Friday, December 25, 2009

Israel Seeks U.S. Help for Merkava 4 based Namer APC

By barbara opall-rome

Three U.S. companies will compete to produce major elements of Israel's Merkava tank-inspired armored personnel carrier (APC) for the Israeli Army, an effort that could evolve into a licensed U.S. production program worth billions in domestic and export orders, defense and industry sources said.

Known here as Namer, the Israeli program will be executed in phases, with Israel's Ministry of Defense-owned and -operated Tank Production Office serving as lead system integrator of U.S.-produced content and locally provided weaponry and subsystems. Defense sources say the multiyear effort will initially mean hundreds of millions of dollars for the winning bidder and tens of millions in industrial cooperation orders for local industry.

If approved by the Pentagon, the program would trail only the Israel Air Force's planned buy of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in terms of Israeli outlays of annual U.S. military aid. The contenders are BAE Systems, General Dynamics Land Systems and Textron Marine and Land Systems. In interviews last week, executives from all three companies confirmed keen interest in the program and plan to respond to an MoD request for proposals (RfP) released last week.

"We view the Namer as a very important win-win for us and for Israel," said Mark Savarese, vice president for strategy and business development at Textron. "We're excited about the opportunity to rekindle the heavy armor capability that we haven't done for a while, since we built Stingray tanks; and to produce parts of a fighting vehicle to support a key ally of the United States."

Savarese said the Namer could interest the U.S. military and other export customers watching the Ground Combat Vehicle spinoff of the defunct Future Combat Systems program. "It's still too early to tell, but we're interested to see how closely emerging U.S. Army requirements could match characteristics of the Namer," he said.

Executives from BAE and General Dynamics declined to discuss potential sales beyond the Israeli Army, but touted their respective expertise and production capacity for the Israeli program. "As the world's leading provider of infantry fighting vehicles, BAE Systems is very interested in partnering with the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli industry in such an important effort," said Garrie Doman, director of communications for BAE's U.S. Combat Systems.

Likewise, Robin Porter, media manager for General Dynamics Land Systems, said the firm's role as sole provider of U.S. Army main battle tanks offered "an excellent match" for Israel's Merkava APC/IFV program.Brig. Gen. Yaron Livnat, director of Israel's Tank Production Office, said Israel was not promoting the Namer for the U.S. Army, although as underwriter of U.S.-based production, the U.S. government had rights to royalties and intellectual property.

"I expect we'll have terms and conditions built into the contract to provide for such scenarios. Obviously, we would be proud if our vehicle ends up protecting Americans," he said. "But right now, our focus is on meeting the critical operational needs of the Israel Ground Forces."Livnat said he and other MoD representatives have been engaged for nearly a year with prospective partners, and plan to host industry conferences during the coming months to answer questions and clarify points contained in the RfP.

Formal industry bids are due in the first quarter of 2010, with a direct commercial sales contract formalized with the winning company by the end of next year.Livnat stressed that the procurement program must be audited and authorized by the Defense Security and Cooperation Agency, the Pentagon organization that regulates and monitors Israeli spending of U.S. military aid.

"We've asked them [U.S. bidders] for incremental, distributed proposals that start off modestly but could grow into a megaprogram if the bids are on target and we choose to activate all our options," Livnat said.The Namer is a direct derivative of the Merkava Mk4 design, with the same suspension, engine, tracks, periscopes and basic multilayered armor as the renowned Israeli main battle tank. But program officials emphasize that it was designed from the beginning as a heavy fighting vehicle and troop carrier, rather than a modification to existing vehicles.

It features a new air filtration system and a powerful new diesel air conditioning system that allows for keeping the 11-man crew cool without powering up the main engine. The Namer will be outfitted with indigenous remote control weapon stations, C4I gear, active protection and other systems specially suited for infantry combat.MoD's Tank Production Office built three prototypes in a record 17 months, with the first battalion operational with Israel's Golani brigade since last summer."We took calculated risks in the design effort, going directly to cut material from computer models. There were no mockups; we went directly to the Namer," Livnat said.

Israeli Firms' Angst

Israeli defense officials say they have a 10-year funding commitment, not only to expand its Merkava Mk4 force, but for the weapons and subsystems planned for Namer. U.S.-funded production of Namer components and kits will benefit Israeli industry, they say, by freeing up more funds for long-term Merkava orders as well as high-volume, Israeli-funded subcontracts for the hugely expanded APC fleet.

In parallel, competing bids will be assessed, in part, by the amount of industrial cooperation U.S. companies are willing to extend to local Israeli subcontractors and suppliers.Nevertheless, Israeli executives are skeptical, if not outright hostile to the U.S.-based production plans."At the end of the day, this could mark the first step toward the end of Israel's armored industrial base," said Shlomo Passy, chairman of the Heavy Armor Forum of the Israel Manufacturers' Association.

Passy said he was speaking for most of the 200 companies and factories associated with the Merkava tank program, which provide income for thousands of households throughout the country. "We praise the renewed emphasis on the need for more tanks and heavy armored vehicles. We also believe that the people making the decisions now truly want to preserve the capabilities of our industry.

"But once they start to outsource critical production functions of our armored industry, it's only a matter of time until the Namer, as well as the Merkava production line, gets transferred to America, where they can pay for it with U.S. aid money."Brig. Gen. Yoav Har-Even, chief of staff of the IDF's Ground Forces Command, said the Namer embodies lessons from Israel's 2006 Lebanon War, which places a premium on unfettered ground maneuvering warfare in all types of battle conditions. "The Namer is not just another APC. It's the most advanced weapon infantry fighting system in the world," he said Dec. 9.

Har-Even said the Army needs as many Namers as possible in the shortest amount of time, and the U.S.-based production program represented the best option for obtaining this urgent capability. "It's going to change our concept of maneuvering. I'm not talking only about protecting our forces; but empowering them with the ability to fight effectively in all theaters under all conditions," he said.


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