In April an Israeli airstrike struck an Iranian base in Syria on the road to the ancient city of Palmyra. The target, according to an Israeli report, was an Iranian 3rd Khordad air defense system. Two months later a U.S. Global Hawk drone flying over the Gulf of Oman was struck by a missile fired by a 3rd Khordad system in Iran, almost leading to war.
The two incidents highlight the shared threats faced by the U.S. and Israel, not only from Iran but also from hybrid groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and Islamic State, which operate as both parastate entities and terrorist organizations. The result of these shared threats and the close political ties between Washington and Jerusalem is a uniquely close relationship between the two country’s militaries. Often the Israel-U.S. defense relationship is seen through the lens of U.S. foreign military financing for Israel, which comes to more than $3 billion a year. Far less attention is paid to the fact that since the 1980s Jerusalem has become a key supplier of advanced military technology to Washington. To name one recent example, the kibbutz-owned Israeli vehicle manufacturer Plasan supplied add-on “modular armor kits,” exterior platings that covered American military vehicles and protected U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That armor which was developed in Israel has saved many hundreds or thousands of lives of U.S. troops of vehicles hit by IEDs,” recalls Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
Israel now has three of the largest defense companies in the world, Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. With $7.5 billion in exports in 2018 it is the eighth largest arms exporter in the world. The country has excelled in supplying the U.S. in areas where Washington requires a technology quickly. American companies—encumbered by a lengthier and more bureaucratically involved bidding and defense-acquisition process—can’t always move as quickly as their Israeli counterparts to meet the dynamic requirements of the modern battlefield. “There is a range of technologies where things were brought to market faster than in the U.S. or with no U.S. counterpart and once they see the effectiveness and use they [the U.S.] want it and it is mutually beneficial,” says Shapiro, who concludes that the U.S.-Israel alliance is unique in this respect. “I’m sure there is no other country where we see so many examples of it.”
In February 2019 the U.S. army acquired several Iron Dome batteries to fill an immediate need for shorter-range aerial defense. First deployed in 2011 the system fires a missile designed to intercept incoming rockets, artillery or mortars. Developed by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, it is marketed in the U.S. through American defense contractor Raytheon. Today, most Israeli defense companies have U.S. subsidiaries and often partner with U.S. defense companies, such as Northrup Grumman or Lockheed Martin, to seek contracts with the U.S. military. Since its introduction, the Iron Dome system has stopped more than 2,000 rockets fired from Gaza and Syria from raining down on Israeli cities. Today it is becoming more efficient and being deployed in a more mobile format and also at sea. At the ground level, American grunts and combat troops have long carried a type of field dressing in their first-aid kits known as an “Israeli bandage” or “Israeli tourniquet.” Invented by an Israeli medic, it is prized for its ability to quickly stop bleeding.
One advantage offered by Israeli technology for the U.S. and other Western hi-tech militaries is that it is battle-tested and operational. To get weapons systems right requires years, sometimes decades of bids, procurement, testing, bureaucracy, and use in the field, as has been the case with the protracted rollouts of key pieces of military hardware, like the V-22 Osprey helicopter, Littoral Combat Ships, and Patriot missiles—not to mention the F-35 aircraft, the white whale of American defense technology, that has been in development for decades and is expected to cost more than a trillion dollars by the time it’s completed.
In many cases terrorist groups that are common enemies to both democracies, hone tactics against Israel that will later be applied against American forces, a process that, in turn, informs U.S. strategy in confronting these groups. When it comes to the strategies employed against such groups, sheer overwhelming force is often ill-suited to the modern asymmetrical battlefield where enemy combatants operate in the midst of dense civilian environments. In those cases—whether it’s Raqqa or Gaza—precision is more important than firepower.
One Israeli company, General Robotics, makes a small robot capable of firing a Glock 9mm, or using pepper spray to assist special forces in entering a building. This kind of technology can save lives on both sides by sparing American or Israeli soldiers from the need to put themselves in a dangerous environment where they could potentially shoot the wrong person or overreact. Another Israeli drone technology developed by UVision can carry a warhead that weighs only 200 grams, small enough to avoid harming innocent people around a target.
Where U.S. and Israeli military technologies really mesh well is in add-ons, the supplemental Israeli technologies that can be affixed to American vehicle frames. The Trophy defensive system employed by U.S. tanks to block enemy antitank missiles was pioneered in Israel. The system was developed based on Israel’s own experience using tanks against Hamas and Hezbollah, including during the 2014 Gaza war where the system was extensively employed.
The political relationship between the U.S. and Israel is at something of a high now based on the closeness between Trump and Netanyahu, but is liable to go through more ups and downs in the future as power changes hands in both countries. The American-Israeli military relationship, on the other hand, is based on the similar demands born of common threats and shared experiences, rather than personalities and political temperaments, and it shows every sign of continuing to grow stronger.
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Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist, oped editor of The Jerusalem Post and contributor to Defense News. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming from Gefen Publishing). Follow him at @sfrantzman. .