Congress votes $37.5m for Arrow-3 program

Defense spending bill calls to keep production on F-22 stealth bomber alive and 'explore' possible sales to foreign countries.

Arrow 2 missile 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Arrow 2 missile 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel is on track to receive $37.5 million in US funding in 2010 for the Arrow-3 missile program, despite earlier concerns that America would cancel its funding, and the US Congress is looking to roll back a funding reduction to the David's Sling shorter-range missile defense system following votes on Capitol Hill this week. The defense spending bill passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday and the Senate version approved by the Armed Service Committee Friday also call for keeping the F-22 fighter jet production line alive and exploring the possibility of sales to foreign countries. Israel has long sought the advanced stealth bomber, whose overseas sales are currently banned, and was chagrined when Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the US would be ending the program this spring. But despite a veto threat from the White House should the planes be in the budget, the Senate and House both added in funding for several more aircraft, a major source of jobs as well as a potential strategic asset. The House version of the bill calls for a 30-day study to done to assess the possibility of selling a modified version of the F-22 to Japan, including whether it would be "technically feasible and executable, and the timeline for achieving such an exportable version on the aircraft." While Israel wasn't named, the Senate version - which will have to be voted on by the full chamber and then reconciled with the House bill - calls for a 180-day period to assess foreign sales, without specifying any countries. Foreign sales could help defray the cost of each plane's production and enable the line to stay alive despite the administration's interest in ended it. Several members of Congress have supported Israel getting the jet, whose export is banned because of the sensitive technology it contains, in the past, but others have had reservations about Israel acquiring the aircraft. "My guess is that it'll make a lot of people nervous," said Barry Watts, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, about feeling in the Air Force about Israel acquiring the plane. "Japan isn't busy selling military hardware all over the planet Earth like the Israeli military is." A committee staffer familiar with the provision assessed that the political climate was more amenable for sales to Japan rather than Israel now. "I suspect that it probably became a little more compelling to talk about foreign sales to Japan because of the new, growing threats from North Korea," he said, while when it came to the Middle East, "The region is viewed as volatile. There the time is not right." Though analysts have considered F-22 production politically dead once Gates announced he didn't support it, Watts said the current provisions show that Congress is eager to keep it alive. In terms of the threatened veto he said, "I will believe the veto when I see it actually being done." The $37.5 million in Arrow-3 funding falls short of some Israeli hopes of getting upwards of $150m., but still represents a significant down payment for a project some worried would be cancelled by the administration. The Obama administration ended up putting in $37.5m. in its defense budget request for 2010, a number that both houses fully funded in their versions from this past week, though the number could still change. The House and Senate versions also increase the administration's $45.8m. designation for the shorter-range David's Sling program by $20.5m. and $25m. respectively, which would bring funding for the project closer to the $72.9m. it should get in 2009. "The good thing is that the authorizers and the administration have required an upper-tier Arrow 3 program and from a policy standpoint everyone's on the same page," said one Capitol Hill insider. Still, the language in the House bill noted that the program was considered "high risk" by the Pentagon because of the difficult nature of the technology involved, and that in the future it might want to see the money directed to the US's own long-range missile defense program. Israel, however, got an unusual moral boost from the House Foreign Affairs Committee when it came to the Arrow-3. Though the foreign affairs committee doesn't oversee US funding for the program, which is left to the defense bill, the committee's own legislation on foreign expenditures notes its support for "complete accelerated co-production of Arrow missiles" as well as calling for a report on the subject, a move sponsored by Dan Burton (R-Indiana). "In light of the news reports about missiles in Iran and North Korea that were coming out at that time, it was necessary to show strong support for Israel," a Congressional aide explained. The move was seen by some as a way to demonstrate broad Congressional support in the face of the questions that have been raised in the past about the program. This week Israel also received an acceleration of the foreign aid due to it as part of its annual $2.77 billion in military aid, as $555m. was directed to Israel in the supplemental budget President Barack Obama signed into law on Wednesday. Normally, Israel would have had to wait until next year's budget had been passed to get the money. Israel also received a boost in moral support from Congress, as the Foreign Affairs Committee bill also calls for requirements for two reports by the administration to Congress, one on actions taken by representatives of the United States to encourage other countries to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, and one on actions taken by the United State to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge and other assurances regarding the security of Israel, according to committee staff. It also came with an amendment added by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) that "It is the sense of Congress that Israel has the inalienable right to defend itself in the face of an imminent nuclear or military threat from Iran, terrorist organizations, and the countries that harbor them." The American Israel Public Affairs Committee welcomed the bill and its Israel components, with two AIPAC staffers writing to committee chairman Howard Berman (D-California) to thank him for language which will "strengthen Israel's defense capabilities and reinforce the US-Israel alliance." The Israeli embassy in Washington also praised the bill. "Any legislation of Congress which is in support of Israel and Israel's qualitative military edge is welcomed by Israel, especially at these difficult times," said Daniel Meron, the embassy's minister for congressional affairs.