Six years after the Pentagon cut off Israel from defense technology over concerns about leaks to China, U.S. military support for Israel’s missile defenses has produced interceptors capable of knocking out ballistic missiles and harder-to-hit artillery rockets.
The prize of U.S.-Israeli missile defense cooperation, the Arrow Missile system, was a major attraction Monday at the annual conference hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The close cooperation likely would not have happened if the U.S. government did not discreetly confront Israel in 2001 over its sharing sensitive military technology with China.
“We had a serious problem with the Israelis, which we then discussed with them so that we could find a way forward where they would solve the problem, create new procedures, pass legislation and create the confidence that we would be able to work with them reliably on defense cooperation,” said Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Feith led defense talks with Israel during the administration’s first term.
Arieh Herzog, head of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization, said Monday that the frosty defense relations between 2001 and 2005 were in Israel’s past.
“The lessons from this incident were very significant on the Israeli side,” Mr. Herzog said in an interview. “Basically, the Ministry of Defense decided that the relationship with the United States is more important than selling more systems to the Chinese.”
The United States has known about Israeli military sales to China since the 1970s, but had turned a blind eye until the early 1990s.
A joint U.S.-Israeli fighter development program in the 1980s called the Lavi was canceled, but U.S. technology from the program is suspected of ending up in China’s new J-10 fighter.
“We started having a problem with Israel in the 1990s, especially after the 1996 Chinese missile threats against Taiwan when we got the feeling that China’s ballistic missile technology was modernizing way too fast,” said John Tkacik, a former State Department intelligence analyst on China.
While Bill Clinton was president, Israel transferred sensitive radar technology to China, including armed Harpy anti-radar drones that were spotted by U.S. intelligence agencies deployed opposite Taiwan, prompting the Pentagon to argue that Israeli technology might be used against American forces in any defense of the island.
Israel also was accused by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies of covertly supplying the Patriot anti-missile system technology to China in the early 1990s.
The tension between the United States and Israel boiled over during the Bush administration. Frustrated by Israel’s lack of candor over its arms sales to China, Amos Yaron, the director general of Israel’s ministry of defense, was at one point barred from entering the Pentagon.
Mr. Herzog said Israel stopped sensitive transfers to China in 2005 and created an office to oversee military exports.
“In the past it so happened that Israel did make exports on its own without consulting with the United States,” Mr. Herzog said. “Now the consultation is more important.”
Mr. Feith said: “My understanding is that a lot of progress was made by the Israelis; they did pass legislation and they did create new procedures and they did do a lot to remedy the concerns that we had.”
The fruits of Israel’s export-control reform and strategic shift away from China were on display at the AIPAC conference.
In his speech Sunday to AIPAC members, President Obama highlighted U.S. aid for production of Israel’s Iron Dome, an Israeli-developed missile defense system that has been able to intercept ground-based artillery rockets.
Pointing to the separate funding for Iron Dome, Mr. Obama called it “a powerful example of American-Israeli cooperation which has already intercepted rockets from Gaza and helped saved Israeli lives.”
Iron Dome, the unique anti-artillery-rocket program, was designed to counter the threat posed by Hezbollah rockets fired at Israel from Lebanon. It was first deployed this year.
Israel’s Arrow missile and a new program to knock out short-range ballistic missiles called David’s Sling are other major projects developed through a U.S.-Israeli partnership.
Rep. Steven R. Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat who serves on the appropriation subcommittees that fund foreign aid and defense budgets, said during a seminar at the AIPAC conference that the $3 billion in annual military financing for Israel was a sound investment.
“We gave them $3 billion, they have to use 75 percent of it to buy our stuff, and then they give us improvements on all the stuff we sell them, plus all the intelligence network,” he said. “The prepositioning of our supplies in Israeli territory, the safe port for U.S. troops in time of war and peace, and many many other ways. Such a bargain.”
U.S.-Israeli cooperation on missile defense has been under way since the 1990s and involves a long-standing partnership that includes military exercises and cooperation on several programs, including the deployment of U.S. Patriot anti-missile systems in Israel.
But the cooperation on missile defense has accelerated since 2008.
In his presentation to AIPAC, Mr. Rothman displayed a chart that tracked U.S. investment in the U.S.-Israeli missile defense cooperation that showed U.S. investment since 2008 has tallied nearly $1 billion.
Mr. Herzog said missile defense cooperation picked up in 2005. “Starting in 2005 two things happened,” he said. “On the one hand, we found out the Iranians are serious about nonconventional warheads and we found the use of rockets rather than terror had become a major way for [our adversaries] to look at military operations.”
In 2006, Israel fought a rocket war with Hezbollah, a political party based in southern Lebanon that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
“We have also taken steps to ensure that Israel will remain capable of countering the full range of Iranian ballistic missile threats that may emerge,” Bradley H. Roberts, deputy assistant defense secretary for missile defense policy, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.