Biden views defense tech at airport, including Iron Dome, new laser-based Iron Beam

Israel hopes to partner with Washington on the in-development laser air defense system; US president given classified briefing by Defense Minister Gantz, other officials

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

US President Joe Biden talks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, as he is shown views of aerial defense systems, July 13, 2022, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden talks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, as he is shown views of aerial defense systems, July 13, 2022, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday toured a Defense Ministry display of Israel’s multi-tier air defense systems at Ben Gurion Airport, shortly after a welcoming ceremony by top officials.

The display at the airport included the long-range Arrow, medium-range David’s Sling, short-range Iron Dome, and an in-development high-powered laser interception system dubbed Iron Beam.

The Iron Beam is designed to work in tandem with systems like Iron Dome and shoot down smaller projectiles.

Israel hopes to partner with Washington on the Iron Beam project, including American investment in further development and deployment of the system.

Shortly before he toured the display, Biden was given a mostly classified briefing by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and other security officials.

Channel 12 news in an unsourced report provided a list of some of what was said to Biden by Israeli security chiefs. Much of the focus, unsurprisingly, was on Iran.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and other Israeli security chiefs meet with US President Joe Biden and other American officials at Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The key points reportedly put to the president included details on Iran’s billions in spending to develop and arm itself with new weapons and its distribution of weaponry to various proxy groups in the region, with details of which groups and what equipment each got.

Gantz also detailed for Biden a list of security agreements, some of them new, reached between Israel and states in the region that are not part of the Abraham Accords; he reportedly asked that the US help advance these agreements further and eventually enable them to be made public, according to the report.

The report also said that the US and Israel soon intend to expand a much-discussed regional air defense alliance to also include naval and cyber defense.

According to the Defense Ministry, Biden was presented with a video showing off the capabilities of Israel’s various air defense systems.

The tour of the Iron Dome was a nod to US efforts to grant Israel funding for additional missiles for the system after last year’s war with terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

US President Joe Biden (C) walks towards an Iron Dome defense system during a tour at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv Israel on July 13, 2022. Biden started today his first tour of the Middle East since entering the White House last year. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“Under your rule, honorable president, security cooperation in the region has intensified and expanded in an unprecedented manner and Israel is grateful for this and also for your support with record US security assistance that included a billion dollars to replenish Iron Dome interceptors,” Gantz told Biden, according to a readout provided by his office.

At the site, Biden also spoke with Danny Gold, the former head of the ministry’s missile program, who oversaw the development of the Iron Dome.

US President Joe Biden (5th R) listens to Defense Minister Benny Gantz (C), as they tour the Iron Beam laser air defense system at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on July 13, 2022, with Prime Minister Yair Lapid (4th R), Israeli expert on technology and innovation Danny Gold (4th L), IDF chief Aviv Kohavi (5th L) and US Defense Attaché in Israel, Brigadier General Shawn A. Harris (3rd R). (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Biden was also given a fragment of a drone the Iron Beam system shot down during a series of tests in March.

The US president was expected to announce his approval for US defense industry officials to begin talks with Israeli counterparts about purchasing Iron Beam, a senior US official told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

While there have been reports of efforts to create an integrated air defense network for Israel to cooperate with its Arab allies against Iran, the US official said the initiative is still in the works, but that Biden will take a look at some of the technologies Israel exports to some of its regional allies in a “nod” to such cooperation.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, presents US President Joe Biden with the wing of a drone intercepted by the Iron Beam laser defense system, at the Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Gantz told Biden that the potential military cooperation in the region includes “many countries that see a need for stability and the development of sustainable peace.”

“Strengthening the security stability the United States is leading in the region is a condition for both economic development and preserving human rights, and I am sure that under your leadership and together with all US security bodies, we will continue to develop it in all areas — air, sea, land and cyber,” Gantz said.

He added that “the alliance between Israel and the United States is stronger than ever, and Israel is confident that the president will continue to take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Military chief Aviv Kohavi told Biden that the “operational cooperation and close coordination between the United States and Israel are further proof of the important strategic alliance between the two countries,” according to a readout provided by the Israel Defense Forces.

Kohavi said “the strategic relations between the armies are a key pillar in maintaining security stability and in dealing with the joint challenges in the Middle East,” including “the ongoing strategic race with Iran that not only endangers Israel but poses a regional and global danger,” referring to Tehran’s nuclear program.

He added that the IDF “strives to create a variety of new cooperation opportunities in the air, sea, and land.”

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi, left, speaks with US President Joe Biden following a briefing, at the Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Iron Beam, which is being developed with the Rafael weapons manufacturer, is not meant to replace the Iron Dome or Israel’s other air defense systems, but to supplement and complement them, shooting down smaller projectiles and leaving larger ones for the more robust missile-based batteries.

Hundreds of millions of shekels have been allocated to the final development stages and trial phase, in which the system will be placed on the border with the Gaza Strip. It is not clear when the initial deployment will happen.

The ‘Iron Beam’ laser-based air defense system is seen intercepting a target over southern Israel, March 2022. (Defense Ministry)

According to the Defense Ministry, as long as there is a constant source of energy for the laser, there is no risk of it ever running out of ammunition. Officials have hailed it as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against projectile attacks.

The downside of a laser system is that it does not function well in low visibility, including heavy cloud cover or other inclement weather. For that reason, the ministry intends to also mount the system on planes, which would help get around this limitation by putting the system above the clouds, though that is still a few years off, ministry officials have said.

US President Joe Biden speaks after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, July 13, 2022, as Prime Minister Yair Lapid, second left, and President Isaac Herzog, left, look on. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Biden landed at Ben Gurion Airport Wednesday for his first trip to Israel as president. After touring the defense site, he headed to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.

Biden will spend 48 hours in Israel and the West Bank with an itinerary that includes bilateral meetings with Israeli leaders, as well as attendance at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, a visit to hospital for Palestinians in East Jerusalem and a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

He will then fly directly to Saudi Arabia to participate in a summit of regional Arab leaders known as the GCC+3 before returning to the US on Sunday.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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