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Between Congress and a tight spot: Israel needs more U.S. support to fend off terrorists

Israel and Hamas brokering a brief ceasefire in Gaza to release some of the hostages harbors new dangers for Israel, believes military analyst Colby Badhwar, as it offers the terrorists time to regroup and replenish their stock of weapons, including new supplies or rockets. For now, the Iron Dome is successfully fending off Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s missiles but Israel will quickly run out of resources unless the U.S. adopts a more decisive stance. Most importantly, Congress would do well to stop delaying additional spending on ammunition used to intercept terrorist rockets.

Israel’s missile defense dilemma

On Thursday, April 7th, 2011, a Grad rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. It did not reach its target though, having been intercepted mid flight by a Tamir missile fired by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system. This was the system’s first successful combat interception, and since then, it has gone on to rack up an impressive record. Per its manufacturer, Rafael, one of Israel’s state-owned defense companies, it has achieved over 2500 interceptions and a success rate of 90%.

Originally designed as a counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) system, it is now advertised as an effective solution to defeat fixed and rotary wing aircraft, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and cruise missiles & other precision-guided munitions (PGMs). One could be forgiven for assuming that it is a magic bullet, capable of defeating all possible threats with ease. Even the name, Iron Dome, evokes mythical images of an impenetrable shield up in the sky. This is not the case though. Every system has limitations, and Iron Dome is no exception.

Iron Dome is just the bottom layer of Israel’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (IAMDS). The middle layer is formed by the US-made MIM-104 Patriot and the Israeli-made David’s Sling, which will eventually replace the former. The upper layer is comprised of the Arrow-2 & Arrow-3 systems, which are designed to intercept the longest-range ballistic missiles. In concert these layers form one of the most sophisticated IAMDS in the world, one that has been combat proven as well. While Iron Dome had an established reputation prior to the current war, Arrow was mostly untested in combat.

Iron Dome is just the bottom layer of Israel’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence System

That changed on October 31st, when the Houthis, a Yemen based terrorist proxy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, fired a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) — likely a modified Iranian-made Zolfaghar — at Israel. It was intercepted midflight by an Arrow 2 missile. Over a week later, on November 9th, the Houthis fired another MRBM at Israel. This time it was an Iranian-made Ghadr-110, which was intercepted in outer space by an Arrow 3 missile. These successes mask a grave underlying danger though.

While Israel’s IAMDS is highly sophisticated, that has come at a considerable price tag. As a result, their overall “magazine depth”, the number of interceptor missiles available to them, is dwarfed by the number of projectiles in the inventories of Israel’s enemies. This is their missile defense dilemma: the old adage that quantity has a quality all its own.

Iron Dome
Iron Dome

In 2018 the Center for Strategic & International Studies estimated that Hezbollah alone had 130,000 rockets & missiles. Today that number is likely more than 150,000. Between Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, there are still thousands if not tens of thousands of rockets. Some of them Iranian-made and previously smuggled in, and the rest produced domestically with Iranian technical advice. The Houthis have several models of Iranian ballistic & cruise missiles capable of reaching Israel, plus one-way attack unmanned aerial systems or “suicide drones”. There is also the inventory of Bashar al-Assads Syrian Arab Army and of the Islamic Republic of Iran itself.

As previously highlighted, Israel has the ability to defeat all the possible threats that could be directed at them by any of these actors, but not if they come at a massive scale. Even the largely unsophisticated rockets emanating from Gaza can cause significant damage if Israel’s inventory of Tamirs for Iron Dome is exhausted. The Israelis full well understand this of course, and it’s imperative that policy makers in Europe & North America learn what can be done to mitigate this threat.

Conditions for Israel's victory

First and foremost, the IDF must be able to continue their operations to destroy Hamas, PIJ and other terrorist groups operating in the Gaza Strip. Israel has faced multi-front wars many times in the past, but their ability to win those wars hinged on being able to swiftly defeat the conventional armies opposing them.

The persistent asymmetric threat of terrorist groups launching rockets from among the civilian populace in Gaza & southern Lebanon is a more complex danger. The present opportunity to dismantle these terrorist networks and silence the rockets can not be surrendered. As of writing this, the Israeli government, Hamas, and mediating parties have all announced that a temporary ceasefire agreement has been reached, in which 50 Israeli hostages would be exchanged for 150 Palestinian prisoners. It remains to be seen whether this agreement will actually be implemented. What is certain, though, is that there will be immense diplomatic pressure put on Israel at the UN and other forums to extend the ceasefire, and even make it permanent. The Israeli government has already made it clear that this is a nonstarter, and any government purporting to support Israel’s right to self-defense must support them in this position. Any pauses in fighting must be temporary and on terms completely acceptable to Israel.

The failure of the Gaza operation would mean continued diversion of Israeli resources away from the north, where the much larger threat from Hezbollah looms. The importance of this political support, or as former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Michael Oren calls it: “Diplomatic Iron Dome”, cannot be understated. As fighting continues, efforts at the United Nations Security Council to sanction Israel will escalate. The Biden Administration must exercise the United States’ veto to shield them from these attempts.

The US Congress has work to do as well. On October 20th, President Biden delivered to them a $106 billion supplemental budget request for critical national security needs. Included within that is a total of $8.7 billion in military aid for Israel, of which $4 billion is for procurement of additional Iron Dome & David Sling systems and interceptors, $1.2 billion for Iron Beam development, and $3.5 billion in additional Foreign Military Financing (FMF).

Iron Beam, a new directed energy weapon, will complement Iron Dome and offer much more cost-effective interception of rocket, artillery, and mortar threats. FMF is grant money which Israel can use to buy military equipment and munitions from the United States.

While Israel already receives $3.8 billion in military aid from the US annually, this additional funding is essential to their ability to replenish their inventory of interceptors and grow the number of systems in operation. The request also asks for $5.4 billion for the US Department of Defense to increase production of critical munitions and replace DoD stocks of defense articles sold or transferred to Israel.

David's Sling
David's Sling

The final key component of the Biden Administration’s request to Congress are two amendments to US law governing arms transfers. The first is for the annual Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) cap to be raised from $100 million to $7 billion for Fiscal Year 2024. PDA allows the President to transfer US defense articles to foreign countries at no cost.

This is the main mechanism by which the US has provided military aid to Ukraine, and Congress has already increased this cap in the past for the previous 2 fiscal years. Currently the President only has the default $100 million worth of authority at his disposal. That is, he can only direct drawdowns of defense articles with a book value not totalling more than $100 million. When Israel’s needs are for expensive interceptor missiles and other PGMs, that number is reached quickly, so raising the cap is essential.

The second amendment concerns the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel (WRSA-I), which is composed of several warehouses in Israel with stockpiles of US owned munitions. US law has a specific mechanism authorizing transfers from WRSA-I to Israel, but it is highly restrictive. The main impediment being that the President must notify Congress of any transfer 30 days before it is executed. So the Administration is asking for Congress to relax that and other requirements. In the absence of these changes, US assistance to Israel has been limited to other means.

The Department of Defense has worked with US defense companies to expedite existing Israeli commercial arms orders, and the US Army has agreed to sell Israel it’s inventory of Tamir interceptors and lease its own 2 Iron Dome systems to them via a Foreign Military Sales contract.

These measures have provided a much-needed quick resupply to Israel, but without new appropriated dollars and the requested legal amendments, the US is severely limited in their ability to provide ongoing support to them. Even if Israel did not require further assistance, it is necessary to restock the Department of Defense’s own inventories of munitions. The expeditious passage of a supplemental funding bill is essential.

Without new appropriated dollars and the requested legal amendments, the US is severely limited in their ability to provide ongoing support to Israel

Unfortunately, so far, Congress has not acted with urgency. The House of Representatives voted for a bill with only the Israel related funding, but with equivalent budget cuts to domestic spending, which the US Senate has refused to pass, and the President has refused to sign. Congressional leaders have indicated that they remain confident that they will pass a funding bill with both aid for Israel and Ukraine before Christmas, but neither can afford to wait that long.

This uncertainty increases Israel’s dilemma. While the border with Lebanon has seen sporadic exchanges of fire, Hezbollah has kept their powder almost entirely dry. Their rocket & missile arsenal could overwhelm all of Israel’s air defenses if they launched a prolonged barrage. Israel can of course launch retaliatory strikes to attempt to destroy them, but Hezbollah too uses human shields, as Hamas does, which will create further civilian casualties.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and their Air Force in particular, have also expended a considerable number of their PGMs already, which brings us back to the urgency of new aid appropriations. A battle with Hezbollah will stretch the IDF thin in manpower and ammunition, especially if the Gaza operation is still ongoing. There is no easy and effective solution for them to respond offensively to Hezbollah’s attacks, and a defensive posture will only keep them safe for so long. This will force the Israeli War Cabinet to make tough choices about prioritization of assets to be defended.

Quantity turns into quality

Currently, Iron Dome’s radars can determine the trajectory of incoming threats and automatically engage them depending on whether they are likely to strike populated areas or hit the empty desert. With far fewer interceptors than the enemy has rockets & missiles though, in the face of a mass barrage, only the most important assets can be protected. Even with further resupply, which will likely be limited by how quickly additional interceptors can be manufactured, such triaging will have to occur in order to prevent total exhaustion of the inventory.

Iron Dome and all of the other components of Israel’s IAMDS can be manually controlled by its operators, who will be forced to only engage incoming threats that are destined for key strategic assets, such as military formations, hospitals and Ben Gurion Airport. Residential areas will likely not make the cut; there are simply too many to protect.

This will likely cause considerable political tumult, as some Israelis have grown accustomed to being protected from rockets, but that was a false sense of security, created by the small scale of previous attacks relative to the enemy’s total capacity. If Hezbollah unleashes even a quarter of their inventory it will severely strain Israel’s IAMDS.

If Hezbollah unleashes even a quarter of their inventory it will severely strain Israel’s IAMDS

We can’t forget about the lingering threat posed by the Houthis, or even Iran itself either though. While Israel has been successful in their interceptions of long range missile and UAS attacks emanating from Yemen so far, Arrow 2 & 3 are at the highest risk of being overwhelmed, as there are only a few of these systems in operation. Israel doesn’t have to go it alone though.

The USS Carney & USS Thomas Hudner, both Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, deployed in the Red Sea, have on separate occasions shot down cruise missiles and drones that were headed to Israel from Yemen. The US Navy could deploy additional destroyers to the Red Sea to help protect Israel from attacks from the Houthis. The US Army, though already stretched by existing deployments to the region, could even deploy some of its air defense units in Israel.

They have in the past deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti ballistic missile system to Israel, and Mt. Keren in the Negev desert already hosts a permanent THAAD radar installation. Sending a THAAD system, and perhaps even a Patriot system or two would both strengthen Israel’s defenses and reinforce America’s clear commitment to their security.

That commitment is actually the best defense for both Israel & the United States. Even with pooled resources, the combined magazine depth of both countries cannot defend indefinitely against the arsenal available to the Islamic Republic and its proxies. But if the United States maintains total diplomatic unity with Israel in public, takes the necessary steps to maintain the flow of military aid, and continues the show of force underway with the deployment of two aircraft carriers and all the other assets in the region, then escalating attacks may be deterred.

If not, it's easy to image the whole region being engulfed in a wider war. While the US Congress may balk at the cost of additional aid, and the President may begin to waiver on his strong support, the alternative would be catastrophic. The stakes are high, the United States’ credibility, and Israel’s survival, are on the line.

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