The United States and Israel have maintained strong bilateral relations based on a number of factors, including robust domestic U.S. support for Israel and its security; shared strategic goals in the Middle East; a mutual commitment to democratic values; and historical ties dating from U.S. support for the creation of Israel in 1948.
Israel and the US have for decades held a strong military relationship that has defined the countries’ foreign policies. Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $142.3 billion (current, or noninflation-adjusted, dollars) in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding. Almost all U.S. bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance, although from 1971 to 2007 Israel also received significant economic assistance.
In 2016, the U.S. and Israeli governments signed a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on military aid, covering FY2019 to FY2028. Under the terms of the MOU, the United States pledges to provide $38 billion in military aid ($33 billion in Foreign Military Financing grants plus $5 billion in missile defense appropriations) to Israel. This MOU replaced a previous $30 billion 10-year agreement, which ran through FY2018.
U.S. military aid has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world. U.S. military aid for Israel has been designed to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME) over neighboring militaries. 7 The rationale for QME is that Israel must rely on better equipment and training to compensate for being much smaller in land area and population than its potential adversaries.
Israel is the first international operator of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Department of Defense’s fifth-generation stealth aircraft, considered to be the most technologically advanced fighter jet ever made. To date, Israel has purchased 50 F-35s in three separate contracts.
U.S. military aid also has helped Israel build its domestic defense industry, which ranks as one of the top global suppliers of arms. Israel exports missile defense systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, cyber security products, radar, and electronic communications systems to, among others: India, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Philippines, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Brazil, and the United States. In addition to a planned U.S. purchase of Iron Dome, the United States has purchased, among other items, the following Israeli defense articles: Trophy active protection systems for M1 Abrams tanks, helmets for F-35 fighter pilots, and an electronic fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 1989, the United States agreed to establish munitions stockpiles in Israel for use by the United States and, with U.S. permission, by Israel in emergency situations. The United States European Command (EUCOM) manages the War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel (WRSA-I) program. The United States stores missiles, armored vehicles, and artillery ammunition in Israel. According to one Israeli officer, “Officially, all of this equipment belongs to the US military…. If however, there is a conflict, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] can ask for permission to use some of the equipment.
Israeli officials periodically express concern over U.S. sales of sophisticated weaponry, particularly aircraft, airborne radar systems, and precision-guided munitions, to Arab Gulf countries. Although in recent times Israel and the Arab Gulf states have coalesced against a commonly perceived Iranian threat, U.S. arms sales to Arab Gulf states still periodically raise Israeli QME concerns. The Trump Administration reportedly has agreed to enter into preliminary talks with the UAE on procurement of the F-35.
Retired Israeli Defense Force Colonel Shimon Arad has been a vocal critic of selling the F-35 to the UAE, saying: “The release of F-35s to the Gulf states is a fundamental military game-changer that, in combination with the advanced fourth generation fighters and the tens of thousands of sophisticated munitions, will cancel out Israel’s QME.”
Israel is a major global manufacturer of armaments, it also possesses significant quantities of major U.S.-origin defense equipment stemming from its decades-old security partnership with the United States. At times, third parties have sought to procure U.S. equipment used by Israel, and U.S. approval of retransfer have at times caused friction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Amidst ongoing global U.S.-Chinese competition in various fields, Israel’s defense and technology trade with China has at times come under U.S. scrutiny. Since the middle of the last decade, Israeli defense exports to China have nearly ceased. Though Israeli-Chinese defense ties have ended, there is still some concern that Israeli technology transfer in the commercial sphere will be used by China to compete with the United States and potentially threaten its national security in various fields, such as cyber security, artificial intelligence, and robotics.
Chinese investment in Israel also has raised some concern within the Administration and Congress. According to one Israeli analysis, President Trump reportedly warned Prime Minister Netanyahu in March 2019 that U.S. security assistance for and cooperation with Israel could be limited if Chinese companies establish a 5G communications network in Israel, in line with similar warnings that the Administration has communicated to other U.S. allies and partners.
United States-Israel Anti-Tunnel Defense Cooperation Act
This authorization allowed funds from the research, development, test, and evaluation defense-wide account to be used (in combination with Israeli funds) to establish anti-tunnel capabilities that detect, map, and neutralize underground tunnels that threaten the United States or Israel. The system will serve a dual purpose in the national security of both nations as they seek to stop tunnels traversing their borders.
For the US the goal of the system is to help detect cartels building tunnels to transport drugs before they can be completed, and for Israel to prevent Hamas tunnels emerging from the Gaza Strip. Since 2016 the programme has seen $177m of US investment according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
This joint US and Israel endeavour is designed to enhance technology from the mining and energy sectors to ‘listen’ to the digging of tunnels through vibrations. Reportedly, this technology uses acoustic or seismic sensors and software to detect the sounds of digging by monitoring vibrations underground. This technology may be based on discovery techniques used in the oil and natural gas sector. Israel has tested the tunnel detection technology, however, it has yet to publish details. The US is also interested in the anti-tunnel technology after extensive use of tunnelling by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Israel was the first country to fly combat operations using Lockheed Martin’s F-35 advanced fighter platform, buying 50. The country is the only one to receive its own tailor-made variant, the F-35I Adir, making Israel’s F-35 is unlike any other.
As part of the F-35 deal, the United States agreed to make reciprocal purchases of equipment (known as “offsets”) from Israeli defense companies. If Israel elects to purchase all 75 F-35s, it is estimated that its business offsets could be as high as $4 billion. As of 2017, Israeli firms had received more than 1 billion dollars’ worth of business from Lockheed Martin to build components for the F-35. Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems has worked with U.S. counterparts to design and supply the Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) for F-35 pilots. The United States Army also has awarded a contract to an Elbit subsidiary in the United States to supply helmet mounted displays for U.S. helicopters, such as the Army’s CH-47F Chinook and the UH-60L/M/V Black Hawk
Israel also secured deals for its defence sector with Israeli Aeronautics Industries, rather than Lockheed Martin, carrying out depot-level maintenance. The country also secured an agreement with Lockheed Martin to run its own software alongside Lockheed Martin’s flight operating system. For the US, Israel having a more advanced F-35 in the Middle East allows it to exert power through its strategic ally.
Rafael said: “Throughout the years, Rafael has signed numerous joint ventures with American companies for joint development, production and marketing of air, land and marine systems. American companies involved in such partnerships include Boeing, GD, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, DRS and many more.
“Namer” Armored Personnel Carriers
In February 2019, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified Congress of a planned foreign military sale to Israel of 270 upgraded engines for the Namer Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) with a total value of $238 million. The Namer, which was first produced by Israel in 2008, uses the same armor found on Israel’s Merkava IV tanks. It also is equipped with the Trophy active defense system to protect against incoming projectiles. During Operation Protective Edge (July 2014) against Hamas, several Israeli soldiers were killed while riding in an older APC model that was struck by rocket propelled grenade fire. After 2014, Israel increased its production of the Namer.
Iron Dome, Israel’s advanced short-range air defence system, has been acquired by the US marking a new step in two countries’ partnership on the system. Iron Dome has seen $1.4bn of US funding from the beginning of its development until now. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) say that the system has a near 90% success rate in neutralising enemy rockets, missiles and mortar fires.
One of the things that sets Iron Dome apart is how it assesses where projectiles fired into Israel will land. Anything that is predicted to land in an uninhabited area is not shot down, cutting costs and increasing efficiencies.
Iron Dome’s targeting system and radar are designed to fire its Tamir interceptors only at incoming projectiles that pose threats to the area being protected (generally, strategically important sites, including population centers); it is not configured to fire on rockets headed toward unpopulated areas. Israel can move Iron Dome batteries as threats change. Currently, Israel has ten Iron Dome batteries deployed throughout the country, and each battery is designed to defend a 60-square mile populated area. Israel also developed a naval version of Iron Dome, which it is installing on its corvettes to protect off-shore natural gas facilities.
According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Jane’s Defence Weekly, during a two-day conflict in May 2019 with Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s Iron Dome achieved an 86% successful interception rate against rockets fired at urban areas.
According to an assessment by Uzi Rubin, one of Israel’s top missile defense experts, Iron Dome “faced challenges it never did before, and it faced them quite well… There is no 100% defense, never – it’s against the laws of physics…. Even if you manage to hit every incoming missile, there’s Newton’s Law – even the debris must come down.” In addition to Iron Dome, Israel also has extensive homeland security policies and alerts designed to protect civilians, such as mobile phone applications that warn of incoming missiles, bomb shelters in neighborhoods, and regulations requiring the construction of safe rooms in homes near the Gaza border
In 2014 US defence contractor Raytheon became an active partner in the programme, alongside Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. This deal moved some production to the US and has led to Raytheon developing a US version of Iron Dome called SkyHunter.
A source at Rafael Advanced Systems told Army Technology: “Rafael has been active in the US for over 25 years, in which it has made a significant operational and technological contribution to the US Military and specifically to the Army’s operational capabilities, survival, manoeuvrability and lethality.”
The Arrow and Arrow II
Since 1988, Israel and the United States have been jointly developing the Arrow AntiMissile System. The Arrow is designed to counter short-range ballistic missiles. The United States has funded just under half of the annual costs of the development of the Arrow Weapon System, with Israel supplying the remainder. The Arrow II program (officially referred to as the Arrow System Improvement Program or ASIP), a joint effort of Boeing and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), is designed to defeat longer-range ballistic missiles.
One Arrow II battery is designed to protect large swaths of Israeli territory. In March 2017, media sources reported the first known use of the Arrow II, when they said that it successfully intercepted a Syrian surface-to-air missile (SAM) that had been fired on an Israeli jet returning to Israel from an operation inside Syria.
High Altitude Missile Defense System (Arrow III)
Overview Citing a potential nuclear threat from Iran, Israel has sought a missile interceptor that operates at a higher altitude and greater range than the original Arrow systems. In October 2007, the United States and Israel agreed to establish a committee to evaluate Israel’s proposed “Arrow III,” an upper-tier system designed to intercept medium-range ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere. The Arrow III is a more advanced version—in terms of speed, range and altitude—of the current Arrow II interceptor. In 2008, Israel decided to begin development of the Arrow III and the United States agreed to co-fund its development despite an initial proposal by Lockheed Martin.
The Arrow III, made (like the Arrow II) by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Boeing, has been operational since January 2017. In January 2019, the United States and Israel conducted a successful test of Arrow III over the Mediterranean, and in July 2019, Arrow III successfully intercepted targets in a series of tests at the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska (PSCA) in Kodiak, Alaska.
Named after the story of David and Goliath, David’s Sling is another missile system developed under the cooperation between the US and Israel, with the US footing $1.8bn of the development costs. David’s Sling (aka Magic Wand) is a short/medium-range system designed to counter long-range rockets and slower-flying cruise missiles fired at ranges from 25 miles to 186 miles, such as those possessed by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. David’s Sling is designed to intercept missiles with ranges and trajectories for which Iron Dome and/or Arrow interceptors are not optimally configured.
In April 2017, Israel declared David’s Sling operational and, according to one analysis, “two David’s Sling batteries are sufficient to cover the whole of Israel.
Rafael said: “Rafael and Raytheon have jointly developed the already operational David’s Sling Air Defense System, which has just completed another series of interception tests in Israel. 50% of David’s Sling production takes place in 20 states in the US.”
This system is a part of Israel’s layered approach to air defence, covering medium ranges and neutralising threats through kinetic force rather than a conventional warhead. Like Iron Dome, the system is another partnership between Rafael and Raytheon, with work split between the US and Israel.
The system has an operational range of 25-185 miles (40-300km) and entered service in 2017 as a replacement for Israel’s earlier Hawk and Patriot missile systems produced in the US. The US Missile Defense Agency is said to be interested in David’s Sling as part of future air defences.
Elbit’s unmanned aerial systems
Elbit Systems is an Israeli company specialising in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) now with a US-based division. A focus of this collaboration is the Elbit Hermes 450 medium-sized unmanned aerial vehicle. Used by the Israel Air Force as an assault UAS, it has been frequently used in air-raids on the Gaza Strip. In the US, the US Customs and Border Protection agency used them for surveillance on the US-Mexico border. The Elbit Hermes 450 also forms the backbone of the UK’s Watchkeeper programme which brings together Elbit and Thales.
Elbit) has seen its technology employed in different ways by the US and Israel. The Israel Air Force has modified the company’s Hermes 450 to be an assault vehicle, equipping it with hellfire missiles. The US, on the other hand, has employed unarmed drones on the US-Mexico border for surveillance and policing purposes.
Elbit Systems came into existence in 1966, opening a US arm of the company Elbit Systems of America in 1993. The US wing of Elbit started life as a key contractor in the F-16 programme. Since then the company has expanded its US operation to cover eight states.