Updated Oct 19, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: U.S. to send Israel artillery shells initially destined for Ukraine

An Israeli soldier lifts a 155mm artillery shell with a self-propelled Howitzer in the background.

An Israeli soldier moves a 155mm artillery shell Wednesday near a self-propelled howitzer near the Israel-Lebanon border, where Israeli troops have been engaged in skirmishes with Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

The Pentagon plans to send Israel tens of thousands of 155mm artillery shells that had been destined for Ukraine from U.S. emergency stocks several months ago, three Israeli officials with knowledge of the situation tell Axios.

Why it matters: The Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli Ministry of Defense told their U.S. counterparts they urgently need artillery shells to prepare for a ground invasion in Gaza — and a potential escalation of the war by Hezbollah along the Israel-Lebanon border, Israeli officials say.

  • U.S. officials have suggested that diverting the shells from Ukraine to Israel would have no immediate impact on Ukraine's ability to fight against Russian troops.
  • Less clear is whether U.S. military supplies to Ukraine could be stretched if the Israel-Hamas war becomes a broader regional conflict, but the Pentagon played down such concerns Thursday.
  • "We are confident we can support both Ukraine and Israel in terms of their defensive needs," Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters.

Zoom in: Since Hamas' attack on Israel ignited the war on Oct. 7, the Israeli military has significantly increased its use of artillery — both in Gaza and in skirmishes with Hezbollah on the Lebanon border.

Flashback: Starting in early 2023, the U.S. began drawing down 155mm artillery shells from its considerable ammunition stockpiles in Israel to send to Ukraine.

  • At the time, the Israeli military told then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid and then-Minister of Defense Benny Gantz that there was no immediate scenario in which Israel would need an emergency supply of shells.
  • That all changed on Oct. 7, Israeli officials said.

Between the lines: The ammunition that had been destined for Ukraine was part of a U.S. weapons stockpile that is kept in Israel as part of an agreement between the countries.

  • Only U.S. military personnel have access to the weapons storage sites. But according to the agreement between the countries, Israel can use the ammunition in a war scenario in short order, with U.S. approval.
  • Israel was granted access to the ammunition during its war with Lebanon in 2006 and also during the 2014 Gaza conflict.

Driving the news: After the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, the IDF conducted an initial assessment of its urgent weapons needs and gave it to the Pentagon.

  • One of the requests was to get tens of thousands of 155mm artillery shells back to fill the depleted U.S. emergency stocks in Israel, in case the Israeli military needed to use the shells on short notice, the Israeli officials said.
  • The Israeli officials said the U.S. agreed and will be sending the artillery shells to Israel in the coming weeks.

What they're saying: A U.S. military official told Axios he can't give details about the specific weapons being sent to Israel.

  • The official said the Department of Defense and the U.S. Transportation Command have robust global deployment and distribution capabilities that can continue to support Israel as well as other countries.
  • "We are engaged in comprehensive coordination across the Department of Defense. This includes working closely with our combatant commands to ascertain which munitions and equipment from the U.S. inventory can be quickly made available for Israel's needs," the U.S. military official said.
  • "Following the horrific terrorist attacks in Israel, President Biden directed his team to ensure we are providing Israel what they need to defend themselves from terrorism while we also continue to provide weapons and equipment to help Ukraine in their fight for freedom. We can and are doing both," National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson told Axios.

This story has been updated with comments from Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, and National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson.

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