Following Hamas’ horrific terror attack on Israel this past Saturday, the Biden administration has moved quickly to send Israel weapons and strengthen U.S. military posture in the region. Those initial steps are laudable but not enough. With Israel preparing to launch a major ground incursion into Gaza and with the possibility that Hezbollah could open a major new front in the north, the United States would be wise to proactively provide Israel additional air defenses and weapons as soon as possible to augment what has already been sent or is in the pipeline for delivery.
Many Israelis are comparing the Hamas attack to some combination of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. It is easy to see why in terms of the brutality and consequences of the attack. The actions of Hamas fighters clearly surprised Israel, and the tactics employed during the assault were straight out of the ISIS playbook, with reports of civilian executions and war crimes. As U.S. President Joe Biden said on Oct. 10: “This was an act of sheer evil.”
Hamas’ surprise terrorist attack and subsequent onslaught has claimed the lives of at least 1,200 Israelis. Israel’s losses would be equivalent to more than 40,000 Americans dying, in per capita terms; that is more than 13 times those lost on 9/11.
In response to Hamas’ terror attack, the United States is already providing weapons to Israel. A senior Pentagon official stated on Oct. 9 that the support “includes air defense and munitions” and that the Pentagon is “contacting U.S. industry to gain expedited shipment of pending Israeli orders for military equipment.” Bloomberg reported on Oct. 10 that a pending order of 1,000 Small Diameter Bombs was already picked up by an Israeli transport aircraft and that an additional sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions conversion kits, which convert unguided bombs into precision munitions, is being accelerated.
Those precision-guided munitions will help Israel precisely target terrorists while minimizing civilian casualties. Attempting to avoid inadvertent Palestinian civilian casualties is a vital but admittedly difficult task for the Israel Defense Forces, considering the dense urban environment of Gaza where Hamas and other terror groups frequently use Palestinian civilians as human shields.
In addition to the weapons Washington is sending Israel, U.S. Central Command announced Tuesday that the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group had arrived in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. That augments other efforts to increase U.S. Air Force posture in the region, including F-15, F-16 and A-10 aircraft. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group is heading toward the Middle East, too.
The current U.S. goal is to deter Iran and its largest terror proxy, Hezbollah, from opening a northern front against Israel so that the IDF can focus on operations in Gaza. Success or failure in deterring Iran and Hezbollah will depend on perceptions in Tehran regarding whether the United States means what it says and is willing to back up political statements with military action if warnings are ignored.
Regardless, prudence requires the United States to assume that deterrence could fail in the north and that any major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza could be long, difficult and resource-intensive.
Accordingly, as the first of two additional and urgent steps, the Biden administration should bolster Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system. More than 5,000 rockets have been fired at Israel so far, and if Hezbollah joins the war, that number could be in the tens of thousands or even over 100,000. Large numbers of incoming rockets and missiles could overwhelm Israeli air defenses, deplete Iron Dome’s Tamir interceptors and result in major additional Israeli civilian casualties. Israel needs every interceptor and Iron Dome battery it can get its hands on.
Therefore, the Pentagon should provide Israel all of the U.S. Army’s Tamir interceptors from its two Iron Dome batteries, some of which the United States has already started to provide. The U.S. Army first acquired an Iron Dome battery in 2020 but has failed to make effective use of the systems. Washington should strongly consider providing Israel the two Iron Dome batteries themselves as well. This would provide valuable additional air defense capacity to Israel at no significant risk to U.S. military readiness.
Recognizing this reality, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Oct. 10, asking for such action. The letter was led by Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and co-signed by Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rick Scott, R-Fla.. The letter stated: “Immediately transferring these two Iron Dome batteries that are not in use to Israel would provide tangible, life-saving and sustained support to our ally as it faces rocket and missile salvos that threaten to overwhelm its defenses.”
As a second important step, the United States should immediately offer Israel full access to the War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel, or WRSA-I, that the Pentagon maintains in Israel. The stockpile includes weapons that would prove helpful to the IDF during its ground incursion into Gaza. The United States began to stockpile military equipment in Israel in 1984, and in 1989 it altered the terms of the stockpile to allow Israel access during emergency situations.
The Pentagon allowed Israel to withdraw equipment from WRSA-I during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014. During the bilateral training exercise Juniper Falcon in February 2019, U.S. officers practiced the transfer of munitions from WRSA-I to the IDF. The Pentagon should immediately make the stockpile available to Israel, both for practical reasons and as an additional show of support for Israel.
Israel is suffering from the worst terrorist attack in its history. America’s closest ally in the Middle East needs Washington’s help. The Biden administration has responded with admirable clarity and speed since Saturday. But additional steps are needed — and fast.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ryan Brobst is a senior research analyst.