Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits Israel Sunday, Feb. 13 for the unprecedented gesture of a personal sendoff for Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi the day before he retires.
The two generals may not want to admit as much but their strong friendship and personal ties were largely responsible for Israel being ill-prepared militarily to cope with any menace arising from the Egyptian revolution and a potential decision by Cairo to end its 32-year old peace relations with Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and Washington sources disclose that Adm. Mullen had been entrusted with a secret mission by two US presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama: to restrain Israel from attacking Iran and its nuclear program.
Mullen performed his mission faithfully and in full.
He and Ashkenazi met some 20 times in four years. The US general's Israel visit next week will be his fifth. Ashkenazi can then claim to have beaten Pakistani chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani's record for the total number of meetings the American chief of staff has held with any other foreign military chief.
Mullen's visit Sunday gives Ashkenazi a draw. When he takes off his uniform Monday, Feb. 14, he can boast that the American admiral gave preventing an Israeli attack on Iran equal time with the containment of Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
While in Tel Aviv, Adm. Mullen would use the occasion to meet Ashkenazi's successor, Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, the Pentagon announced. He hopes to cultivate the same kind of relationship with the new man as with his predecessor – meaning that he will continue to lean hard on Israel to hold back from attacking Iran. At the same time, this task has lost most of its urgency because the turmoil in Egypt has tossed Middle East military equilibrium into entirely unknown terrain.
Israel dismantled its southern units during decades of peace
Seen from Washington's perspective, no matter how the Egyptian crisis pans out (See opening article in this issue: Only the Military Can Save Egypt Now), the Egyptian army may have to be excluded from the pro-Western regional balance of strength depending on the direction Egypt takes after Mubarak's departure.
There is no knowing whether at some future point, Egypt's generals might decide to turn their guns on Israel. A war between the two countries would be a nightmare for America: Both armies would fight with advanced weaponry supplied by the US. Israel's only advantage in a conventional contest would be its electronic warfare and cyber warfare superiority. In all other branches, infantry, armored forces, air force, navy and special forces, the Egyptian army holds the advantage.
This bleak prospect was laid before a meeting of top Israeli political, military and intelligence officials convened Tuesday, Feb.1 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind closed doors at the IDF Southern Command near Be'er Sheva just one week after the Egyptian disturbances flared (January 25).
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources disclose the six main issues aired at that conference:
1. Insufficient strength in the south: In three decades of peace, Israel's 270-kilometer long border with Egypt has been stripped of armed strength for dealing with a military thrust from Egypt proper advancing through Sinai. In that sector, the IDF is also not up to dealing with Egypt's lost of control in the strategic peninsula and its transformation into the nexus between the Palestinian Hamas of the Gaza Strip and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.
Gen. Ashkenazi led the view at the round table security conference that such events do not happen overnight and there would be enough time to prepare for them.
His confident assessment was quickly dashed by the rapid course of events in the subsequent ten days: The Egyptian army and its security forces lost control of the Sinai Peninsula, excepting only the Sharm el Sheikh pocket. Much of the territory was seized by Hamas gangs, the Army of Islam which takes orders from Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Bedouin militias. The last group established a form of local government calling itself "The Bedouin Force for Socialist Reform."
On Saturday, February 5, a Hamas special unit blew up the gas pipeline carrying gas from Egypt to Israel, Jordan and Lebanon via northern Sinai. In just a few minutes, Israel lost 43 percent of the fuel used for running its electrical power stations.
Israel was caught unprepared by this blow without a strategic gas reserve.
No strategic reserve, trained combatants, desert units or equipment
2. Inadequate strategic reserve: The IDF currently lacks the strategic military reserves to pull from the multiple fronts with Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah, Iran to the east and Hamas in the southwest, without laying these volatile sectors open to enemy attack. Iran, Syria and Hizballah are aware of this situation, which gives them a strategic and tactical advantage over Israel.
3. Level of training: The IDF is short of forces trained to go straight into action after their transfer to the Southern Front, excepting only for the combat-ready troops facing the Gaza Strip and very small special operations units. Other units are short of both the equipment and training to fight or even operate in Sinai and the Suez Canal area. All of Israel's military strength – tanks, armored infantry, air force, navy, artillery and missiles – were adapted in recent years to the topography and conditions of the potentially active fronts against Iran, Syria or Hizballah – separately or together.
4. Desert combat units needed: To fight in desert conditions, for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the IDF would have to transform itself from top to bottom, building new armored divisions, reassigning the navy and air force which are designed for fighting northern enemies and expanding recruitment. For now, Israel does not possess a manpower reserve pool for this scale of recruitment, nor the training camps, equipment for desert combat or field command and base facilities.
Even the active Southern Command tailored for defending southern Israel against Hamas terrorists is not up to meeting the needs of a major new front against Egypt. Above all, the tens of billions of dollars to pay for this transformation are well beyond Israel's means.
The new Israeli Chief of Staff must rebuild the IDF from scratch
Defense Minister Ehud Barak was urgently dispatched by Netanyahu to Washington on February 7, to put before the administration initial estimates of Israel's military and budgetary requirements in case Egypt reversed is peace policy in the wake of the upheaval. Wednesday, February 9, Barak met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
5. New Intelligence framework: During the decades in which the Egyptian front was dormant, intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Mubarak regime covered Israel's needs. This intelligence partnership was channeled mostly through Intelligence Minister Gen. Omar Suleiman, Egypt's new Vice President. Israel also neglected to research the structure of the Egyptian army, its special units and logistical systems.
Today, Israel would have to build new frameworks for tapping into military intelligence for its southern units.
6. US facilities against Iran – irrelevant? For four years, the United States invested heavily in Israel's military resources and in the construction of special forward American bases in the Negev – all designed for a conflict with Iran. Joint war games and training exercises over the years perfected missile systems and interceptors geared to combat with Iran.
All these efforts suddenly look irrelevant and above all, disconnected from the current rush of events in the Middle East and the new perils that may be lurking around the corner.
Therefore, on Sunday, when Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi and Admiral Mullen shake hands, embrace and part with warm words of farewell, neither will refer to their Herculean labors during four years – both to ready Israel for an attack on Iran and to prevent one – because in less than two weeks those labors have been proved misdirected if not meaningless.
The changing of the guard finds Maj. Gen. Gantz saddled with the mighty task of building Israel a new army from the scratch.