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MIT Technology Review Here’s the defense tech at the middle of US aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan

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MIT Technology Review
Here’s the defense tech at the middle of US aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan

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

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

Though much of the cash will go toward replenishing fairly standard munitions and supplies, the spending bill provides a window into US strategies around 4 key defense technologies that proceed to reshape how today’s major conflicts are being fought.

For a better have a look at the military technology at the middle of the help package, I spoke with Andrew Metrick, a fellow with the defense program on the Center for a Recent 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 kilos. It may use GPS to accurately hit targets 190 miles away. 

Last 12 months, President Biden was apprehensive about sending such missiles to Ukraine, as US stockpiles of the weapons were relatively low. In October, the administration modified tack. The US sent shipments of ATACMS, a move celebrated by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, but they got here with restrictions: the missiles were older models with a shorter range, and Ukraine was instructed not to fireside them into Russian territory, only Ukrainian territory. 

This week, just hours before the brand 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 focus on 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’ve only a few other options,” he says. Meaning with the ability to hit locations like supply depots, command centers, and airfields behind Russia’s front lines in Ukraine. This capability has grown more essential 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. Within the attack, which Iran says was retaliation for Israel’s airstrike on its embassy in Syria, a whole bunch of missiles were lobbed into Israeli airspace. A lot of them were neutralized by the net of cutting-edge missile launchers dispersed throughout Israel that may robotically detonate incoming strikes before they hit land. 

Considered one of those systems is Israel’s Iron Dome, through which radar systems detect projectiles after which signal units to launch defensive missiles that detonate the goal high within the sky before it strikes populated areas. Israel’s other system, called David’s Sling, works an analogous way but can discover rockets coming from a greater distance, upwards of 180 miles. 

Each systems are hugely costly to research and construct, and the brand 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 day by day during intense periods of conflict. 

The help 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 place conditions on the military aid to Israel, particularly after an Israeli air strike on April 1 killed seven aid employees from World Central Kitchen, a global food charity. The funding package does provide $9 billion in humanitarian assistance for the conflict, however 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 construct and deploy larger numbers of advanced submarines, Metrick says. A much bigger fleet of those submarines can be more prone to keep attacks from China at bay, thereby protecting Taiwan.

The difficulty is that the US shipbuilding effort, experts say, is just too slow. It’s been hampered by budget cuts and labor shortages, but the brand new aid bill goals to jump-start it. It is going to provide $3.3 billion to accomplish that, 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 increase the US supply of submarines, the package also includes more direct support, like $2 billion to assist it purchase weapons and defense equipment from the US. 

The US’s Iranian drone problem 

Shahed drones are used almost day by day on the Russia-Ukraine battlefield, and Iran launched greater than 100 against Israel earlier this month. Produced by Iran and resembling model planes, the drones are fast, low-cost, and light-weight, able to being launched from the back of a pickup truck. They’re used ceaselessly for potent one-way attacks, where they detonate upon reaching their goal. US experts say the technology is tipping the scales toward Russian and Iranian military groups and their allies. 

The difficulty of combating them is partly certainly one of cost. Shooting down the drones, which could be bought for as little as $40,000, can cost hundreds of thousands in ammunition.

“Shooting down Shaheds with an expensive missile shouldn’t be, in the long run, a winning proposition,” Metrick says. “That’s what the Iranians, I believe, are banking on. They’ll wear people down.”

This week’s aid package renewed White House calls for stronger sanctions aimed toward 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 when that happens, it’s unlikely the principles would do much to contain the Shahed’s dominance. The components of the drones are usually not all that complex or hard to acquire to start with, but experts also say that Iran has built a sprawling global supply chain to accumulate the materials needed to fabricate them and has worked with Russia to construct factories. 

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

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