Senate NDAA includes MARITIME Act, Mideast cyber cooperation, training for Israel on air refueling tankers

The bill advances a number of bills pushed by the Abraham Accords Caucus, as well as provisions aimed at countering Iran’s nuclear program through support for Israel

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Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) walks off the Senate subway at the U.S. Capitol on May 02, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act draft approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week includes a series of priority provisions for pro-Israel advocates, including advancing Middle East naval and cybersecurity cooperation as well as accelerating training for Israeli pilots on the KC-46 refueling aircraft.

The bill includes the MARITIME Act, legislation advanced by the Abraham Accords Caucus that seeks to establish a cooperative maritime defense architecture among Abraham Accords member states with an eye toward countering Iran.

“We are working in the Senate to bolster the defensive partnerships between the United States and our partners and allies in the Middle East, especially in the face of growing threats from Iran and its terrorist proxies to maritime security,” Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), a lead sponsor of the bill and SASC member, said in a statement to Jewish Insider. “I’m glad to see that our bipartisan MARITIME Act has been included in this year’s national defense package, and I look forward to continuing to work across the aisle to see that we pass it into law.”

“Cooperation between the United States, Israel, and our partners and allies in the region is critical to our shared security and prosperity,” added Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), another lead sponsor of the legislation. “We’re stronger when we work together. I’m grateful to support this bipartisan effort to collectively defend against growing Iranian threats. As a co-chair of the Abraham Accords Caucus, I will continue working to connect our key partners through the common goal of securing the region.”

House sponsors of the legislation had initially planned to introduce the legislation during the House’s own NDAA markup last week, but the amendment ultimately did not materialize. Its sponsors now expect to introduce the bill when the House NDAA comes to the floor.

The Senate NDAA includes a provision that would mandate that the Air Force “make accommodations to prioritize training Israelis on the KC-46” refueling aircraft, per an executive summary published by the committee on Friday. The provision appears similar to legislation from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) that would require the Air Force to train Israeli pilots on the airborne tankers before the aircraft are delivered to Israel.

Israel ordered four of the planes last year, after a yearslong delay, but the planes are not set to be delivered until 2025 and 2026. The aircraft are widely seen as critical for a potential Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

Cotton’s legislation included a provision requiring the U.S. to position one of its own KC-46s in Israel until Israel’s were delivered, but it’s unclear whether that element is included in the NDAA. A Cotton spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The executive summary further states that the Senate NDAA “supports cooperation with Israel to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” The committee did not respond to a request for further details. The Senate NDAA also reauthorizes cooperative U.S.-Israel air- and missile-defense procurement.

The bill would also require the Defense Department to develop a strategy for regional cybersecurity cooperation between the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies and partners, as well as authorize increased funding for cyber cooperation with Jordan.

The Senate NDAA would follow up on a provision included in the 2023 NDAA, the DEFEND Act, which sought to establish a joint air- and missile-defense architecture in the Middle East to defend against threats from Iran and its proxies. The new bill requests a briefing on the implementation of this provision.

The bill also includes language pushing for supplemental appropriations to increase the defense budget, echoing concerns from defense hawks that the bipartisan debt ceiling and budget cap agreement provided insufficient funding. In a statement, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the SASC ranking member, emphasized that the bill did not sufficiently fund national defense.

The Senate NDAA “expresses the sense of the Senate that there are growing national security concerns that require additional funds beyond the defense spending limit and urges the President to send emergency supplemental funding requests to address those concerns, to include continued support for Ukraine, additional munitions production, and additional naval vessels and combat vehicles,” the executive summary reads.

The Senate’s bill, like the House’s, includes restrictions on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programming at the DoD, including oversight of and limits on the compensation and hiring of employees focused solely on DEI issues.

The bill also includes a series of reforms for the Defense Department’s foreign military sales procedures; military leaders have warned that the slow pace of U.S. military sales has provided opportunities for Chinese inroads in the Middle East.

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