Congressional Momentum Builds to Establish U.S.-Israel Working Group

June 27, 2020
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The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) released its version of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Tuesday, and it includes a provision to require the establishment of a U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group. Such a working group would strengthen U.S.-Israel cooperative military research and development (R&D) and help ensure our warfighters do not confront enemies with more advanced capabilities.

The provision (Section 1286) regarding the new working group – which was adopted with a 27-0 bipartisan vote – largely mirrors the bipartisan “United States-Israel Military Capability Act of 2020” previously introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced the Senate version, S.3775, last month; Reps. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) introduced the House version, H.R.7148, this month.

Section 1286 would require the secretary of defense, in consultation with the Israeli minister of defense, to establish the working group within a year.

According to the legislation, the working group would provide a “standing forum” for the two defense establishments to “systematically share intelligence-informed military capability requirements,” with the goal of identifying “military capability requirements common to both.” The working group would also incorporate recommendations from American and Israeli defense suppliers “with respect to conducting joint science, technology, research, development, test, evaluation, and production efforts.” The working group would then develop “combined United States-Israel plans to research, develop, procure, and field weapons systems and military capabilities as quickly and economically as possible to meet common capability requirements.”

Notably, the legislation acknowledges positive ongoing efforts with Israel related to “missile defense, countertunneling, and counterunmanned aerial systems.” Accordingly, the provision explicitly states that it does not require “the termination of any existing United States defense activity, group, program, or partnership with Israel.” In fact, the legislation gives the secretary of defense the authority to “determine the most efficient and effective means to integrate the Working Group into existing efforts with Israel.”

Providing the Pentagon this flexibility in integrating the new working group with existing efforts can help dampen the bureaucratic resistance that sometimes emerges in response to congressional efforts to improve on the status quo. It also ensures that successful ongoing efforts can continue unimpeded.

In a May 5, 2020, letter to the Senate, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson wrote that he would support the U.S.-Israel Defense Acquisition Advisory Group (DAAG) “taking on the duties” associated with the working group. This amounts to a Pentagon acknowledgement that the DAAG – while laudable – does not accomplish the missions outlined for the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group. In other words, the working group would fill an existing gap and is not redundant.

Anderson also wrote, “As part of that process [i.e., of the DAAG taking on new duties], I am particularly interested in ensuring intelligence assessments shape our priorities for co-development and production opportunities with Israel.” This points to another area in which the new working group represents an improvement on the status quo.

The Pentagon may attempt to persuade the armed services committees that its willingness to adapt the DAAG makes the working group legislation unnecessary. Congress would be wise to view such assertions skeptically. Regardless of whether the working group is incorporated in the DAAG or established outside the DAAG, congressional action is necessary to guide the reform and hold the working group accountable for results. This is especially true given the nature of the DAAG, which is not currently well-suited to carrying out the mission envisioned in section 1286 for the new technology working group.

The chair of the DAAG is Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, who by duty and title focuses on acquisition and sustainment – not cooperative science and technology or research, development, test, and evaluation (RDTE) efforts. Accordingly, the DAAG focuses more on discussing major acquisition and logistics issues rather than making RDTE decisions.

Regardless, even if the DAAG were focused on research and engineering, when decisions are made, there is often a lack of follow-up, due perhaps to insufficient staff support. Hard-working desk officers responsible for multiple countries and without enough help spend a good portion of their time on meeting scheduling and preparation as well as on logistical support. That leaves insufficient time for following-up on proposals and opportunities for early cooperative R&D with tech-savvy Israel that could save American lives and help the United States reassert military superiority over great power rivals.

Also, as Anderson’s letter seems to confirm, the DAAG is not a forum that facilitates the systematic sharing of intelligence-informed capability requirements in a way that enables operators to engage directly with engineers to identify and catalyze early cooperative R&D programs with Israel. The role of the combatant commands in the process must be strengthened. While the services receive and adjudicate combatant command requirements, how can the DAAG best meet the intelligence-informed operational needs of the warfighters if the regional warfighters are not habitually at the table? If the United States wants to win the military technology competition with China, should Washington not have Indo-Pacific Command, for example, at the table to hear the intelligence and state face-to-face to the R&D community what capabilities it will need?

This is not an effort to circumvent the services or the Joint Staff, but rather an effort to ensure the R&D community is urgently working on technologies that U.S. warfighters actually need at a time when preventable U.S. capability gaps continue to emerge.

It is notable that S.3775 and H.R.7148 explicitly included Indo-Pacific Command as a participant in the working group, but Section 1286 of the SASC-passed NDAA does not. Indo-Pacific Command could directly report to the working group what U.S. warfighters most need there to deter Chinese aggression. European Command representatives could do the same with respect to Russia, and Central Command representatives could do the same with respect to Iran.

It is also notable that the intelligence community and Department of State representatives were removed as mandatory members of the working group in the SASC-passed version. This was likely done to avoid committee jurisdiction issues as the legislation progresses, since the armed services committees are not the primary oversight committees for the State Department or the intelligence community. Regardless, the inclusion of the intelligence community and the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs is essential to the working group’s success. The secretary of defense could invite these entities to participate in the working group.

There is also a need for U.S.-Israel joint venture proposals to receive more timely decisions regarding their approval or rejection. The DAAG does not do that systematically or effectively.

Congressional oversight is also fundamental to the working group’s success. Both the stand-alone legislation and Section 1286 include robust initial and annual reporting requirements. Since Congress often abuses and overuses reporting requirements, the Pentagon often chafes at new ones. But in this case, reporting requirements are essential for holding the working group accountable for the achievement of its stated purposes.

Consensus with Israel on the basic purpose and character of the working group is also important. Accordingly, the legislation requires the secretary of defense, “with the concurrence of the Minister of Defense of Israel,” to establish a bilateral memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding the working group. The MOU would codify the purposes of the working group, its membership, and related issues.

In a March 4 SASC hearing, Senator Peters asked Secretary of Defense Mark Esper about the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group. In response, Secretary Esper noted that both the United States and Israel have “very good” defense innovation bases. “The more we can cooperate together as allies and partners to come up with common solutions, the better,” Esper said. “So I think if there are ways to improve that we should pursue it.”

When the House Armed Services Committee meets next week to consider and approve its version of the NDAA, it will have an opportunity to advance efforts to establish a U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group. If it does so, it could help ensure America’s service members deploy to future conflicts wielding the most advanced weapons possible.


Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from Brad and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Brad on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


This article appeared originally at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).



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