Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon on May 11, 2023. Israel’s appeal for more arms came into focus in a briefing for congressional leaders and the heads of security-focused committees on the surprise attacks by Hamas. | Tsafrir Abayov/AP
The Biden administration is surging weapons to Israel, rapidly sending air defenses and munitions in response to Israeli officials’ urgent requests for aid, a senior Pentagon official said Monday.
“Planes have already taken off,” the senior official, who was granted anonymity in order to speak about sensitive plans, told reporters.
The Defense Department is working across its enterprise, including U.S. Central Command, to determine which arms in U.S. inventory can be made quickly available for Israel’s defense, as well as pressing industry to expedite the delivery of pending Israeli orders for military equipment, the official said. DOD officials are in “constant, ongoing contact” with their Israeli counterparts as the needs of the conflict evolve.
The Pentagon is using existing authorities and funds to make the moves, and does not yet need to ask Congress for additional aid, the official said.
The senior official condemned the surprise attacks on Israel by Hamas over the weekend as “unprecedented” and “ISIS-level savagery,” referring to the Islamic State militant group, which is known for posting graphic videos of prisoner executions to social media.
“Hamas militants going across Israel, murdering children in front of their parents, massacring with indiscriminate violence, music festivals, burning down entire houses while families sheltered in their bunkers. This is different. And we want to be very clear about what that is,” the official said.
Israel’s appeal for more arms came into focus earlier Monday, after Biden administration officials briefed congressional leaders and the heads of security-focused committees on the surprise attacks by Hamas, according to two people familiar with the meeting. During the unclassified call, officials told lawmakers that America’s closest ally in the Middle East urgently needed precision-guided munitions and more interceptors for the Iron Dome air defense system.
One of the people familiar with the call said Israel was also seeking more U.S.-made small-diameter bombs.
The request for emergency military aid promises to test the capabilities of the House and Senate at a moment of extraordinary political instability in Washington, following the ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House speaker, and strained supply chains for arms manufacturers as a result of the war in Ukraine.
In addition to the briefing on Sunday night, lawmakers are likely to receive a classified briefing this week, according to the second person familiar with the call.
Democrats and Republicans closed ranks in support of Israel over the weekend as the attacks from Gaza unfolded. President Joe Biden and lawmakers in both parties have pledged to swiftly grant Israel what it needs following the unprecedented attack.
While some weapons may be delivered quickly using existing authorities, Congress may need to appropriate more money eventually. Those efforts will be affected by how the leadership drama in the House plays out in the coming days.
Following the briefing, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the upper chamber “stands ready to deliver on additional needs.”
“I asked the representatives of our Defense Department if they are giving Israel everything they need, and I was heartened that they said yes and that they are surging support,” Schumer said in a statement. “I asked them if they have denied any requests that Israel has made, and they said no.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) on Saturday pledged to introduce legislation to restock the interceptors fired by the Iron Dome systems. The Senate is out this week and returns next week.
Biden has not yet sought supplemental funding, though a request could come shortly and many lawmakers are signaling emergency funding should be quickly approved if needed. The first person familiar with the call said Pentagon and State Department officials who briefed lawmakers said they had all the legal authorities they needed right now to assist Israel, though they did not specify what those are.
Those efforts are already underway. The White House said in a statement following a phone call between Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that more assistance for Israel’s military “is now on its way to Israel with more to follow over the coming days.”
Officials told lawmakers that the administration is weighing the use of some portion of the $100 million of presidential drawdown authority to send weapons from U.S. military stockpiles, according to the second person familiar with the call.
Drawing from existing U.S. stockpiles would undoubtedly place more stress on both the Pentagon and the defense industry, which have been hard-pressed to issue new contracts and increase production of certain munitions already sent to Ukraine.
The needs of the Israelis and Ukrainians are different in some key respects. Israel will rely heavily on precision air-to-ground munitions fired from F-16 and F-35 fighter jets and Apache helicopters, none of which is in the Ukrainian arsenal. The issue of 155mm artillery shells, which both countries rely on heavily, will likely loom large, however.
Still, the senior DOD official insisted that the U.S. was “confident” it could support both Israel and Ukraine, noting that DOD is “constantly assessing” the levels of munitions stockpiles around the world.
Drawdown authority is one of the mechanisms the administration has tapped to send arms to Ukraine, and administration officials stressed the importance of Congress’ replenishing stockpiles of weapons that have been in high demand, which would take separate appropriations.
At the Association of the United States Army defense trade show on Monday, Army acquisition chief Doug Bush told reporters that “potentially, if Israel would have [needs], the U.S. Army has reserve stockpiles.” As far as helping Israel, he said, “if we can get the right authorities lined up, all that’s happening right now.”
U.S. lawmakers have been quick to promise more aid to Israel, but because those pledges come at a time of deep political dysfunction in Washington, it’s raised questions over how quickly the money can start flowing.
The House, for example, cannot pass legislation until it elects a speaker to replace McCarthy, who was ousted last week. The crisis — and the inability of the House to act until it picks a new speaker — has even fueled some calls to reinstate McCarthy.
The Senate is also facing a logjam of diplomatic and military personnel, and there’s a renewed push to quickly get top officials on the job to deal with the emerging Middle East crisis. The list includes Jack Lew to be ambassador to Israel along with several other envoys to the region.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) is also blocking hundreds of senior military promotions over Pentagon abortion policies. The more than 300 nominees held up include several officers who would be tasked with commanding U.S. forces in the Middle East.
The first person familiar with the call noted that several senators voiced concerns about the nominee blockade and its operational impact during the briefing. But Tuberville said over the weekend that he wasn’t backing off.