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Who's minding the stockpile of US weapons going to Israel?

Who's minding the stockpile of US weapons going to Israel?

Congress has further weakened constraints on a special DOD arms reserve, which is spread over multiple warehouses and lacks a public inventory

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

A weapons stockpile reserve that the U.S. Defense Department uses to transfer military equipment to Israel lacks the necessary checks and balances, rigorous oversight, and transparency mechanisms needed to ensure responsible use.

Initially established after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War for emergency use, the reserve — officially referred to as the War Reserve Stockpile Allies-Israel (WRSA-I) — has evolved to include dual-use materials accessible by both U.S. and Israeli forces.

Despite this evolution, the stockpile, dispersed across multiple warehouses, lacks a public inventory and a legal framework to ensure transparent and accountable transfers of materiel. Bilateral agreements require Israel to cover storage and maintenance costs, but there’s no public policy guidance on transfers.

Significant withdrawals have been made for Israeli conflicts and U.S. military aid to Ukraine, often without public documentation. The legal basis for these transfers — Section 514 of the Foreign Assistance Act, the Arms Export Control Act, and various congressional transfer authorities — does not mandate comprehensive reporting to Congress, limiting oversight and accountability.

Recent changes erode accountability and oversight

Recent legislative changes have further weakened constraints on the transfer of U.S. weapons to the WRSA-I, reducing already limited oversight.

On October 20, 2023, the White House sent the Senate a supplemental request that sought to eliminate constraints on the transportation of U.S. weapons to WRSA-I and the subsequent transfer of arms from the stockpile to Israel. By April 2024, this supplemental request became law, effectively reducing congressional oversight and facilitating increased weapon transfers to WRSA-I with significantly fewer restrictions and diminished public scrutiny.

Congress imposes limits on the value of assets that can be transferred into WRSA-I stockpiles during any fiscal year through the authorization of legislation. Section 514 of the Foreign Assistance Act limits the value of defense articles deposited into WRSA-I to $200 million annually. The United States retains ownership of the WRSA stocks, and the title must be transferred to the foreign country before they can use the assets.

The emergency supplemental amended previous law so that now, instead of just armor, any defense articles that the U.S. Department of Defense already owns can be transferred to Israel for the reserve stocks, as long as these items are in the U.S. inventory and already located in Israel's stockpile at the time of transfer. Instead of needing to transfer items worth at least their market value, the value of items transferred will now be decided by the secretary of defense. This means the transfers do not have to meet a specific monetary value.

The president can now decide on a case-by-case basis how far in advance to notify Congress about these transfers if there are extraordinary circumstances affecting U.S. national security. For 2024, the rule that usually limits the amount of defense articles the United States can set aside for Israel will not be in effect. This allows the U.S. government to add as many defense articles as needed to Israel's stockpiles without the usual restrictions.

These amendments to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2005, and the suspension of Section 514(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 for fiscal year 2024 significantly impact transparency and oversight.

By allowing defense articles already in the Department of Defense inventory to be transferred to Israel without adhering to fair market value assessments and by enabling transfers to be made at the discretion of the president during extraordinary circumstances, the process becomes less transparent.

Reducing transparency is counterproductive

Moreover, waiving the $200 million annual limit on U.S. contributions to the WRSA-I stockpile facilitates continuous replenishment, reducing the visibility of these transactions to Congress and the public. This dangerously diminishes the accountability of U.S. arms transfers, potentially leading to unchecked increases in military support to Israel without usual legislative scrutiny.

These amendments come at a time when the U.S. government is under heightened public scrutiny due to its strong support for Israel, which faces accusations of major violations of international law and human rights.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented several instances where U.S.-supplied weapons were used by Israeli forces in operations resulting in significant civilian casualties and violations of international humanitarian law. For example, a Human Rights Watch investigation concluded that Israeli forces used a U.S. weapon to conduct a strike that killed seven civilian relief workers in Lebanon, among other violations.

The WRSA-I program's lack of rigorous oversight and transparency mechanisms incentivizes U.S. partners to deploy these weapons in ways that can provoke regional conflicts. The perception that U.S. weapons are readily available can embolden certain actors to take aggressive stances, leading to destabilizing arms races and escalating regional tensions. This not only undermines regional peace efforts but also tarnishes the reputation of the United States as a proponent of international stability and human rights.

The path forward

The legal framework governing the WRSA-I, including Section 514 of the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act, is insufficient in mandating comprehensive reporting and accountability. Legislative amendments to, for example, the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act and the 2023 Securing American Arms Act have further weakened constraints on the transfer of U.S. weapons to the WRSA-I, reducing already limited oversight.

Congress must implement more stringent oversight and transparency measures to ensure that military equipment is used responsibly and in accordance with international law and human rights standards.

Bodies of the Palestinians killed in the Israeli attacks on Bureij refugee camp, are brought to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, Gaza on June 3, 2024. Photo by Omar Ashtawy apaimages Deir al-Balah Gaza Strip Palestinian Territory via REUTERS

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