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Hamas-Israel war tests a US defence sector already strained by Ukraine

US arms manufacturers are preparing to surge weapons supplies to Israel at a time when they are already under pressure to arm Ukraine and replenish depleted Pentagon stocks, a challenge analysts say will add stress to a stretched defence industrial base.

Unlike Ukraine, which has been the recipient of hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles, Israel is primarily seeking munitions, with interceptors for its Iron Dome missile defence system at the top of the country’s wish list. Precision air-to-ground munitions and 120mm calibre tank rounds are also among Israel’s needs.

But as the conflict goes on, analysts say Israel’s defence forces could need the same kind of guided missile systems now running short in Ukraine, including armed drones, as well as 155mm artillery rounds.

President Joe Biden, who has vowed to supply Israel and Ukraine with all the weaponry they need to advance their campaigns against Hamas and Russia, respectively, insisted at the weekend that the US can meet the demands — and keep the Pentagon stocked for other contingencies, such as a war over Taiwan. 

“We’re the United States of America for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history — not in the world, in the history of the world,” Biden said during a 60 Minutes interview that aired on Sunday. “We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defence.”

Still, analysts say the Ukraine war has provided something of a wake-up call for the US defence industry, which had been de-emphasising production of weaponry needed in traditional land wars and focusing more on technologically advanced surveillance and reconnaissance systems needed for counter-terrorism missions and deterring China in the Pacific.

The need to quickly shift to increasing more traditional weaponry has been hampered by post-pandemic shortages in supplies and labour.

“The goal of supporting industry suggests that if we send these weapons to Israel, we’ll definitely have to kick-start another part of the industrial base, perhaps faster than we thought,” said Cynthia Cook at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank.

Israel is likely to need more US arms, including artillery shells, as it fights another war with Hamas © Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike Ukraine, Israel has its own defence industry and advanced weaponry — none of which has been targeted by an invading superpower. It also receives significant assistance from the US, which gives almost $4bn in military aid to Israel annually, including about $500mn for air and missile defences.

Israel also spends heavily on US weapons, having purchased roughly $53.5bn worth over the past seven decades, according to the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, including $6.5bn in the five years to 2022.

More US weaponry is coming. One US defence official said the US was “swiftly providing” Israel’s military with additional resources including munitions and equipment. The first two shipments of accelerated military assistance arrived in Israel last week, including small diameter bombs and other munitions.

The US said it would increase shipments of interceptor missiles for Israel’s Iron Dome, a sophisticated short-range air defence shield designed to protect against rockets and artillery shells of the kind fired from Gaza.

“Some Iron Dome interceptors have come out of stocks the US had in country and have gone over to the Israelis in short order,” the US defence official said. “We will be flowing in additional Iron Dome interceptors so that Israel has the capabilities they need to sustain their Iron Dome defence systems and protect their citizens and cities.”

US officials expect Israel will require additional interceptors beyond those already included in the US’s lethal aid package for the country.

Biden is expected to make an additional request for Israel and Ukraine to Congress soon, although Republican infighting in the House of Representatives has left that chamber without a Speaker, and unable to legislate or approve requests from the White House. Ukraine aid has been held up during the Speaker impasse.

The US will aim to supply more interceptors for Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system © Amir Cohen/Reuters

The interceptors, also known as Tamir missiles, are co-produced by US defence contractor RTX, formerly Raytheon Technologies, and Israeli group Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and assembled in Israel. RTX declined to comment on the current state of Tamir production.

Other weapons sought by Israel — including air-to-ground systems such as joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), Hellfire missiles, and small diameter bombs (SDBs) — could be easier for the US to supply, thanks to heavy investment in production. The jump in demand will be a boon to the manufacturers.

Hellfire missiles are made by Lockheed Martin, while Boeing produces JDAMs and SDBs. JDAMs in particular would be easy to surge, analysts said, and there is excess capacity for Hellfire missiles because the US government has slowed its own purchases in recent years. Israel will also need 120mm-calibre tank rounds, made by General Dynamics.

Shares in Lockheed, RTX, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics — four of the Pentagon’s big contractors — have risen sharply since Hamas’s attack on October 7. Only shares in Boeing, another big US defence contractor, have failed to rally.

The bigger questions for weapons supplies remain around the shape of the war — and whether Israel’s expected ground offensive in Gaza will draw in other armed groups, including Hizbollah, which has engaged Israeli forces across the Lebanese border sporadically in recent days.

A conflict with Hizbollah would significantly increase Israeli weapons needs, putting it in more direct competition with Ukraine for US supplies, analysts said.

“Everyone is watching the northern border and Hizbollah. If that gets larger, you’re going to need to talk about a different kind of conflict,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ international security programme.

Even if recent US diplomatic efforts succeed in stopping Hizbollah from opening a northern front in the war, the kind of warfare Israel undertakes in Gaza will determine its need for basic armaments, he added.

If Israel continues “sniping” at Hamas, it would need fewer munitions because the army would not go “door to door”, Cancian said. But a longer, full invasion of the densely populated strip of territory would be another matter, sharply increasing Israeli demand for US supplies.

“Do they make a full-scale ground attack? In which case they’re going to need a lot of munitions,” Cancian said.

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