Last May, in the immediate wake of a conflict between Israel and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic jihad that subjected Israel’s civilian population to the largest rocket barrages in the country’s history, President Biden readily pledged his “full support to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system to ensure its defenses and security in the future.” In the eight months since, however, legislation to provide $1 billion for these crucial air defenses has foundered in the Senate — despite overwhelming bipartisan support.
Restocking Iron Dome is clearly a national security priority for the U.S. and should be funded promptly. The system shields Palestinians and Israelis alike from rockets fired indiscriminately by Iran-backed terrorist groups. As detailed in a recent report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, the protection and patience afforded by Iron Dome also save Palestinian and Israeli lives by precluding Israel’s need to conduct costly ground operations in dense urban areas like Gaza or Beirut, where Hamas and Hezbollah intentionally disperse rocket launchers and arsenals among civilians.
While the system held its own in last year’s Gaza conflict against thousands of rockets launched in concentrated salvos intended specifically to overwhelm it, this came at the cost of rapidly depleting Israel’s defensive stockpiles. In only 11 days of fighting in May 2021, Israel used 1,577 interceptors — a 90% success rate against projectiles headed toward built-up areas, but also roughly double the number employed in the entire 50-day Gaza conflict of 2014. Since its debut more than a decade ago, more than one-third of all interceptors fired by Iron Dome occurred in just those 11 days last year.
Despite impressive performances by Iron Dome and the Israel Defense Forces in May 2021, Israeli operations failed to seriously dent the rocket arsenals of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups in Gaza — all of whom are busy rebuilding and fortifying these capabilities. In this regard, the intensity of recent projectile fire from Gaza portends further pressure on Iron Dome in the inevitable next round of conflict which, as enduring Israel-Hamas tensions suggest, could be much sooner than expected.
But even renewed fighting on the Gaza front will pale in comparison to Israel’s next war with Hezbollah and, possibly, Iran. As JINSA assessed, Hezbollah’s and Iran’s larger, more lethal and accurate stocks of rockets, missiles and drones will impose far greater burdens on all layers of Israel’s air defenses, including Iron Dome. A catastrophic scenario like this — in which Israeli cities, bases and critical infrastructure would be targeted as never before — compounds the strategic and humanitarian value of every single additional interceptor.
Israel’s self-defense will become even more important as the Biden administration’s foreign policy focus is stretched in multiple directions at once. By shifting America’s focus from the Middle East, strategic competition with China and Russia sharpens the importance of Israel and other regional allies in holding the line against Iran.
Time is tight in this regard, given the looming deadline for faltering nuclear negotiations with Tehran, potentially just weeks away, and the lack of a viable “Plan B” fallback option. Indeed, Israel will face heightened threats whether a deal is reached — in which case Tehran could receive a cash windfall for regional aggression — or if talks collapse, leaving Iran on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability. The more Iron Dome interceptors Israel has, the more effectively it can deter, and possibly even deny, the growing reliance by Iran and its proxies on rockets, missiles and drones as their weapons of choice.
Many of these concerns and imperatives were reflected in the House’s 420-9 vote last September in favor of a standalone bill to replenish Iron Dome, just days after liberals removed such language from the must-pass continuing budget resolution. With the current continuing resolution set to expire in mid-February, it’s unclear whether funding for Iron Dome, which is expected to be included in the Senate’s defense appropriations bill, will pass. What is clear is that the clock is ticking for Congress to fulfill its, and Mr. Biden’s, clear intent on this issue.
Beyond the immediate consequences for Israel, failure to do so also risks undermining future legislation to sustain what Mr. Biden repeatedly calls America’s “ironclad” partnership with the Jewish state. It would send a dangerous message, to allies and adversaries alike, about the credibility of U.S. commitments in the wake of the precipitous Afghanistan withdrawal and amid the unfolding crisis over Ukraine.
After the previous major conflict in Gaza, in summer 2014, Congress overwhelmingly passed — and then-President Barack Obama quickly signed — a bill to restock Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors before a ceasefire was even in place. Before it’s too late, legislators should act now with similar swiftness, to help a key ally defend itself and our own national security interests.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Richard Natonski, former commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command, is a member of the Gaza Assessment Policy Project at JINSA. Jonathan Ruhe is director of Foreign Policy. Andrew Ghalili is a JINSA senior policy analyst.
Originally published in Washington Times.