Comment: Slashed US funding for missile defense systems threatens Israel's security

The timing of the US cuts is regrettable as the capability of missiles developed by both Iran and North Korea is advancing and their production numbers are increasing.

Soldiers stand next to an Iron Dome battery. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soldiers stand next to an Iron Dome battery.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This month perhaps Israel’s quietest but most influential soldier suddenly quit his job.
Gen. Ofir Shoham, an early graduate of the IDF’s elite Talpiot unit, will leave as head of the Israeli army’s powerful MAFAT division after six extremely successful years. MAFAT is a Hebrew acronym that when translated into English stands for The Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure.
Shoham’s departure was quickly followed by another blow to the IDF – the American decision to cut back on key missile defense funding in the United States and for programs the US helps fund in Israel.
The timing of the US cuts is regrettable as the capability of missiles developed by both Iran and North Korea is advancing and their production numbers are increasing. According to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency overall funds earmarked for anti-missile defense will fall in 2017 by a projected 10 percent.
Funding for the cooperative Israeli program will be slashed by 60% while funding for the highly effective Iron Dome system faces a 25% cut. This certainly hurts Israel, but these cuts also put South Korea and Japan at risk as those countries face off against an increasingly belligerent and technologically capable North Korea.
MAFAT, the unit Shoham guided with such high success, is in charge of making the weapons of the future for Israel. This incredibly important part of the IDF was developed to give Israel the qualitative military edge it needs to survive, because it will never come close to having any sort of quantitative equality over its enemies, who are still intent on destroying it. Among MAFAT’s most urgent responsibilities is missile defense. While hopefully no officer in the IDF is irreplaceable, Gen. Shoham is an example of how one man can truly make a difference. While he isn’t the only one in Israel responsible for the incredible success the country has had with missile defense, he has led the way in advancing and almost perfecting the three tiers Israelis now count on to protect the country from long- , mid- and short-range missiles.
Since taking the helm at MAFAT in 2010 missile defense has been the cornerstone of Shoham’s mission.
Under his watch the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system was advanced to the point where Israel’s leadership, and officials in the Pentagon, believe it has the capability to stop long-range missiles from countries like Iran. The goal of David’s Sling is to stop the threat of mid-range missiles like the thousands that Hezbollah has pledged to fire at Israel from its strongholds in Lebanon and possibly Syria. It is expected to be deployed this year. Iron Dome’s success rate in knocking out the short-range projectiles fired from Gaza that have caused so much hardship in southern Israel has become a model of success for every military in the world.
Iron Dome has been so successful it has changed Israel’s strategic thinking in the south. Instead of constantly being on war footing along the Gaza border the IDF can rely on the nine operational batteries deployed during Shoham’s tenure. The Iron Dome now has a 95% hit rate and the Defense Ministry believes that can increase to 100%. This saves lives, resources and allows the Israeli government the luxury of not having to send ground troops into Gaza to fight Hamas and other terrorist groups using the Strip as a base after each and every rocket barrage.
The Arrow system and David’s Sling have performed exceptionally well in testing. Thankfully neither have been called upon to protect Israel during a real attack.
But there’s no reason to think that with continued research and development and with continued American aid, Israel can reach an extremely high success rate when it comes to shooting down midand long-range missiles as well.
While responsible fiscal management is definitely a serious and legitimate concern in the United States a serious debate is needed on investment in missile defense. What was once dismissed as fantasy has become reality. The men and women behind these programs have done what was once thought to be impossible: they can now consistently hit a bullet with another bullet.
Next month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Washington for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. Reports say it is possible he will meet with President Barack Obama during that trip. If so, high on the agenda would be negotiating future US military aid to Israel. Reports published in this newspaper and others say Netanyahu is hoping for a commitment of $40 billion over 10 years. That’s about $10b. more than over the previous decade.
Hopefully some of that money will offset the drop in the 2017 US military budget that would have gone to missile defense. And hopefully US budget planners in the Obama administration and at the Pentagon will find more money for missile defense to protect the US and its allies as well.
Investment and the advancement of anti-missile technology make both civilians and soldiers safer and saves the Israeli and American governments money now and in the long run. Missile defense gives our leaders more time to make the best decisions and gives them more choices in dealing with Iran, North Korea and anyone else who rises up to challenge freedom and democracy.
Israel, with American help, has proven the investment in missile defense pays off.
It should be clear to the United States and all Americans that in an increasingly dangerous world with missile proliferation rampant it is more important than ever to give our leaders more options to protect our cities and our allies.
The writer is the author of Israel’s Edge: The Story of the IDF’s Most Elite Unit – Talpiot.