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U.S. is quietly sending Israel more ammunition, missiles

Rubble from destroyed residential buildings fills a street after Israeli airstrikes in the Shuja'iyya district east of Gaza City, on Nov. 9, 2023.    (Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg)
By Tony Capaccio Bloomberg

The Pentagon has quietly ramped up military aid to Israel, delivering on requests that include more laser-guided missiles for its Apache gunship fleet, as well as 155mm shells, night-vision devices, bunker-buster munitions and new army vehicles, according to an internal Defense Department list.

The weapons pipeline to Israel is extending beyond the well-publicized provision of Iron Dome interceptors and Boeing Co. smart bombs. It continues even as Biden administration officials increasingly caution Israel about trying to avoid civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.

The arms sought by Israel as it fights Hamas, designated as a terrorist group by the US and European Union, are listed in a document labeled “Israel Senior Leader” requests that’s dated late October and is circulating in the Pentagon.

The arms are already being shipped or the Defense Department is working to make them available from stockpiles in the US and Europe, according to the document reviewed by Bloomberg News. As of late October, for example, all 36,000 rounds of 30mm cannon ammunition, 1,800 of the requested M141 bunker-buster munitions and at least 3,500 night-vision devices were delivered, the tally shows.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to discuss specifics, but the Defense Department said in a statement that it’s “leveraging several avenues - from internal stocks to U.S. industry channels - to ensure Israel has the means to defend itself.”

“This security assistance continues to arrive on a near-daily basis,” according to the statement. It said the US was rapidly providing precision-guided munitions, small-diameter bombs, 155mm artillery shells and other munitions. That’s along with Iron Dome interceptors and medical support equipment.

The Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment on the US arms supplies.

The provision of artillery shells and other munitions has drawn criticism from nongovernmental organizations that say the US supplies have allowed Israel to press ahead with a bombing campaign that Hamas-run health authorities in the Gaza Strip say have killed more than 10,000 people.

In a letter Monday, more than 30 relief organizations wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urging him not to send the 155mm shells in particular.

“In Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated places, 155mm artillery shells are inherently indiscriminate,” the organizations said. “These munitions are unguided and have a high error radius.” They said the shells often land 82 feet away from the intended target.

The ammunition for AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships includes about 2,000 Hellfire Laser Guided missiles made by Lockheed Martin Corp., some of which Israel has transferred to its forces as US Army teams seek supplies from stocks in Germany and South Korea, according to the tally. It also includes more than 36,000 rounds of 30mm ammunition to be fired by the Apache’s cannon.

Israel’s defense forces have flown the Boeing-built Apaches for years.

The Israeli military appears to be using the Apache helicopters “to support Israel troops in contact with Hamas fighters, using their 30mm chain guns against fighters caught out in the open and Hellfire missiles against vehicles and fighting position or bunkers used by Hamas,” Michael Eisenstadt, director of military and security programs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an email.

“They may also be using Hellfires for the targeted killing of senior commanders when the opportunity presents itself,” he said.

The Apaches “pack a punch but can also be vulnerable to man-portable air defense systems,” said Brad Bowman, a former Army helicopter pilot who’s now a defense analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If the ground war grinds on for an extended period of time, Israel may need more munitions and spare parts for its significant fleet of American-made helicopters,” he said.

Reverse Trip

Israel has also requested more than 57,000 155mm High Explosive artillery shells and 20,000 M4A1 rifles, as many as 5,000 PVS-14 night vision devices, 3,000 M141 hand-held bunker-buster munitions that US Central Command is supplying, 400 120mm mortars and 75 of the Army and Marine Corps’ new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which is replacing the Hummer.

According to the tally, the US has also donated its inventory of 312 Tamir missile interceptors. The Army’s two Iron Dome batteries are traveling to Israel by sealift.

The weapons shipments include a reverse trip for 155mm shells. The 57,000 had been sent from US stocks in Israel to US European Command locations to restock munitions that were sent to Ukraine for its fight against Russia’s invasion. Now the restocked munitions are being sent back to Israel for its use in the conflict with Hamas, according to a congressional aide and US officials.

In contrast to Israel, the US has provided more than 2 million 155mm shells and more than 800,000 105mm rounds to Ukraine, according to a new State Department summary.

Switchblade Drones

Israel has also requested 200 armor-piercing Switchblade 600 dive-bombing drones made by AeroVironment Inc. Ukraine has bought the drones directly from the company.

The US Army doesn’t have any Switchblade 600s in its inventory. It’s unclear whether AeroVironment has the drones in stock or would need to build them. An AeroVironment spokesperson declined to comment.

The US could steer Foreign Military Financing grants for purchase through the Foreign Military Sales process, according to an industry official familiar with the issue. DefenseScoop, a Washington-based defense technology newsletter, disclosed the Switchblade 600 request earlier.