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Trump Keeps Saying He Will Build ‘the Greatest Dome Ever.’ Republican Senators Don’t Know What He Means.

“We’ve got an ocean on each side and Mexico and we’re supposed to have friends on either side,” one Republican senator said.

Israel Palestinians
Donald Trump says that the U.S. should have an air defense system like Israel’s Iron Dome. Leo Correa/AP

Former President Donald Trump has a new talking point: he wants Israel’s Iron Dome — its state-of-the-art missile defense shield — for the United States.

“We’re giving billions of dollars to other countries so they can build a dome,” Trump said on the campaign trail this month. “But we don’t have a dome ourselves. We’re going to have the greatest dome ever.”

In Congress, the Republicans who would have to fund such a project say they’re all for beefing up the U.S.’s missile defense systems — but they’re not quite sure what Trump is really asking for.

“We’ve got an ocean on each side and Mexico and we’re supposed to have friends on either side. That’s a hard one to answer,” Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville said.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst was skeptical, too, when asked about Trump’s new policy-proposal-turned-campaign-slogan.

“Well, I know the Iron Dome of Israel. I know that we already do have self-defense mechanisms in place for the United States. So I would just want to know what he’s talking about,” Ernst said.

Even Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, who said missile defense is top of mind, cited other technologies first.

“I just came from a hearing with the undersecretary for Defense for policy for the Air Force. And the questions I just asked her were all about missile defense, domain awareness, and hypersonics,” Sullivan said. “That’s all based in Alaska, all the ground-based missile interceptors, all the main radar systems.”

While the Iron Dome’s manufacturer, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, claims the technology has had a 90% success rate in the last 10 years, the defense system hasn’t been tested against the kinds of threats the U.S. could face — for example, the hypersonic advanced cruise missiles that Sullivan cited.

The system is focused on being effective against shorter and mid-range targets, meaning they would have to be launched from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean islands, where the U.S. has few regional security concerns.

“What is going on [in Israel and Ukraine] is far different from what is being worked on and planned and may someday come to pass defending the U.S. homeland. It’s apples and oranges,” John Erath, a former official for the National Security Council, told NBC News.

In a recent speech, Trump harkened back to the Reagan-launched Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed the “Star Wars program” for missile defense, acknowledging just how long the Department of Defense and other government agencies have worked to develop such technologies. The U.S. uses missile defense systems like the Iron Dome to defend ships and military bases abroad. That technology, however, isn’t able to reach across and protect the entirety of the country. These realities haven’t stopped Trump from arguing his case.

“We do it for other countries. We don’t do it for ourselves. We need it, too,” Trump told an audience in New Hampshire to applause, before acting out with his hands the Iron Dome stopping a missile, while making computer and explosion noises. “Ding ding ding. They only got 17 seconds to figure this whole thing out. Boom. Okay, missile launch. Phewm. POOM.”

As Trump repeats this catchphrase for “the greatest dome ever,” figuring out what the president means and how to act on it could become a bigger issue for Republicans — much like Trump’s calls to “build the wall” — especially if the former president is reelected.

“We are going to have the greatest Iron Dome — let’s call it ‘Iron Dome’ — anywhere in the world and it’s going to be manufactured, a lot of it, right here in New Hampshire,” Trump said.

But for now, Republicans are resting on wide consensus that missile defense is already a priority.

“Well, I don’t know the details of what he’s doing. But I think we do have to figure out how we can defend ourselves,” Florida Sen. Rick Scott said.

And, as South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds pointed out: the U.S. has invested significantly in Iron Dome technology, and manufactures many of the components.

“Actually the vast majority of the Iron Dome in Israel is something that we have participated in. It’s our weapon systems that actually make up the vast majority of the Iron Dome right now. So we can use that today,” Rounds said.

Less clear, is in what capacity.

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.