On 7 March, the United States announced cancelling its plans to buy more Iron Dome missile defence batteries from Israel due to problems in terms of integrating them into the US army’s air defence systems.
The American decision came in response to Israel’s refusal to provide the US army with the source code of the Iron Dome. The source code would offer insight on how to operate the system and possible means of integrating it within existing systems.
According to The Times of Israel, Israel gave only engineering information. General Mike Murray, head of the US Army Futures Command, told the US House of Representatives Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee that “it took us longer to acquire those [first] two batteries than we would have liked.” “We believe we cannot integrate them into our air defence system based on some interoperability challenges, some cyber challenges and some other challenges,” Murray was quoted as saying.
Last year, the US Department of Defense announced allocating $1 billion to purchase Iron Dome batteries from Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd, aiming to integrate them in US air defence systems. New Jersey’s Democratic Representative Mikie Sherill then described the Iron Dome as a “proven defence system that will provide increased protection for our troops in the field”. “Access to this technology addresses critical gaps in our current capabilities,” Sherill argued. The US army received two batteries earlier this year, though now it blocked moving further with this project. The original plan was getting two more batteries by 2023.
But this is not a sign of tensions, said Saeed Okasha, a US-Israeli relations expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Okasha told Al-Ahram Weekly that defence research between Israel and the United States has always been linked to preparations for rocket attacks coming from Iran.
Okasha said that limited information has been provided on the rationale behind the US decision, while believing it might be a reaction to a number of Israeli moves.
“The Americans might be punishing the Israelis for their actions in terms of covert defence projects between them or even for their willingness to annex the Jordan Valley, which Israel’s Premier Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to do after the elections,” said Okasha. He further pointed out that, despite the historic alliance between the two, the United States sometimes resorts to pressuring Israel to force a change in its position on a specific issue, including the 1956 Suez Crisis and 1990 Madrid Peace Conference.
“Only US pressure led the Israelis to change their stance in these cases,” Okasha said.
Based on a report by The Jerusalem Post, the US Congress has given Israel more than $1.5 billion to produce Iron Dome batteries. Both parties agreed in 2014 that parts of the Iron Dome system will be produced in the United States.
Defence cooperation between the United States and Israel is also multidimensional. According to a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service, Israel is largest recipient of US aid since World War II. The United States has given Israel $142.3 billion in aid for bilateral assistance and missile defence funding. With the exception of the period from 1971 till 2007, in which the United States provided economic assistance for Israel, US aid to Israel has always been military focused.
Out of $500 million in US aid to Israel for missile defence, $70 million went to the Iron Dome project. Iron Dome, moreover, was jointly developed by Israel’s Rafael firm and American defence company Raytheon.
The US and Israel regularly conduct joint military drills, including the Juniper Cobra exercise in March 2020 and the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system drills in April 2019.
Israel’s Defence Ministry started working on Iron Dome in 2007 in response to domestic pressure to stop rocket attacks from Hizbullah in Lebanon and Islamist militant groups in the Gaza Strip. The system intercepted its first short-range rocket in April 2011, thereafter managing to intercept more than 1,500 rockets in total.
The Iron Dome targeting system includes a radar that is designed to fire interceptors only at incoming projectiles that signify a threat to an area under protection, involving both civilian and military sites.
According to the US congressional report, Israel possesses 10 Iron Dome batteries that are deployed across the country. Each of them is capable of defending a 60-square mile area.
Israel also developed a naval version of the Iron Dome system that can protect offshore natural gas facilities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly