Analysis: Israel must assemble a massive new arms stockpile
Israel’s Iron Dome system launches interceptors at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, as seen from Ashkelon, on May 13, 2023.
(Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The path to reducing Israel’s reliance on the U.S. for munitions isn’t necessarily limited to ramping up domestic production, expert tells JNS.

By Yaakov Lappin
March 19, 2024

(JNS) — Israel’s major reliance on the United States for restocking an undersized arsenal in the weeks and months after Oct. 7 has emerged as a severe strategic challenge, a former Israeli defense official told JNS on Monday. To address it, Israel has a range of options at its disposal, he said. 

Yair Ramati, former vice president of marketing at Israel Aerospace Industries and a former official in the Israeli Defense Ministry, said that in assessing Israel’s future armament needs, it is necessary to balance those considerations with budgetary constraints, rather than simplistically focusing on “what we want.” 

The scope of the weapons stock should be based on a combination of Israel’s defense doctrine, estimations of the lengths of wars, estimations of how long it will take to build the stockpile and allowing for safety margins, among other factors, he said.  

In addition, he argued, when making budgetary priority decisions on defense spending, Israel should seek to strike a balance between platforms—fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground platforms and armaments, he added.  

To define Israel’s war needs with regard to Hezbollah, for example, hints can be found in the Israel Defense Force’s “Galilee Rose” war drill, held in February 2021. In it, the Israeli Air Force simulated striking 3,000 enemy targets every 24 hours, meaning that in the first three weeks of a full-scale war against Hezbollah, the IAF alone would likely need at least 60,000 air-to-ground munitions. A longer war could easily see that number rise to around 100,000. 

In light of the fact that the IAF, as well as ground artillery and tanks, fired tens of thousands of munitions in the first stages of the war against Hamas in Gaza, the situation in which “we needed the United States and Europe is unacceptable,” said Ramati. 

Due to these restrictions, the IDF needed to apply what it terms “a munitions economy” in Gaza to ensure it has sufficient munitions to use against Hezbollah if necessary. 

According to media reports, the United States flew in more than 200 cargo planes of ammunition in the weeks that followed the Oct. 7 mass murder attack by Hamas on southern Israel, in what totaled more than 100 weapons sales since the war began, according to a report published on March 6 by The Washington Post

But growing doubts have been raised over the reliability of this supply, with a senior Israeli official telling ABC News, in a report published on March 15, that Washington has begun “slow-walking” some military aid to Israel. This comes amid increasingly harsh criticism by the Biden administration of Israel’s war effort. 

Despite denials by American officials, the report cited the Israeli official as noting a major slow-down in the rate of arms deliveries. The official reportedly raised concerns over the availability of 155mm artillery shells and 120mm tank shells. “The United States had been supplying similar munitions to Ukraine, which also reports specifically running low on 155mm artillery shells,” the report said. 

Prior to the current war, the United States sent munitions to Ukraine from its stockpile in Israel, known as War Reserve Stock Allies-Israel (WRSA-I), and in general there has been vast Ukrainian usage of 155mm artillery shells during its conflict with Russia. 

Other observers noted that from the moment the Americans removed these armaments from Israel, Israeli decision makers should have looked to pre-position hundreds of thousands of shells as a replacement, and wondered how long it took for Israel’s Defense Ministry to sign a contract with Israeli defense firm Elbit to produce substitute shells.

A March 14 memo published by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy provides an indication of just how flat-footed Israel was caught by the sudden outbreak of war. The report, written by Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the FDD and a former national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services, and senior FDD adviser Richard Goldberg, former Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the White House National Security Council, details dizzying amounts of weaponry supplied to Israel by the United States.

These include “a large quantity and variety of weapons and munitions, including air defenses, precision-guided munitions (PGMs), artillery shells, tank rounds and small arms,” the report said. “The Pentagon leased back its two Iron Dome batteries to Israel and transferred Tamir interceptors that were in the U.S. inventory. The United States provided large quantities of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) and Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) and approved a sale of SPICE guidance kits to Israel,” it added. 

“The United States has also delivered 155mm artillery shells, Hellfire missiles and 30mm ammunition and approved a sale of 120mm tank rounds. Small arms and equipment, including PVS-14 night vision devices and Bunker Defeat Munitions, have also been delivered, among many other items,” the report said. “The United States also provided Israel access to the U.S. weapons stockpile in Israel,” it said. 

The report called on Israel to stockpile “as many munitions as it can as quickly as possible. Where that effort conflicts with efforts to strengthen Israel’s DIB [Defense Industrial Base], stockpiling should be prioritized. Where stockpiling and strengthening of Israel’s DIB can occur at the same time, Israel should do so. When it comes to strengthening its domestic DIB, Israel should focus on the munitions Washington may deprive Israel of in a major future conflict or munitions that are most likely to be diverted to U.S. military needs if the United States finds itself at war. A key focus should be air-launched precision-guided munitions. When investing in DIB capacity, Israel should default toward building that capacity in Israel, not abroad. Israel, however, should avoid the temptation to pursue an across-the-board domestic DIB expansion effort that it can neither afford nor sustain and that will endanger other vital priorities and fail.”

Some observers have said that as part of these Israeli deliberations, the defense establishment and Cabinet will have to make the right trade-off between purchasing and manufacturing airborne platforms and armaments. 

“We also have the dilemma of what is produced in Israel and what is not. There is no argument that all of the Iron Dome munitions should be made in Israel, but what about mortar shells and bombs? If in Israel the production cost is significantly higher than it is abroad, the question arises of whether we build the stockpile through local production or not. Will we reach the production rate needed to refill stocks during wartime? Most probably, no,” said Ramati. 

As a result, purchasing smartly at more affordable prices from abroad needs to be considered, with the main goal being to ensure readiness by accumulating a large stockpile as soon as possible, he added. 

“The way to avoid being too dependent is not about whether Israel produces or not, it’s about whether we have the relevant stockpile size,” he explained. 

The question of where the arms are produced then becomes one of economic efficiency, according to Ramati. While some bombs and air defense interceptors will be made in Israel, as well as certain quantities of unique anti-personnel 120mm tank shells made by Elbit, other, standard munitions might be bought abroad, he argued. 

According to a report published on Dec. 19 by Israel Defense, the Israeli Defense Ministry is formulating a purchasing plan, known as Independence, designed to reduce reliance on the United States, primarily in the area of air-to-ground munitions. 

“The implementation of the plan means orders totaling billions [of shekels] to the [Israeli] defense industry,” said the report. 

Elbit is manufacturing munitions for the IDF’s artillery and armored vehicles, the report noted, adding that Elbit would be the likely prime candidate for producing air-to-ground munitions as well.

In February, JNS learned that in the wake of the ongoing war against Hamas and its exposure of Israel’s near total dependence on the United States to replenish its stocks of ammunition, Israel has begun shifting toward greater domestic ammunition production. 

The Israeli Defense Ministry had begun reaching out to local defense companies to boost production lines and place orders that will ensure they churn out ammunition for years to come, as a top priority.

“The lesson from the war in Ukraine and [the war] against Hamas is identical: Israel must significantly increase the arsenal with which it enters the campaign,” a former defense official told JNS last month.

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