administration will take over in January, so there are many questions about what comes next in an increasingly divided and partisan Washington.
The proposition is not necessarily as clear-cut regarding its benefits. For instance, CENTCOM currently includes Pakistan but not India. Yet India and Pakistan logically are both part of South Asia. So why aren’t they under the same roof? Perhaps because of the historic rivalry.
That is why Israel and Turkey were in Europe, whereas today they appear to more logically be placed under CENTCOM. It would integrate Israel into the region.
Could having Israel as part of Central Command somehow create controversies for the US role in Iraq or Afghanistan (countries that do not have relations with Israel)?
The US already faces Iranian-backed militia threats in Iraq. Would Iran use this as an excuse to heat things up more? It’s not clear. Historically, the process makes sense, say its advocates, and it makes sense as part of the new peace-deal trend, as well as logistically.
With former US CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense, it could mean that this concept receives more support from the top. Austin was close to Israel during his tenure, and like other CENTCOM commanders, he is keenly aware of Israel’s role in the region.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post