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Senate Diluted Tough Oversight of Israeli Antimissile Program

Sen. Deb Fischer, seen here, and Joe Donnelly sponsored a provision that removed a key oversight element in the Senate defense authorization bill of the Arrow 3 antimissile program. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Deb Fischer, seen here, and Joe Donnelly sponsored a provision that removed a key oversight element in the Senate defense authorization bill of the Arrow 3 antimissile program. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators quietly deleted from a defense bill last month a strict provision tying continued U.S. funding of a costly Israeli antimissile system to completion of two flight tests.

The retreat from tough oversight came at the request of the Israeli government, sources said.

At issue is the Arrow 3 program, the longest-range version of a set of Arrow antimissile systems on which the U.S. has already spent more than $3 billion. Israel co-funds and co-develops the program. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency did not answer by publication time a question on how much Israel has spent on the systems. The Israeli Embassy did not provide an answer either.

Fly before you buy

When the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote its defense authorization bill in June, the panel included language that would have withheld $120 million for Arrow 3 interceptor missiles in fiscal 2018 until one condition was satisfied: the Arrow program had to conduct two intercept tests in the United States.

The committee was concerned that the Israelis were simultaneously developing and producing the system — a risky practice known in defense acquisition circles as concurrency, which often leads to cost increases and delays when problems are discovered after production starts. The committee also wanted to make sure Arrow could operate with U.S. military systems.

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The Israeli military tends to deploy its systems with only limited testing, while in general the U.S. government takes the opposite approach.

Israel’s military declared the Arrow 3 system operational in January. But the system has had only one intercept in a test, according to published reports and the website of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a private research group that supports antimissile programs. Neither the Israeli embassy nor the Missile Defense Agency would say what the Arrow 3′s test record is.

Vice Adm. James Syring, then director of the Missile Defense Agency, testified earlier this year that at least one Arrow 3 test will occur in Alaska in 2018.

By attaching strings to the U.S. funds, the committee had hoped to enforce the schedule of testing in 2018 and support the principle known as “fly before you buy.”

In September, however, the Senate voted to simply delete the provision.

No debate, no comment

The amendment removing the oversight language was written by Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer and Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly — the Republican chairwoman and Democratic ranking member, respectively, of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

The Fischer-Donnelly amendment was included in a package of scores of amendments that were adopted by unanimous consent and without debate. The change to the Arrow language has not been covered in the press. The amendment stated simply, “In section 1651(c), strike paragraph (2).”

Neither Fischer nor Donnelly would explain the reason for their amendment. Fischer’s spokeswoman did not reply to repeated requests for comment, and Donnelly’s office declined to comment.

One aide said senators believed the provision was no longer necessary once they realized the Arrow 3 program was proceeding methodically and carefully through development.

But others said nothing of substance had changed in the program since the committee’s earlier markup, save for the request from the Israeli Embassy in Washington to remove the provision, which the Missile Defense Agency agreed to.

The agency had not responded by publication time to repeated questions about the issue.

An Israeli government official said the Arrow system is sufficiently tested and capable, the result “not only of U.S. funding and Israeli innovation but also of substantial Israeli investment of financial resources over the course of the whole Arrow program.”

“The United States benefits from the availability of Israeli intellectual property and innovations, which are an integral part of the system,” the official said. The system is jointly built by Israel Aerospace Industries and The Boeing Company, which “uses many subcontractors throughout the United States in order to fulfill its commitments,” the official said.

U.S. spending rises

Expert observers of defense programs, when told about the deletion of the oversight provision, expressed concern that the Senate was missing an opportunity to enforce a “best practice” in weapons acquisition: tying funding to demonstrations of capability.

Philip Coyle, a former head of testing at the Pentagon, said the Senate vote on Arrow oversight was a mistake. “Without results from realistic testing, the Congress has no way of knowing whether they are throwing good money after bad,” Coyle said.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government spending watchdog group, said removing the provision raises serious questions. “An anti-missile system that doesn’t work properly is at best sugar-pill security and at worst a glaring hole in defenses,” Ellis said. “Besides, the U.S. needs to have confidence in the system beyond Israel, and can’t afford to simply throw cash around.”

The United States has spent more than $4 billion on Israeli antimissile programs over the past dozen years, about three-quarters of it on the Arrow program.

Each year, Congress tends to significantly boost the Pentagon’s request for Israeli antimissile programs. Last year, for example, appropriators provided $601 million for such programs, more than four times what the Pentagon had requested.

The annual funding for Israeli missile defense has come on top of the $3 billion the United States has sent Israel each year under the terms of a long-standing bilateral agreement. Most of the $3 billion in annual aid has gone to the purchase of U.S. weapons.

Since World War II, such aid has totaled more than $125 billion.

Starting in fiscal 2019, per a U.S.-Israeli agreement, missile defense funding will be a guaranteed element of U.S. aid to Israel. America will provide $500 million annually for such programs through fiscal 2028.

The Arrow 3 is designed to obliterate medium-range enemy missiles, such as Iran’s Shahab-3, as they fly on the edge of space. The earlier versions of Arrow were optimized to defeat shorter-range missiles at lower altitudes.

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