Getting the US to fund Iron Dome against all odds

The behind-the-scenes story of one of the most crucial defense deals Israel has ever snagged with its greatest ally.

Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket
(photo credit: REUTERS)
All the cameras were on Barack Obama as he gave an emotional speech against the backdrop of the remains of around 100 spent Hamas rockets in Sderot, back in 2008 during his first presidential run. It was then that he made his memorable statement about someone sending rockets into his house where his daughters were sleeping, and promising that if he were elected, he would do everything in his power to protect Israel from Hamas rockets.
Barack Obama visits Sderot, Israel, 2008. (YouTube/BarackObamadotcom)
Standing about 10 meters away with the cameras was a man would become one of the key players responsible for ensuring that this promise was kept.
From spring 2009, when he became a top official in the US Defense Department, until 2014, Eric Lynn was the one fighting in the trenches of Washington defense politics to get Iron Dome funding.
As Lynn tells it in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, back when he entered his office at the Defense Department, he found “a classified file about Iron Dome which Israel had been working on for some time and had come to the US asking for funding... But the file had a 2008 rejected stamp.
“I looked at the file and thought that this is something that seems really important to protect Israel and others around the world, including eventually US troops and other civilians. There was no effective short-range rocket defense out there,” he says.
“I started talking to people in the Pentagon. But military leaders do not tend to change their recommendations, and along with the civil bureaucracy, they had looked at it before and concluded that it doesn’t work that well... it’s too expensive... They had rejected it once, and were not going back there.”
He notes that the US had a team from the Redstone Arsenal army base in Alabama which had looked at it and tested it briefly in 2008, and did not think it was accurate or effective.
Despite the rejections Lynn got from several three and four star generals, “I thought it should be given another shot,” he says.
Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, IDF defense attaché in Washington at the time and a later IDF chief, met with Lynn around every two weeks to discuss a range of issues. Gantz was still hoping the US would take another look at Iron Dome.
Gantz told Lynn that Iron Dome’s technology and performance had improved since the first test.
Returning to the US generals, Lynn indicated that with some exasperation, he kept pressing them about what they meant that Iron Dome did not work that well and about whether there was something that worked better.
“At that point, I was frustrated, but still determined that if we did a second test, things could change,” he says.
Top Defense Department officials Michele Flournoy and Colin Kahl, and Lynn’s deputy, US Army Ranger Maj. Bo Dennis, all actively pushed with him to try to get a second test of Iron Dome at the Redstone Arsenal. Eventually, they were able to get the issue before then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates.
Gates “did not know much about the system and had no knowledge of the rejection after the first test,” Lynn relates, noting that though Gates was in office at the time of the rejection, “it has not risen to his level. This was the first time he saw it and he heard both arguments.”
When Lynn asked Gates to authorize a second test in early 2010, he “argued with and to him that this is a particular system of technology that we don’t have available... that Israel is on the front lines, that they are taking fire, schools are getting hit and that they have technology which we should check to see if it can save lives.”
He indicated that the concept of a defensive weapon to shoot down offensive weapons was appreciated by gates.
He was not sure if the answer might have been different for an offensive weapon. But Lynn though that the concept of saving the lives of women and children spoke to Gates.
The second test was carried out in summer 2010 and was far more successful due to changes to the radar and the effectiveness of the Iron Dome interceptors.
The next hoops to go through were discussions with Gates, and Israel to nail down a specific funding request amount.
In discussions with retired Brig.-Gen. Yaakov Nagel, from Israel’s National Security Council, Lynn was given a $400 million price tag. He thought that was high and asked for a breakdown.
In one of the more dramatic turns of the story, Nagel had a classified, black-stamped, sealed envelope sent by courier from the Israeli Embassy to Lynn’s office.
Filled with anticipation and tension at opening up such an important package, Lynn was shocked that all that was contained inside was “one piece of paper printed on a hot pink page, with no information about the $400m. All it said was: 10 Iron Dome systems – $40m. each!” Fuming, Lynn called Nagel and asked “if this was a joke. I am about to present this to the president of the United States and you send a piece of paper that said nothing? This is not going to work. I will not get the funding,” he said.
Eventually, he says, Israel sent a real cost breakdown that they took to Obama in summer 2010 – who two years removed from his Sderot speech was now president.
In some ways, presenting to Obama was actually easier as his then-top Middle East adviser, Dan Shapiro, was a close friend of Lynn. The two of them were equally involved in bringing candidate Obama to Sderot and shared similar views of the rocket threat to Israel.
“Mr. President, you told us and everyone you wanted to do everything to protect Israeli civilians – just like if it was your daughters; this is something we can do to protect Israeli civilians and other civilians,” he told Obama.
After all of the earlier rejections lower down, Obama replied, “This is not even a difficult decision. This is absolutely something I want to support. Let’s move forward.”
Congress was quick to support Obama’s funding request when it learned about Iron Dome from the Pentagon and AIPAC lobbied for its support.
Around $205m. in funding was approved in that first round.
In a later funding round, a separate ask/process in 2011, Lynn helped from the US side in pushing for an eventual agreement to get Israel the full $670m., though with a compromise to phase in that funding over three years.
Part of the way around sequestration objections included shifting aspects of production of Iron Dome to the US, which created some US jobs.
The final chapter in Lynn’s Iron Dome story came three years later.
On August 26, 2014, the day that Israel and Hamas agreed to a final cease-fire, Lynn was present at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence for a small meeting along with then-IDF chief Gantz and US envoy retired general John Allen.
Netanyahu said, “I want to thank you Eric, and Dan [Shapiro] and Benny that you made sure we have Iron Dome. As prime minister, if I had not had it, we would not be ending the conflict right now. It was a game changer. I would have had to have ordered a full invasion [of the Gaza Strip] if rockets had hit Tel Aviv.”
The prime minister continued, “This not only saved Israeli civilians lives, but thousands of Israeli soldiers’ lives and thousands of Palestinian civilians lives who could have been in danger if we had needed to go in to retake Gaza.”
Lynn said that of all of the work he has done in public service, he was “the most proud” of this accomplishment, because “it worked in combat and it saved lives.”