House committee approves 2025 defense bill, with new cooperative Israel, Middle East programs

New proposals would expand anti-tunnelling, space defense and AI-based missile defense cooperative efforts, among other programs

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) arrives for the House Armed Service Committee hearing on the FY2025 budget request for the Department of the Navy, in Rayburn building on Wednesday, May 1, 2024.

The House Armed Services Committee approved its draft of the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense and national security policy bill, on a bipartisan basis Wednesday night, adding a series of amendments seeking to enhance cooperation, across a variety of areas, with Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East.

All of the approved Middle East-related amendments to this year’s bill were included in larger bipartisan packages of amendments, passing without controversy. The full NDAA passed by a 57-1 vote; Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) was again the only committee member to oppose the bill.

Amid Israel’s continued efforts to destroy Hamas tunnels in Gaza, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) led an amendment to require the U.S. to hold annual military exercises on counter-tunnel operations with Israel and potentially other U.S. allies, including efforts to infiltrate, operate in and destroy tunnels.

“It’s more important than ever for Congress to stand with Israel, and my amendments will help force the Biden administration to work with Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, to ensure it has the means to defend itself from further terrorist attacks,” Banks said in a statement.

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) led an amendment to require twice-yearly reports to Congress on Israel’s air and missile defense needs, including a log of major airborne attacks on Israel and the capabilities it has used, the status of Israeli air-defense interceptor stocks and any Israeli requests for American resupply.

An amendment by Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) would require the administration to assess ways that the U.S.’ Middle East allies and partners can integrate efforts to protect space systems, such as satellites.

The legislation would ask the Pentagon to provide an assessment of threats posed by Iran and its proxy groups to U.S. and allied space systems or using space capabilities, a description of existing and planned coordination efforts and a strategy and recommendations for implementing a joint space and satellite security program.

The push follows efforts in previous years’ NDAA bills, led by the Abraham Accords Caucus, to integrate air and missile-defense and maritime defense capabilities among the U.S., Israel and other Middle East partners. 

Bacon’s proposal is also affiliated with the caucus, and will likely be introduced on the Senate side as well, an individual familiar with the situation told JI.

Banks led another amendment that seeks to further advance the joint air and missile-defense project, known as the DEFEND Act. The amendment would require the administration to produce a new strategy on implementing those coordination efforts, particularly focusing on the potential use of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) who was a sponsor of the DEFEND Act and is a co-chair of the Abraham Accords caucus, told JI she’s also supporting the effort and will be pursuing it in the Senate’s version of the NDAA.

“I’m proud of the work my DEFEND Act has already established to strengthen our partners in the Middle East and intercept Iran-backed attacks. When I was in Qatar this January, I heard firsthand from the CENTCOM Combined Air Operations Center about the value of AI to better integrate these air and missile defense systems,” Ernst said. “Building off previous success, I am continuing my efforts in this year’s NDAA, so we can use our best innovation to better deter Iran and keep our allies and own servicemembers safe in the face of increasing threats.”

The base NDAA bill included proposals for $30,000 for U.S.-Israel anti-tunnelling cooperative programs, $47,500 for joint research and development in emerging technologies and $300,000 for other cooperative programs. Those funds would have to be approved in the separate appropriations process later this year.

One major moment of conflict on Middle East policy came during debate over an amendment by Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) that would have preemptively barred the administration from using U.S. military aircraft to bring Palestinian refugees to the United States.

The amendment failed in a tie vote; Rep. Nick LaLota (R-NY) voted with all Democrats to sink the amendment.

Jackson alleged, based on a report that U.S. officials have considered a refugee program for Palestinians, that the administration plans to bring “thousands of unvetted Palestinians into our country without definitive knowledge that they are actually innocent or civilian” and that individuals with connections to terrorist groups would infiltrate the homeland to carry out attacks.

Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) emphasized that no refugee program currently exists and said that Republicans’ arguments in favor of the amendment were “pretty close to bigoted,” calling the measure “wholly unnecessary and cruel in its approach.”

Democrats further argued that supporting Palestinian civilians would be a critical diplomatic tool to counter Hamas’ influence.

“I’m super pro-Israel. I’m super anti-Hamas. But that doesn’t mean I’m anti-Palestinian refugee,” LaLota told NOTUS after the vote. “If they’re being suppressed by Hamas, and I suspect that many are, they are not my enemy.”

Republicans only hold a one-seat majority on the committee at the moment because they haven’t filled former Rep. Mike Gallagher’s (R-WI) seat.

The committee again approved an amendment by Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL) that would establish a U.S.-Israel PTSD collaborative research grant program; lawmakers have sought for multiple years to create the program but it has not yet made it into a finalized NDAA. It also approved a Jackson amendment to establish a joint trauma and amputee rehabilitation program.

Air and missile threats to the homeland and U.S. forces abroad are increasingly a concern for lawmakers this year. The base NDAA bill would require the U.S. to establish, by 2030, another U.S. missile interceptor site to protect against Iranian and North Korean threats.

Several other approved amendments seek to further address the problem, instructing the Pentagon to consider the deployment of additional air defense resources to Jordan; examine the potential use of airborne or space-based air-defense sensors; move faster in testing counter-drone systems; brief Congress on efforts to defeat Iranian-backed missile threats before they launch through cyber and electronic warfare; and provide for more information to Congress on existing drone threats and defense systems.

Another amendment reflects growing concern about South Africa’s relationships with U.S. adversaries: it would require a report on U.S. defense cooperation with South Africa; South Africa’s military cooperation with Iran, China and Russia; and whether South Africa’s relationships with U.S. adversaries harm American interests.

The committee again requested a slew of reports and briefings about Iran and its terror proxies. The base bill would mandate a report on cooperation among Iran, Russia, China and North Korea.

Additional reports and briefings were added during the amendment process to request information on Iran’s nuclear program, its efforts to harden its facilities and options for attacking those facilities; nuclear cooperation between Iran and Russia; Iran’s maritime capabilities, support for attacks on U.S. forces, intermediate-range ballistic missiles and drone exports; Israel’s qualitative military edge over Iran; the use of human shields by Iranian proxy groups; and Iranian-backed terrorist groups’ trade in the narcotic Captagon to help finance their malign activities.

The committee also requested a strategy from the Pentagon for protecting U.S. forces at the Al-Tanf garrison in Syria from Iranian-backed and other threats, as well as information on the Syrian regime’s involvement in Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. facilities.

It additionally requested information on Iranian-backed terrorist groups that are members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces — an organ of the Iraqi government — and whether U.S. funding or training has benefitted such groups.

And another amendment notes that the administration failed to produce a required report on Iran’s military assistance to countries in South America and would demand that the report be delivered “as soon as practicable.”

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