Nimble Birmingham group responsible for U.S. funding of Israel missile defense

An Iron Dome air-defense battery set near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod fires an intercepting missile on July 14, 2014. Photo by David Buimovitch/Flash90.

By Mike Wagenheim

(JNS) — American funding for Israeli missile defense wasn’t sealed at the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol or the White House. Nor was it cinched in Jerusalem.

Instead, in November 2011, a fledgling pro-Israel, Christian-led organization took a group of influential U.S. Congress members beyond Israel’s pre-1967 lines into Judea and Samaria, and to a hilltop on the Mediterranean coast, where they got to observe for themselves what few of their colleagues had seen and even fewer had truly understood: The lay of the land leaves the entirety of Israel incredibly vulnerable to attack.

“It’s such a small country. Most people don’t have any concept of how close and compact it is. And that’s why their defense systems have to be so robust because you have not minutes — you have seconds to respond to an attack,” former Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. Army physician who served six terms, from 2009 to 2021, told JNS.

The five Republican congressmen on that delegation were all chairmen of subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee. They returned to Washington and developed a plan to substantially increase American support for the development of the Iron Dome missile-defense system. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which covered the 2012-15 fiscal cycles, included $680 million for Israeli purchases of additional Iron Dome batteries and interceptors, along with other operational expenses.

“Within 15 months, Israel went to war with [Hamas in the] Gaza [Strip], which now had mid-range missiles. Because of the quick action that resulted from that first delegation, Israel was able to get Iron Dome installations in key positions,” Heather Johnston, U.S. Israel Education Association founder and executive director, told JNS.

Based in Birmingham, Johnston’s upstart USIEA, together with the longer-standing AIPAC, has succeeded in pushing Congress to more than triple the original budget for Iron Dome, up to $960 million.

“We say that the ‘A’ in USIEA stands for ‘agility.’ That’s been a key to the organization’s success. It’s nimble and agile, and because it’s so small, it doesn’t get weighed down with bureaucracy,” said Roe, who now sits on USIEA’s board of directors. The board also includes retired four-star general Charles Krulak, who served as Commandant of the Marine Corps on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and whose company in Vietnam once hosted a young Moshe Dayan, who embedded with U.S. troops while covering the war as a correspondent for an Israeli media outlet.

He added that “the organization can make significant changes and progress in a short amount of time, and that’s really critical when you’re dealing with a constantly changing landscape like you have with Israel.”

‘They were completely blown away’

Ari Sacher, an Israeli rocket scientist who had a leading role in developing the Iron Dome, introduced that initial 2011 congressional delegation to the system after Johnston gained clearance from the prime minister’s office to declassify it for the purposes of the congressional viewing. At the time, Iron Dome batteries were limited in availability and had been operational for only a few months. So, Sacher gathered the delegation on a hilltop overlooking the coastal city of Ashkelon to view the system in action.

“They were completely blown away because it’s one thing to hear about it, but it’s another thing to see it and see the people that run it,” Sacher told JNS.

“The batteries themselves are small,” he continued. “I would even say they look unimpressive. And these Congress members saw that this is what was protecting the State of Israel. One of them, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), asked for a model of an Iron Dome interceptor. It was harder to get him a model of the interceptor than it was to take him to see the actual Iron Dome. To this day, the model is still sitting on his desk,” said Sacher, who, impressed by Johnston’s vision, joined USIAE in 2017 as its director of education, taking the lead in the development, implementation and evaluation of USIEA’s education programs, and serving as the organization’s direct interface with members of Congress and their staff.

A 2017 USIEA delegation included now-former Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), then the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Sacher said that after Thornberry viewed the anti-ballistic missile Arrow 2 system, he made it his mission as one of his last acts as chairman to secure U.S. funding for the 2019 testing of Arrow 3, which was jointly carried out in Alaska by the Israeli Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

As part of the next USIEA tour of Israel, in 2019, Congress members viewed the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems.

“During that viewing, there was actually a video played for every one of the flight tests in Alaska. And I think it drove home to the Congress members in that delegation that their predecessors made that test flight a reality,” said Sacher. “It was a source of pride for them and become a huge source of pride for USIEA as well.”

‘It was the right thing to do’

The next USIEA congressional tour is planned for the late spring, with the last two attempts canceled due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. While USIEA has branched out into other congressional initiatives — from joint Israel-Palestinian economic programs to the transfer of the U.S. pharmaceutical supply chain away from China to the Middle East — missile defense remains a core part of its identity.

Meanwhile, Iron Dome funding is still front and center in Congress, where an additional $1 billion in supplemental funds have become subject to partisan gridlock in the U.S. Senate after approval in the House in September. Lawmakers are pushing to include the measure in the Senate’s upcoming 2022 defense appropriations bill.

Despite the delay, Iron Dome remains widely supported by members on both sides of the aisle.

Sacher recounted that he once explained to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that a significant number of components for the system had started being manufactured in the United States and that more than half of every shekel funded by Congress for Israeli missile defense was going back to America to provide jobs.

“He told me that even had the U.S. not received one red cent from the onshore production, he would have supported Iron Dome as much as he could because it was the right thing to do,” said Sacher.