The U.S. Army’s Iron Dome could be headed to Ukraine

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Since taking office, the Biden administration has kept up Washington’s shipments of weapons and training to the Ukrainian military, including $275 million worth of equipment and support packages since March.

But some in Congress are looking to do more and have included an amendment attached to the 2022 defense bill that would pressure the Biden administration to sell or transfer new air and missile defense systems to Ukraine, including potentially sending an Iron Dome battery currently being operated by the U.S. Army.

Included in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill is an amendment requiring the Pentagon to submit a report to Congress outlining options for potentially selling or transferring “existing systems” to Ukraine that are likely not going to be deployed in the near-term.

The suggestion of selling or sending new air defense systems to Kyiv would likely increase tensions with Moscow, which has been fighting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and would regard such a transfer close to its border as a provocation. Russia has long complained about an American ballistic missile defense system in Romania, claiming it could be used for offensive purposes, an accusation the U.S. and NATO have dismissed.

Since being deployed in Israel in 2011, the system, built by the Israeli defense company Rafael in partnership with Raytheon, has proven itself one of the world’s most effective killers of short-range missiles. The Israeli military has said Iron Dome has knocked down about 90 percent of missiles fired into Israel over the past several years.

As it stands, the U.S. doesn’t have much in the way of excess air and missile defense batteries ready to be transferred. But the Army has been trying to figure out how to operate two Iron Dome systems Congress ordered it to purchase in 2019 as a stopgap for delayed efforts by the service to get its own new air and missile defense systems up and running.

The service purchased two batteries that are currently being readied to be put into operation next year. But the Army has struggled to integrate the missile defense: Iron Dome wasn’t designed to operate within the Army’s new command and control system, a problem that limits their usefulness if deployed overseas.

Enter the House Armed Services Committee.

The HASC’s version of the fiscal 2022 defense bill that was approved on Sept. 2 by a 57-2 margin doesn’t specify any particular weapons system to hand over to the Ukrainians. But one congressional staffer said the language about transferring current systems is telling, and that the Army’s two Iron Dome batteries are prime candidates because there are few relevant systems the Army possesses that could defeat the threat Ukraine faces from Russia.

The Army has long taken the lead on land-based missile defense, but the past two decades of conflict with groups that lack sophisticated missile or drone capabilities led to some under-investment in short-range air defense weapons. That in turn has made the small number of Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries some of the Army’s most frequently deployed units in recent years in the Middle East.

Yet the government in Kyiv has suggested in recent months that they’re looking for more. Following the May announcement that Ukraine would begin increasing its annual defense budgets, Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran said he would like to spend some of it on new air defense systems, pointing to Iron Dome as a possibility.

Those messages were heard in Washington, and members of Congress took note.

“Given the desire and bipartisan recognition that more needs to be done on the integrated air defense front for the Ukrainians, and given some of the administration's policy decisions towards Ukraine recently, there's a desire to try and do more to help them than what the Biden team is doing,” said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bill is still pending on the House floor.

But there are questions about the efficacy of a limited Iron Dome system in Ukraine.

“Tactically it would not be effective at short range, or on the line of contact, because this system would be shot out very quickly by Russian multiple-launch rocket systems,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies program at the CNA think tank. “But it may be able to intercept longer range rockets, which could allow the battery to defend a critical site or command center” in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukraine air defense amendment was introduced by Rep. Scott Franklin (R-Fla.) and passed by a bipartisan vote.

The House bill already calls for $275 million in military aid to Ukraine even before any new transfer of a missile defense system, but any transfer wouldn’t add significantly to the total as Iron Dome has already been paid for.

Several Ukrainian and Israeli news reports this spring suggested Kyiv was looking to buy the Iron Dome from Israel, but such a purchase could be complicated. The Israeli government would need Washington’s approval to sell it to a third country given the co-development agreement with U.S.-based Raytheon, and there are sensitivities in Tel Aviv over their relationship with Moscow. The two countries have agreed to not sell weapons to some third parties such as Ukraine and Iran and have forged an uneasy understanding on Syria in recent years.

Yet there are also downsides to the U.S. Army getting rid of the Iron Dome, even if the service isn’t able to integrate it into its command and control system.

After two decades of facing few sophisticated missile threats from insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is “facing significant shortages in counter rocket artillery, mortar and cruise missile defense capability,” said Tom Karako, director of the Center for Strategic and International Security’s Missile Defense Project. “And the reason they adopted Iron Dome — with the encouragement of Congress — was really a reflection of that capability gap.”

One Army official who spoke on background to discuss the sensitive issue said that while Iron Dome can’t work with other systems the service is fielding, plenty of other current weapons and sensors can’t “talk” to one another either. But that’s a problem the Army didn’t want to compound by buying more gear that would only make the issue worse.

The amendment that features the Ukraine missile defense language is nestled within HASC ranking member Mike Rogers’ $24 billion funding increase to the Biden defense policy bill. The package also includes a $25 million increase to the $250 million Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, bringing it back up to the 2021 level of $275 million.

In June, POLITICO reported that the Biden administration had put together a new $100 million military aid package to Ukraine, only to put the plan on hold after Russian troops moved away from the Ukraine border this spring after a series of exercises. The package included short-range air defense systems, small arms and anti-tank weapons, marking a departure from the non-lethal weapons the Biden administration provided this year under two separate packages, one announced in March and a second in June.

It’s not clear what the eventual fate of the Ukraine funding increases will be once the bill heads to the full House and then is taken up by House and Senate conference committees later this year to hash out a final bill.

In July, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a $25 billion increase to the defense budget by a 25-1 margin, suggesting both houses of Congress agree broadly that the president’s $715 billion Pentagon spending plan didn’t make the grade.

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