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Here’s the defense tech at the center of US aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan

This is what the priorities in the $95 billion spending package tell us about four military technologies and the way they’re reshaping how war is fought.

A Army Tactical Missile System is fired during a testing near Fort Bragg, N.C.
John Hamilton/U.S. Army via AP

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After weeks of drawn-out congressional debate over how much the United States should spend on conflicts abroad, President Joe Biden signed a $95.3 billion aid package into law on Wednesday.

The bill will send a significant quantity of supplies to Ukraine and Israel, while also supporting Taiwan with submarine technology to aid its defenses against China. It’s also sparked renewed calls for stronger crackdowns on Iranian-produced drones. 

Though much of the money will go toward replenishing fairly standard munitions and supplies, the spending bill provides a window into US strategies around four key defense technologies that continue to reshape how today’s major conflicts are being fought.

For a closer look at the military technology at the center of the aid package, I spoke with Andrew Metrick, a fellow with the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

Ukraine and the role of long-range missiles

Ukraine has long sought the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a long-range ballistic missile made by Lockheed Martin. First debuted in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1990, it’s 13 feet high, two feet wide, and over 3,600 pounds. It can use GPS to accurately hit targets 190 miles away. 

Last year, President Biden was apprehensive about sending such missiles to Ukraine, as US stockpiles of the weapons were relatively low. In October, the administration changed tack. The US sent shipments of ATACMS, a move celebrated by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, but they came with restrictions: the missiles were older models with a shorter range, and Ukraine was instructed not to fire them into Russian territory, only Ukrainian territory. 

This week, just hours before the new aid package was signed, multiple news outlets reported that the US had secretly sent more powerful long-range ATACMS to Ukraine several weeks before. They were used on Tuesday, April 23, to target a Russian airfield in Crimea and Russian troops in Berdiansk, 50 miles southwest of Mariupol.

The long range of the weapons has proved essential for Ukraine, says Metrick. “It allows the Ukrainians to strike Russian targets at ranges for which they have very few other options,” he says. That means being able to hit locations like supply depots, command centers, and airfields behind Russia’s front lines in Ukraine. This capacity has grown more important as Ukraine’s troop numbers have waned, Metrick says.

Replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome

On April 13, Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israeli soil. In the attack, which Iran says was retaliation for Israel’s airstrike on its embassy in Syria, hundreds of missiles were lobbed into Israeli airspace. Many of them were neutralized by the web of cutting-edge missile launchers dispersed throughout Israel that can automatically detonate incoming strikes before they hit land. 

One of those systems is Israel’s Iron Dome, in which radar systems detect projectiles and then signal units to launch defensive missiles that detonate the target high in the sky before it strikes populated areas. Israel’s other system, called David’s Sling, works a similar way but can identify rockets coming from a greater distance, upwards of 180 miles. 

Both systems are hugely costly to research and build, and the new US aid package allocates $15 billion to replenish their missile stockpile. The missiles can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $10 million each, and a system like Iron Dome might fire them daily during intense periods of conflict. 

The aid comes as funding for Israel has grown more contentious amid the dire conditions faced by displaced Palestinians in Gaza. While the spending bill worked its way through Congress, increasing numbers of Democrats sought to put conditions on the military aid to Israel, particularly after an Israeli air strike on April 1 killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen, an international food charity. The funding package does provide $9 billion in humanitarian assistance for the conflict, but the efforts to impose conditions for Israeli military aid failed. 

Taiwan and underwater defenses against China

A rising concern for the US defense community—and a subject of “wargaming” simulations that Metrick has carried out—is an amphibious invasion of Taiwan from China. The rising risk of that scenario has driven the US to build and deploy larger numbers of advanced submarines, Metrick says. A bigger fleet of these submarines would be more likely to keep attacks from China at bay, thereby protecting Taiwan.

The trouble is that the US shipbuilding effort, experts say, is too slow. It’s been hampered by budget cuts and labor shortages, but the new aid bill aims to jump-start it. It will provide $3.3 billion to do so, specifically for the production of Columbia-class submarines, which carry nuclear weapons, and Virginia-class submarines, which carry conventional weapons. 

Though these funds aim to support Taiwan by building up the US supply of submarines, the package also includes more direct support, like $2 billion to help it purchase weapons and defense equipment from the US. 

The US’s Iranian drone problem 

Shahed drones are used almost daily on the Russia-Ukraine battlefield, and Iran launched more than 100 against Israel earlier this month. Produced by Iran and resembling model planes, the drones are fast, cheap, and lightweight, capable of being launched from the back of a pickup truck. They’re used frequently for potent one-way attacks, where they detonate upon reaching their target. US experts say the technology is tipping the scales toward Russian and Iranian military groups and their allies. 

The trouble of combating them is partly one of cost. Shooting down the drones, which can be bought for as little as $40,000, can cost millions in ammunition.

“Shooting down Shaheds with an expensive missile is not, in the long term, a winning proposition,” Metrick says. “That’s what the Iranians, I think, are banking on. They can wear people down.”

This week’s aid package renewed White House calls for stronger sanctions aimed at curbing production of the drones. The United Nations previously passed rules restricting any drone-related material from entering or leaving Iran, but those expired in October. The US now wants them reinstated. 

Even if that happens, it’s unlikely the rules would do much to contain the Shahed’s dominance. The components of the drones are not all that complex or hard to obtain to begin with, but experts also say that Iran has built a sprawling global supply chain to acquire the materials needed to manufacture them and has worked with Russia to build factories. 

“Sanctions regimes are pretty dang leaky,” Metrick says. “They [Iran] have friends all around the world.”

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