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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview: AIPAC Expert Charles Perkins on U.S. Security Assistance to Israel

On Feb. 9, President Obama released his fiscal year 2017 budget, including $3.1 billion in security assistance for Israel. This funding is in accordance with the 2007 U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Security Assistance. With the current MOU set to expire in fiscal year 2018, negotiations are currently underway on a new agreement. AIPAC military and defense expert Charles Perkins joined NER for a conversation about U.S. security assistance to Israel:

Can you provide a brief background on U.S. security assistance to Israel?

Sure -- the United States has supported Israel politically since its inception in 1948. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that it started regularly providing it with security assistance. After the Israel-Egypt peace treaty was concluded, America began consistently providing Israel with foreign aid to help it deter its enemies. Assistance primarily takes the form of funding for purchases of U.S. arms, which Israel definitely needs to defend itself. It’s worth noting that Israel is the one stable democratic ally in the region upon which America can consistently depend.

The financial cost of preserving Israel’s ability to deter, defend against and, if necessary, defeat the wide array of military threats it faces is the highest in the developed world on a per capita basis. To deal with the region’s mounting threats, Israel has been forced to spend more on defense as a percentage of its GDP than any other nation in the industrialized world. The budgetary and economic impact of this defensive burden for a country as small as Israel is dramatic. Generally speaking, the level of annual aid has remained constant. But the cost of American defense products has escalated over the past quarter century, compounding Israel’s challenges. For example, a single F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will cost Israel more than $110 million, over twice the cost of an F-16 fighter jet purchased under the first U.S.-Israel agreement in 1998.

Israel is planning to increase its defense budget to ensure that the IDF (Israel Defense Force) remains ready for any threat that comes its way. But it remains critical for U.S. interests to share in this investment to ensure Israel’s safety.

Could you explain what “QME” is as it relates to Israel, and why it is important?

A core element of American policy is to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME)—the ability for Israel to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat by itself, while sustaining minimal damages and casualties. In 2008, Congress wrote America’s long-standing commitment to Israel’s QME into law, requiring the president to continually assess whether Israel’s QME is being maintained.

Israel’s QME is particularly important right now. The Middle East is witnessing a conventional arms race as Iran begins to reassert itself following the nuclear deal. Western arms sold to moderate Arab regimes and Russian weapons flowing into Iran, Iraq and Syria are often on par with U.S. defense technology transferred to the IDF, challenging America’s ability to keep its commitment to Israel’s QME.

Much of the Arab world shares Israel’s apprehension of Iran’s quest for regional domination. But the potential for abrupt regime change means that sophisticated weapons sold today may one day end up in the hands of hostile actors.

So Congress should fully exercise its legal authority to examine arms sales proposals that may erode Israel’s QME.

What was included in the last 10-year MOU—set to expire in 2018—and what is the current status of a potential new MOU?

In 1998, the United States and Israel signed their first 10-year “Memorandum of Agreement on Security Cooperation” to increase security assistance to Israel while phasing out economic aid. Under the agreement, America committed to providing Israel $21.3 billion in security assistance. In 2007, America committed to provide $30 billion in military aid under a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). In recent years, this has worked out to $3.1 billion per year. This MOU expires in 2018, and bilateral discussions are underway on the terms of a new agreement.

Israel has used the security assistance to purchase, among other things, advanced F-16 “Sufa” fighter aircraft, vital transport and refueling airplanes, the Israeli-designed “Namer” heavy troop carriers, precision strike munitions and radars. Israel counts on American aid for roughly 20% of its annual defense budget. The U.S. is sending a message loud and clear to the entire region that we stand behind our ally, year in and year out.

Israel is also using the assistance to shift towards investment in new tools of warfare. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the Iron Dome missile shield, but the list also includes satellites and intelligence systems, lasers, robots, stealth aircraft, precision smart bombs to limit civilian casualties, virtual defensive bubbles for tanks, new home-front defenses, long-endurance drones, tunnel detection gear, cyber technologies, communications systems permitting air land and naval forces to operate seamlessly together, electronic border fences and submarines that can stay at sea for weeks—perhaps months—at a time without detection.

What are some of the key differences between the threats Israel faced in 2008 and the threats it faces now?

The entire region has been transformed over the past decade. Eight years ago Israeli defense planners were able to predict with some level of clarity what the current and emerging threats were: Hamas was consolidating control over Gaza and building its rocket stockpile, Iran’s nuclear program was progressing unchecked, and Israel’s military was absorbing the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon war in order to prepare for the next round of fighting with Hezbollah.

Today, the dangers have expanded both horizontally and vertically. By this I mean that the quantity of distinct threats has grown—spillover from Syria, ISIS and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps now operating on Israel’s border, anarchy in the Sinai, Hamas tunnels, cyberattacks, Hezbollah’s 150,000 rocket arsenal, random Palestinian assaults on Israeli citizens and a new regional buildup of conventional armaments as states race to build up their military forces. Israel may not have to directly counter all these challenges simultaneously, but it must be prepared to if necessary. Also, the quality and destructive capacity of the technology the IDF faces across the spectrum is advancing by leaps and bounds—threatening to erode its qualitative edge.

What is the full scope of the missile threat Israel faces? Is it properly prepared to defend itself?

Israel’s adversaries are in a race to acquire sufficient stockpiles of advanced ballistic missiles, rockets and armed drones to overwhelm the Jewish state’s multi-layered, but still incomplete, missile defense apparatus.

Hezbollah has up to 150,000 projectiles, quadruple the number it had in 2006. Hamas has fully replenished the rockets it used to bombard Israeli cities two summers ago. And both terrorist entities are making their arsenals more powerful and accurate. Since the nuclear deal with Iran was inked in July 2015, Tehran has twice tested nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Israel’s technological answer to these expanding threats is progressing rapidly, and hopefully serves as a deterrent to conflict escalation. Iron Dome is being improved, the medium-range David’s Sling interceptor has just begun to arrive in the field and the Arrow-3 will soon be deployed at the apex of the IDF’s missile shield.

We can’t forget that none of these defense technologies would have been possible in their current form and scope without substantial U.S. support over the past two decades. American security assistance will continue to be a crucial element in completing Israel’s missile defense network.

How does has the nuclear Iran deal affected Israel’s defense needs?

As tempting as it might be for some to hope that the nuclear deal will remove the major existential threat to the State of Israel, there is in fact little prospect for long-term optimism. Even if Tehran does abide by the nuclear accord, most of its provisions lapse within 15 years—a heartbeat in Mideast geopolitics. Preparations for that day must begin now—not in 2022 or 2026. In the near term, the IDF must adapt to a resurgent and rearmed Iran which, together with its terrorist proxies is now in virtual control of four Arab capitals and accelerating its missile programs.

Charles Perkins serves as Assistant Director of AIPAC’s Policy & Government Affairs department in the role of Senior Military Affairs & Defense Policy Analyst. A 25-plus year AIPAC veteran, he participates in coordinating and communicating the organization’s policy and legislative initiatives to build the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship and counter emerging threats to both nations. He is a recognized expert on defense technology and weapons proliferation.

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