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Fate of two idle Iron Dome batteries in U.S. remains unclear

Security and other concerns are preventing transfer of the anti-rocket systems to Israel or Ukraine

Israel's Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets launched from Gaza on October 11, 2023.
Israel's Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets launched from Gaza on October 11, 2023. (Bashar Taleb/AFP via Getty Images)

Corrected Oct. 16 | As thousands of military rockets have rained death on Ukraine and Israel, America has been unable to give either country two U.S. Army anti-rocket batteries that the service has no plans to deploy — despite months of congressional pressure for the Biden administration to act.

The system at issue is Iron Dome. It was designed by Israeli companies and is now co-produced by U.S. and Israeli contractors. Each battery comprises a radar, command computers and three to four launchers that can propel up to 80 Tamir interceptor missiles out to a range of 43 miles to knock down enemy rockets, mortar or artillery shells, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The United States has spent at least $3 billion bankrolling the development and procurement of Iron Dome batteries for Israel.

Ironically, the biggest reason America does not plan to use the two batteries, despite spending $373 million for them, is because of Israeli reluctance to share technical data about the system, experts and congressional aides said.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reportedly has asked Washington to send the two Army batteries to his war-battered country. But the United States cannot do so, according to multiple accounts, because Israel has repeatedly refused to give to Ukraine lethal weapons that Israel either owns or, in this case, has designed.

As for the prospect of sending the two batteries to Israel itself to supplement the 10 or more Iron Dome batteries in that country’s defensive arsenal amid Hamas’ rocket and commando attacks, there is as yet no public sign that the Biden administration will do that either, though such a transfer is rumored to be a possibility.

The administration has already given to Israel an unknown number of U.S.-owned Tamir interceptors for use in Israel’s Iron Dome launchers, and the Pentagon may OK giving more, a senior defense official hinted Thursday.

But the Defense Department has not publicly discussed any talks with Israel about a possible transfer of the U.S.-owned Iron Dome batteries to help shield Israelis against Hamas missiles or a potential attack from Hezbollah rockets launched from southern Lebanon. The Iron Dome boasts a greater than 90 percent intercept rate at the rockets it engages, Israeli officials have said.

Iron Dome “is a system that was built to defend Israel against exactly these kinds of threats,” said Tom Karako, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an interview Friday. “And if it can help the defense of Israel in their hour of need, a transfer could make a lot of sense.”

Congressional churn

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators has pushed without success for several months to send the Army’s Iron Dome batteries to Ukraine or, alternatively, to send them to a third country such as Poland and then to transfer another air defense system, such as Patriot, from that third nation to Ukraine.

The leaders of this campaign have been Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Jack Reed, D-R.I., the Armed Services Committee chairman; Angus King, the Maine independent who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and serves on Armed Services; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an appropriator.

Now a second bipartisan group of senators wants to send the batteries to Israel.

The senators in that second group are Republicans Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Rick Scott of Florida plus Democrats Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. They stated their view in an Oct. 10 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing conflict, some senators who have long pushed to get the U.S. Iron Dome batteries to Ukraine are now open to the option of sending them to Israel, if that country requests them.

“There is no question that our partners – Israel and Ukraine – face grave threats to their security and horrific acts of violence,” Van Hollen said via email. “I support providing urgent assistance to both countries to defend themselves.”

A spokesperson for the Senate Armed Services Committee said via email that Reed “continues to evaluate the defense needs of both Ukraine and Israel, and is committed to supporting these nations with systems that are practical and effective.”

As of now, however, neither Ukraine nor Israel is benefiting from two highly effective anti-rocket batteries that will not, it seems, ever be a part of the U.S. military arsenal.

Army no longer interested

The Army has conducted testing using the two Iron Dome batteries, now located at a Washington state military base. But the service has no plans to otherwise use them. The reasons are manifold, but the biggest has to do with Israel’s tight hold on its data rights, experts said.

The Army insists that all its air defense systems must be folded into a single command and control network that integrates the service’s “sensor and shooters” — in other words, enables connectivity among virtually all Army assets and soldiers.

In order to be integrated into that network, each system must demonstrate requisite cybersecurity. To ensure such security, the Army must have in its hands the fundamental component of the system’s computer program, known as source code.

But the Israelis have exercised their contractual right to withhold that code, U.S. officials and aides have said.

If the two Iron Dome batteries are not cybersecure, the Army will not integrate them into its service-wide air defense network.

In the absence of being granted access to the underlying source code, cybersecurity concerns precluded the service from using the Iron Dome as part of its wider network, Karako said.

The two batteries could have been operated as stand-alone systems disconnected from that network, but maintaining and supporting just two batteries is impractical for the U.S. Army, he added.

Funding afoot

The give and take in Congress and in diplomatic circles over the U.S. Iron Dome systems comes as the White House prepares to send Congress next week a request for an as yet undisclosed amount of emergency supplemental funding to aid Israel.

It is not clear if the forthcoming proposal will also include any additional money for supporting Ukraine. The administration asked Congress in August for $24.1 billion in Ukraine money for the last 12 weeks of 2023. Congress did not include that in the current stopgap spending law.

But a bipartisan and bicameral group of lawmakers wants the next installment of Ukraine funding to contain more than $24.1 billion, perhaps $60 billion or more, to last for much or all of 2024.

The fiscal 2024 defense bills also contain authorization and appropriations for Iron Dome for Israel.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense spending bill, which has not been taken up by the full Senate, would bankroll the $80 million for Iron Dome. The House-passed Defense spending bill, on the other hand, does not appear to contain any separate funding line for Iron Dome.

The House and Senate NDAAs would each authorize the $80 million in spending for another Iron Dome system for Israel.

More broadly, the United States has agreed to spend at least $3.3 billion per year in security assistance for Israel through fiscal 2028.

Spending to support Israel could be bulked up in those defense bills in addition to whatever Congress might provide via a supplemental.

It is not clear whether the Pentagon might be able to transfer the Iron Dome batteries to Israel — or to Ukraine, or one each — without new legislation.

This report was revised to correctly identify Sen. Jacky Rosen.

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