UPDATED: Pentagon Spokesman Responds, Lamborn Fires back
WASHINGTON: Rep. Doug Lamborn is determined to overturn an almost $200 million cut to US aid for Israeli missile defense systems. As a co-chairman of both the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus and the Missile Defense Caucus, as well as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Lamborn is well-positioned to mobilize Congress against the cut.
It’s one more example of how politically impossible it can be to trim programs, even in times of brutal budget pressure. Pro-Israel legislators won this same battle last year, when the automatic budget cuts known as sequester had thrown the annual funding cycle into even greater chaos than we have now.
[UPDATE: After the original version of this story came out, the Pentagon sent us this comment, raising questions about whether Lamborn or his colleagues will need to push to restore the missile defense money:
"The Department's submission was determined in close consultation with Israeli leaders about their missile defense priorities and needs for the coming year, and fully meets Israel's request," Carl Woog, the Pentagon's assistant spokesman said on the record in an email.
A Lamborn staffer wasn't have any of it. "The Pentagon is giving the party line, but the reality is that these programs are vital for the national security of Israel and help protect the peace in the region by deterring Iranian and Syrian missile attacks," the staffer said in an email. "Just this week we heard from well-placed Israelis saying that this funding is not sufficient."]
The backstory: The administration’s fiscal 2014 budget reduced funding for “cooperative” US-Israeli missile defense — which in practice means US dollars funding Israeli projects — to $95 million. Congress slammed back so hard that when the dust settled and the appropriations passed, the cooperative programs were funded at $284 million, triple the administration’s request.
This year, Lamborn told me this afternoon, “I won’t say tripling is the goal, but increasing it dramatically is the goal.” The administration’s 2015 request for the cooperative programs is $97 million, just a hair higher than the figure Congress rejected last year.
That “cooperative” funding covers development of the Boeing-Israeli Aerospace Industries Arrow-3 and the Raytheon-Rafael David’s Sling, aka Stunner. (The video above depicts the first successful intercept test of David’s Sling). These anti-ballistic-missile systems which would protect against higher-flying and more sophisticated threats than the famed “Iron Dome,” which can only shoot down relatively crude rockets.
Iron Dome has its own separate funding line, with $220 million enacted for fiscal ’14 and $176 million requested for ’15. (For those keeping track, that means the administration is requesting $271 million for all Israeli missile defense programs put together). The 20 percent decline for Iron Dome is in keeping with a three-year memorandum of understanding between the US and Israeli — 2015 will be the third and last year — but Lamborn wants to see more money for Iron Dome, too.
Where would all this money come from? “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Lamborn admitted. It’s worth noting that the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, recently begged Congress not to “help” the Defense Department by restoring money it had cut, because the Pentagon would just have to make up the cuts elsewhere.
Such zero-sum games pit one program’s constituency against another — but then Lamborn doesn’t want a zero-sum game: He wants the entire defense budget to increase. “My position on the Budget Control Act is to reverse the defense budget cuts and hopefully replace them elsewhere, or at a minimum keep the rest of sequestration [i.e. on domestic programs] in place,” Lamborn said. If necessary, he’d accept increasing the defense budget above the sequestration caps without making offsetting cuts elsewhere, though that’s hardly his preference: “My preferred choice is to take things like the overage on food stamps.”
So why does aid for Israel matter more than food stamps? After all, I challenged Lamborn, Israeli is a wealthy country, it has a world-class arms industry of its own — which has occasionally tried to sell US-provided technology to China — and it’s militarily dominant in its region, from jets to tanks to an undeclared nuclear deterrent.
“It doesn’t just help them in their dangerous neighborhood, it can also help us,” Lamborn argued. Israel comes under frequent, albeit rarely fatal, attack from Hamas rockets. (Iron Dome shoots down some of the rockets, but they are so inaccurate they rarely hit anything of value anyway). The Jewish state also faces a constant threat from Syrian and Iranian long-range missiles, especially if Iran continues its nuclear weapons program. So Israelis have an intense motivation to develop and try out in real-world conditions new missile defense technologies that they can then share with the US.
“We certainly get something out of this equation,” Lamborn told me. “It’s not just a one-way street.”
If funding Israeli missile defense is such a win-win, I asked, why is the administration trying to cut it for the second year in a row? “I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Lamborn told me. “The only logic I’ve heard them express is that the three year memorandum of understanding concerning Iron Dome was coming to an end and they were closing out that agreement — even though we could use more dollars there. But that’s Iron Dome, not David’s Sling or Arrow-3,” the programs affected by the $200 million cut. “On those programs, I have heard no justification for a budget cut,” he said.
When we pointed out to a congressional source that appropriators would probably rapidly restore the funding — that, in fact, the White House may well be banking on that so it doesn’t have to find the money itself — we got this reply: “If the Administration is going to play that game, we’re going to take our shots at them.”
Colin Clark contributed a bit to this story.
Updated 6:20 pm with the Pentagon’s response to Lamborn; updated 9:20 pm with Lamborn staff’s response to the Pentagon’s response.