A bipartisan effort is making its way through the US Congress that could see new support for Israel-US defense cooperation. It is a unique effort that now includes both a bill in the Senate called the United States-Israel Military Capability Act of 2020 and H.R. 7148 in the House of Representatives "to establish a US-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group."
Israel and the US are already close partners and allies in the realm of defense. Not only does Washington provide Jerusalem with funding through the ten-year Memorandum of Understanding – $38 billion between 2016 and 2026 – there is also key cooperation in missile defense, anti-tunnel defense and counter-drone technology. This is the "enduring and unshakable commitment," the US has to Israel's security, and is a bond between the American people and Israel, according to the US Embassy.
There are also joint exercises with the US, including the recent Blue Flag drill and other joint work with F-35s and American and Israeli military-to-military discussions. In addition, Israel's missile defense systems, such as Iron Dome, are not only for the benefit of the Jewish state, but are also on their way to potentially be used by the US. The technology Israel innovated – such as Trophy, a system that protects tanks – saves American lives.
Israel's big three defense companies, Elbit Systems, IAI and Rafael, have numerous cooperative projects with the US. These include Elbit's state-of-the-art helmets, Rafael's targeting pods for F-16s and IAI's wings for the F-35.
Building on that success, Brad Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued in May that the Pentagon must shift its ongoing modernization efforts into high gear to meet emerging threats. Israel can help because it is "one of America's closest and most technologically advanced allies."
This means that Washington and Jerusalem are well suited to collaborate because Israel must innovate to meet new threats and the Pentagon will no longer miss out on this Israeli sense of urgency, which "could have led to the more expeditious fielding of weapons to US troops."
Israel punches far above its weight in defense technology.
Israel benefits from the US economy of scale. Anyone familiar with the massive footprint should consider what it looks like. Lockheed Martin makes around $50 billion in sales a year and has more than 100,000 employees. Israel's largest defense company has about a tenth of that depending on the year. Israel punches far above its weight in technology.
How do members of Congress hope to help? Back in late February 2020, on the eve of the AIPAC conference and before the pandemic fully arrived on America's shores, US senators Gary Peters – a Democrat from Michigan – and Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper urging the creation of a permanent working group with Israel that would share defense capabilities and requirements. It could coordinate joint research and development.
The goal was to compliment the US 2018 National Defense Strategy that envisions America needing to confront major states, not just fight terrorists. That in essence boils down to the US confronting Iran, Russia and China this century. The senators foresaw a US-Israel Operational Technology Working Group. How that would work, however, was unclear.
The problem for the US is that new technology is slow to be incorporated. This is because militaries are conservative and the whole nature of how the US develops new weapons borders on being sloth-like with layers of bureaucracy.
For instance, Washington worked on experimenting with new stealth drones and the sleek Zumwalt-class stealth ships, but cancelled most of the ships. If America has fielded a stealth drone, it is so classified and expensive that probably very few were built. After all, the US is still flying U-2 spy planes some 60 years after they were built and long after everyone thought they would be put out to pasture.
Congress' bipartisan support for this working group would seek to illustrate how much of an ideal partner Israel is for innovation that will benefit both countries. The senators pointed out that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020 had mandated a report by March 1 on cooperative research and development opportunities. Now the concept is to formalize that. A follow-up statement was made by the senators on May 21.
The Jewish Institute for National Security of America praised the senators' efforts in a March press release. JINSA noted that since 2018, a US-Israel Security Project led by Adm. James Stavridis had been spearheading efforts to strengthen US-Israel security relations. One of those ways is through R&D cooperation.
Now US representatives Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, and Lee Zeldin, a Republican of New York, have co-sponsored a House version of the Senate initiative. In the House, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina, 2nd District) is the sponsor of H.R. 7148. In the Senate the version is called S 3775 and is referred to the Foreign Relations Committee. It has been joined in sponsorship by Republican senators Martha McSally of Arizona, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Josh Hawley of Missouri. On the House side it is making its way through the House Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs committees.
Supporters of this initiative assert that systematically identifying gaps is important for working together on developing the best systems for the future battlefield. A working group could be a point of contact and it could provide a place to process and share issues and provide a timely response.
The US likes bureaucracy and committees, Israel not so much.
But there are other issues involved. The US likes bureaucracy and committees, and Israel has generally performed better without multiple layers of army futures command, as well as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and all the whole menagerie of institutions in the US that ostensibly are supposed to make American warriors have the best possible technology.
What is unique in the US is that despite it being an election year and the extreme polarization in politics, the ability to work on this bipartisan issue can transcend other issues taking place. The concept is that eventually, this technological working group could foster ideas and get to the leading edge of emerging technology.
But will companies and militaries share all this information or do they prefer working the way they already do? A key issue may be funding. The US has put targeted funding into issues like air defense. Without funding, a working group could be an incubator or it could wither on the vine.
There are added reasons to make more formalized relationships with the US through means such as this. It creates more layers to the alliance with Israel, especially at a time when support for the Jewish state may be eroding in some sectors of the US. Bipartisan support for Israel was a hallmark of the relationship – and this is symbolic.
The US appears to be drawing down forces from the Middle East, perhaps from Syria or eventually Iraq and even its commitment to the multi-national forces in Sinai. Upping other aspects of the relationship, in key technological plug-ins – where Israel has excelled at sensors, UAVs, missiles and other technological add-ons that fit well with the larger platforms made by the US – is a way the relationship can be symbiotic.
This summer will tell whether the working group gets more support and ends up in the NDAA or if it remains an idea on the sidelines. Either way, there will be initiative and increasing the discussion about the need for more rapid advancement of technology to confront emerging threats.
It is no surprise that CENTCOM chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie has voiced concern about swarms of small drones as a threat. Rafael in Israel recently used lasers to take down several drones. Meanwhile, the US Navy recently successfully tested a high-energy laser weapon as part of its Solid State Laser Technology Maturation drill using a Laser Weapons System Demonstrator.
This is where the future is going – but to make it move faster, it may be good for countries that both excel at this technology to work together. That is what embodies the current congressional efforts.
Seth Frantzman is a Middle East Forum writing fellow and op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.