The United States is now engaged in an intense military technology competition with the Chinese Communist Party. The ability of U.S. troops to deter and defeat great power authoritarian adversaries hangs in the balance. To win this competition, Washington must beef up its military cooperative research and development efforts with tech-savvy democratic allies. At the top of that list should be Israel.
Two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee understand this well. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced S 3775, the “United States-Israel Military Capability Act of 2020,” on Wednesday. This bipartisan legislation would require the establishment of a U.S.-Israel operations-technology working group. As the senators wrote in a February letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the working group would help ensure U.S. “warfighters never encounter a more technologically advanced foe.”
Many Americans may be surprised to learn that they can no longer take U.S. military technological superiority for granted. In his new book, “The Kill Chain,” former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director Chris Brose notes that, over the last decade, the United States loses war games against China “almost every single time.”
To halt this trend, the Pentagon must shift its ongoing modernization efforts into high gear. Early cooperative R&D with the “Startup Nation” can help in this regard. Israel is one of America’s closest and most technologically advanced allies. The country boasts an “innovative and agile defense technology sector” that is a “global leader in many of the technologies important to Department of Defense modernization efforts,” as the legislation notes.
Some may deem the working group unnecessary, citing the deep and broad cooperation that already exists between the United States and Israel. But, as the legislation explains, “dangerous United States military capability gaps continue to emerge that a more systematic and institutionalized United States-Israel early cooperative research and development program could have prevented.”
Consider the fact, for example, that the Pentagon only last year acquired for U.S. tanks active protection systems from Israel that had been operational there since 2011. Consequently, U.S. soldiers operated for years in tanks and armored vehicles around the world lacking the cutting-edge protection Washington could have provided against missiles and rockets. That put U.S. soldiers in unnecessary risk.
Such examples put the burden of proof on those who may be tempted to reflexively defend the status quo as good enough.
Given the breakneck speed of our military technology race with the Chinese Communist Party, it’s clear the continued emergence of decade-long delays in adopting crucial technology is no longer something we can afford.
One of the reasons for these delays and failures to team up with Israeli partners at the beginning of the process is that U.S. and Israeli defense suppliers sometimes find it difficult to secure Washington’s approval for combined efforts to research and produce world-class weapons. Some requests to initiate combined U.S.-Israel R&D programs linger interminably in bureaucratic no-man’s land, failing to elicit a timely decision.
Confronted by deadly and immediate threats, Israel often has little choice but to push ahead alone with unilateral R&D programs. When that happens, the Pentagon misses out on Israel’s sense of urgency that could have led to the more expeditious fielding of weapons to U.S. troops. And Israel misses out on American innovation prowess as well as on the Pentagon’s economy of scale, which would lower unit costs and help both countries stretch their finite defense budgets further.
Secretary Esper appears to grasp the opportunity. “If there are ways to improve that, we should pursue it,” he testified on March 4, 2020, in response to a question on the U.S.-Israel working group proposal. “The more we can cooperate together as allies and partners to come up with common solutions, the better,” Esper said.
According to the legislation, the working group would serve as a standing forum for the United States and Israel to “systematically share intelligence-informed military capability requirements,” with a goal of identifying capabilities that both militaries need.
It would also provide a dedicated mechanism for U.S. and Israeli defense suppliers to “expeditiously gain government approval to conduct joint science, technology, research, development, test, evaluation, and production efforts.” The legislation’s congressional reporting requirement would hold the working group accountable for providing quick answers to U.S. and Israeli defense supplier requests.
That’s a benefit of the working group that will only become more important when the economic consequences of the coronavirus put additional, downward pressure on both defense budgets.
Once opportunities for early cooperative U.S.-Israel R&D are identified and approved, the working group would then facilitate the development of “combined United States-Israel plans to research, develop, procure, and field weapons systems and military capabilities as quickly and economically as possible.”
In the military technology race with the Chinese Communist Party, the stakes are high and the outcome is far from certain. A U.S.-Israel operations technology working group represents an essential step to ensure the United States and its democratic allies are better equipped than their adversaries.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.