Panetta Counters Israel Critics With Missile-Defense Vow

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, countering criticism the U.S. is cutting funding for Israel’s missile defenses as the threat from Iran grows, told Jewish leaders the Obama administration has doubled such spending.

President Barack Obama has pledged more than $650 million in funding since 2009 for Israel’s missile defenses, twice the level planned during the administration of President George W. Bush, Panetta told about 14,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington today.

Rockets from the Gaza Strip and the potential for Iranian missile attacks pose “one of the most immediate threats to the security of Israel,” Panetta said. “We are actively working with Israel at all levels” on missile defense, he said.

Promoting missile defense aid is one way the Obama administration is seeking to show it is committed to maintaining Israel’s military superiority as the allies debate how long to wait before a potential military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

U.S. lawmakers have questioned why the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget seeks $99.8 million for Israel’s missile defenses, a reduction from the $106 million the administration requested last year and the $216 million that Congress provided.

Republican Representatives Howard McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote Obama Feb. 14 that they were “deeply concerned” about the administration’s request “at a time of rising threats to our strongest ally.”

Boeing, Israel Aerospace

Boeing Co., Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. are among the top Israel missile-defense contractors.

Panetta said in a Feb. 17 letter to McKeon and Ros-Lehtinen that Obama “will continue to support Israel’s defense needs with robust financial assistance and extensive military cooperation.”

He repeated that argument when he testified before the House Budget Committee on Feb. 29. The adequacy of the missile-defense aid was questioned there by Republican Representative Tom Price of Georgia and Democratic Representatives Bill Pascrell of New Jersey and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

The Pentagon plans to request $502.2 million for Israeli missile defense through 2017, with spending dropping to $95.7 million in fiscal 2014 and then increasing to $96.8 million in 2015 and $103.9 million in 2016 before hitting $106 million in fiscal 2017, according to Missile Defense Agency budget documents that detail “Israeli Cooperative Programs.”

The biggest spending item through 2017 is $270 million for the Israeli Upper Tier program intended to field a new Arrow 3 missile that can cover four times the area of the current version. A goal is to start initial production in 2014.

Israel Aerospace Industries is the prime contractor for the program and will subcontract with U.S. companies such as Boeing, according to Missile Defense Agency budget documents.

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