In what has easily the biggest development in defense news this week, Congress just received notice that the United States is exporting cutting-edge tiltrotor technology to Israel.
More amazingly -- the six V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft that Israel will be buying were originally supposed to go to the U.S. Marines, currently fighting a shooting war in Afghanistan.
Does this make sense? Taking valuable military equipment from our own soldiers, and giving it away (as a general rule, Israel gets its arms paid for out of U.S. annual military aid) to Israel instead?
Hemmed in by Hamas to the west, Fatah to the east, and Hezbollah (and a rapidly disintegrating Syria) to the north, Israel certainly lives in a dangerous neighborhood. Time after time, Israeli special forces are called upon to take pre-emptive action to defuse looming threats -- and they can't often fly into a friendly airport to do it.
So when Israel learned that U.S. defense contractors Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Textron (NYSE:TXT) had developed a new kind of "aircraft," one that can take off and land like a helicopter, and carry nearly as many special-forces troops into combat as a fully loaded Chinook -- but fly higher and nearly twice as fast as that whirlybird -- Israel's interest was quite naturally piqued.
There was just one problem: So far, the U.S. has kept its tiltrotor technology entirely to itself. To date, America hasn't sold one single Osprey to any of its allies, anywhere, ever. Until now.
Pressed by Israel to make an exception in its case, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel agreed in October to "expedite" approval of Israel as the first foreign buyer of V-22 Ospreys. In the interests of enhancing "the range and effectiveness of Israeli special forces," Hagel made a promise: Of the 21 V-22s that Boeing and Textron will build this year, "Israel will get six V-22s out of the next order to go on the assembly line."
This week, we took the first step toward fulfilling that promise, when the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency officially notified Congress of plans to sell the Ospreys to Israel. Congress has 15 days to pass a joint resolution banning the sale. Failing that, it will proceed.
(When does the clock start ticking? Technically, it started Monday. But practically, it doesn't matter when the notification took place -- because Congress has never vetoed a foreign military sale after receiving DSCA notification. Ever.)
So the sale is going to happen. But should it?
There are certainly arguments against stripping U.S. troops of essential combat gear, and sending it ... elsewhere. But in this instance, I think Hagel made the right choice. After all, the focus of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan today is much more heavily weighted toward getting equipment out of the country, rather than moving new hardware in. Chances are, by the time these Ospreys are built, there won't be any troops left in Afghanistan to deliver them to.
So no, I don't think that this sale will put U.S. troops at risk. To the contrary, by granting Israel this favor, Hagel may cement a relationship that has the potential to save American lives.
A special relationship
Usually, when folks talk say the U.S. has a "special relationship" with a foreign country, they're talking about Britain. But America's relations with Israel are pretty special, too. To cite just one example, Israel recently granted Washington crucial access to data on its Iron Dome air defense system and took on Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) as a partner in building and marketing Iron Dome -- said to be at least twice as effective as the Patriot air-defense system currently manufactured by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT). Israel's also cooperating with Raytheon in developing the even more robust "David's Sling" medium-range missile defense system, and with Boeing in development of the long-range "Arrow" system.
In short, yes, there's some risk in diverting Osprey intended for the USMC to Israel instead. But the kind of cooperation we are getting in return on Iron Dome, David's Sling, and Arrow are worth it. This is a special relationship worth preserving, even at the price of a few favors.
Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Textron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.