U.S. Asks Israel to Transfer Mothballed American Air Defense Systems to Ukraine

Israel, which has only transferred humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the start of its war with Russia, was reportedly surprised by the American request, believing it to be an attempt to increase Israel’s involvement in the fighting between Ukraine and Russia

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Patriot missiles being launched to intercept an Iraqi scud missile over the city of Tel Aviv, 1991.
Patriot missiles being launched to intercept an Iraqi scud missile over the city of Tel Aviv, 1991.Credit: Alpert Nathan / GPO

Israel’s security establishment will examine a request by the U.S. administration to supply Ukraine with mothballed air defense systems to aid in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine that began almost a year ago.

As first reported by Barak Ravid from Israel’s Walla News, sources in Israel’s security establishment said officials were surprised by the American request, and believe that it is more of a declarative gesture or an attempt to increase Israel’s involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Defense Ministry emphasized that Israel’s “policy [on Ukraine] has not changed,” and added that “each request is examined on its merits.”

This assessment stems from the fact that the U.S. and European countries that provide military aid to Ukraine are capable of providing much more advanced systems in higher numbers, the effectiveness of which is not in doubt unlike the old Israeli systems.

The U.S. request comes after a report from Bloomberg news published on Wednesday said that sources within the Biden administration said that they intend to send 31 advanced Abrams M1 tanks to Ukraine. No official announcement has yet been made regarding the delivery of the tanks, and sources who spoke to CNN said that their transfer to the government in Kyiv may only happen in a few months.

Earlier on Wednesday, Germany announced it would provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks.

Patriot air-defense system in Safed in 2018.Credit: Gil Eliahu

One of the two air defense systems the Americans requested, named Hawk, entered service with the Israel Defense Forces during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and was decommissioned about a decade ago. The second is the Patriot air defense systems which entered service in Israel in the Gulf War, and are being kept for use only in case of emergencies such as a multi-front war. These systems are not currently maintained, and the state of their conditions are not yet clear.

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, Israel has refrained from sending any military assistance, except for humanitarian aid, to the Ukrainians. Earlier this January, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had even said that “on the Russia-Ukraine issue, we will do one thing for certain – speak less publicly.”

The American request puts Israel in a tough spot, in light of the relationships that senior Israeli officials maintain both with the U.S. and with Russia. Israel is interested in maintaining close relations and security coordination with Moscow mainly to continue IDF strategic defensive missions in Syria to allow the Jewish community in Russia an available access route to Israel.

German soldiers riding on Leopard tanks during a military exercise in southern Germany, 2017. Fourteen of the tanks will be sent to Ukraine.Credit: CHRISTOF STACHE - AFP

Responding to the recent developments, senior vice president Jonathan Schanzer for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that “Even sending older weapons systems to Ukraine is a high-risk proposition for Israel. Russia remains entrenched in Syria, even if it has drawn down in recent months. The Kremlin still controls the skies over Syria. This is airspace the Israeli Air Force needs to access if it is to halt Iranian smuggling of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Jerusalem has no doubt conveyed this to Washington multiple times,” he noted.

“If true, this would represent a more direct, or you might even say ‘dugri’ request of the Israelis,” said Center for a New American Security Senior Fellow Jonathan Lord, who noted this would be a more measured request than asking for the Iron Dome missile defense system.

“Unlike Iron Dome, Hawk is solely a U.S. system. It’s obsolete (it was the predecessor to Patriot). They’re sitting in a shed in Israel collecting dust, and it’s a capability that Ukraine already has, so it wouldn’t be seen as a game-changer in the conflict,” Lord said.

Lord further noted that while it may be coincidental, the reported request was leaked during the largest, most significant bilateral military exercise in their history. “That could be construed as a reminder to Israel, that yes, the U.S. always has your back, but we also need some of your skin in the game to help defend the world order,” he said.

“While we are not in a position to comment on private conversations with Allies and partners, we will say that the Department of Defense is continually asking all of its partners to do more to support Ukraine’s air defenses, which are essential for protecting civilian lives,” said Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Phillip Ventura.

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