Israel’s Arrow: preparing for region’s missile wars
Special to The Daily Star
On a hilltop in central Israel, there is a cluster of khaki-colored air force vehicles, including a rectangular truck-mounted container pointed skyward, which significantly changes the military balance in the Middle East. The container holds launch tubes for six Arrow-2 missiles that are designed to shoot down hostile missiles in the stratosphere.
The other vehicles include a Green Pine radar system, resembling a drive-in movie screen, that can detect missiles launched 500 kilometers away. It feeds data into a complex of highly classified computers that direct the missile intercepts on the fringe of space.
In the trailer containing the Citron Tree fire control and battle management system, a bank of computer screens used to track incoming missiles show detailed maps of the region, including possible aggressors Iraq, Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. It can handle 14 separate missile threats simultaneously.
This is the first battery of Arrow-2 anti-missile missiles deployed by the air force, making Israel the first country in the world to actually field such a weapon that is widely considered to violate the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty between the former Soviet Union and the US.
Two more batteries are planned for northwestern and southern Israel to provide, in theory at least, nationwide protection against any ballistic missiles fired from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya or elsewhere in the region.
Once this unique program is completed, some time in the next couple of years, Israel will have installed the first component of a planned multi-layered space-linked missile defense shield known as Homa, the Great Wall, strengthening the country’s strategic position in the Middle East, thanks to more than $1 billion in US funds, by putting it technologically way ahead of its enemies, real or potential.
But already there are concerns in Israel that as missile technology proliferates around the region and its environs, the Arrow system will not be effective in countering a mass ballistic attack or the faster and longer-range Shehab missiles being developed by Iran, which are more difficult to intercept than the relatively simple Scud-type weapons Arrow was designed to combat and which, it is believed, will be able to separate the warhead from the propulsion system to fool search radars. Arrow upgrades, underwritten by Washington, are already being planned.
There are wider fears, just as there are with US plans to build a missile defense shield that threatens to wreck international arms control treaties, that Israel’s efforts are accelerating a new arms race in the region, peace process or no peace process. Indeed, Israel can no longer ignore the fact that its adversaries may acquire more sophisticated and accurate missile systems that can be directed against strategic targets.
Iran’s Shehab-3, with an estimated range of 1,400 kilometers, enough to hit targets anywhere in Israel, and the longer-ranged Shehab-4 now being developed, are seen as a primary threats. Russia, North Korea and China are all said to have aided this program. Russia is also helping Iran build two nuclear reactors at Bushehr on the Gulf coast.
Iraq, despite UN sanctions, retains the capability and expertise to resume its missile, nuclear and chemical weapons programs. With no UN inspections since December 1998, Western defense sources say Iraq test-fired ballistic missiles in July and last year resumed missile development at a plant outside Al-Mamoun, 40 kilometers southwest of Baghdad.
Israel claims that Syria, which has an estimated 600 ballistic missiles and several dozen launchers, has recently tested a Scud-D weapon with a 700-kilometer range. Even Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, is perceived as a potential threat. It has Chinese-supplied CCS-2 ballistic missiles with a range of 2,400 kilometers, the longest reach in the region. Riyadh is considering upgrading this aging missile force and is reported to have made initial approaches to Russia and China.
There are widespread concerns, not just in the Arab and Islamic worlds but within the US defense establishment itself, that the Arrow program undercuts a major objective of post-Cold War US foreign policy, the US-sponsored Missile Technology Control Regime. This program is designed to curb missile proliferation, whether it be for defense or offense, and has been a cornerstone of Washington’s arms control agenda through four administrations.
Yet the Americans have looked the other way while Israel developed its Jericho-2 nuclear-capable ballistic missile, with a range of at least 1,400 kilometers, as they did with Israel’s clandestine nuclear arms program. A Jericho-3 program is reported to be under way.
For the Arabs, this is another blatant case of double standards by the Americans who are doing all they can to prevent Arab states and Iran from acquiring such weapons.
The Arrow, known by its designation anti-tactical ballistic missile, is a two-stage, solid-propellant weapon designed to intercept and destroy hostile missiles between altitudes of 7,000 and 43,000 meters, high enough to render an exploding chemical or biological warhead harmless, at a distance of 50-90 kilometers. With a speed of just under three meters a second nine times the speed of sound and twice as fast as the better-known US Patriot system the Arrow destroys its targets by exploding a fragmentation warhead within meters of it rather than hitting it. According to some reports, Israel plans to build an armory of 350 Arrows.
The Arrow batteries will ultimately be linked to a chain of surveillance satellites designed to detect hostile missile launches aimed at Israel. In December 2000, Israel launched the Eros A-1 reconnaissance satellite, the first of what could be a constellation of eight such vehicles for both military and civilian purposes.
Eros A-1, weighing 250 kilograms, was launched by a Russian Start-1 booster from the Svobodny cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East and set into a polar orbit at an altitude of 480 kilometers, which allows it to monitor multiple target areas. It circles the Earth every 100 minutes and relays data to 14 ground stations around the world. Eros-B, a larger vehicle weighing 350 kilograms, is scheduled to be launched later this year. It will have a resolution of 0.82 meters compared with Eros-A’s 1.8 meters. Later variants of this system, it is said, will have a ground resolution of half-a-meter.
The Eros satellites are based on Israel’s Ofeq-class military surveillance satellites. The 335-kilogram Ofeq-3 spy satellite, launched on April 5, 1995, is still aloft though it is now approaching the end of its operational life. Its retrograde east-west orbit, 500 kilometers up, takes it over Iran, Iraq and Syria, all considered real or potential threats by Israel.
The fourth satellite in the Ofeq series, which is an entirely military program, is also expected to be launched later this year. It will have all-weather surveillance capability. According to various reports, the Israeli Air Force has used photos taken by their satellites to create mock-ups of Syrian air bases to familiarize their pilots with potential targets. It must be assumed that similar action has been taken regarding Iran and Iraq.
A report commissioned by the Ministry of Defense last year recommended that Israel increase its air power and missile defense capabilities to confront what it envisaged as the growing prospect of a multi-level, multi-front conflict. This would include a much larger space program than Israel has conducted so far and follows the American military’s revived push to put weapons into space.
A third element envisaged in the anti-missile defence shield is the Boost-Phase Launcher Intercept (BPLI) which would use unmanned aerial vehicles armed with air-to-ground missiles to knock out missile launchers, rather than the missiles in the final stages of flight which is where the Arrow is designed to hit them. As one senior Israeli officer has noted: “Destroying one Scud launcher is the equivalent of destroying 10 missiles.”
However, since the long-endurance UAVs would probably have to operate outside Israel’s borders it would be difficult to claim these systems were purely defensive or to argue that they could not be modified for pre-emptive strikes. Israeli military doctrine has traditionally been rooted in the principle of offense rather than defense and it would seem natural and logical to extend this operational strategy into countering the missile threat. This concern is sufficient to have made the Clinton and Bush administrations reluctant to help fund the BPLI project to the extent that Israel wants.
However, as one savvy Israeli general has wryly commented: “Congress can be convinced otherwise.”
The Arrow program, and the newer Israeli anti-missile projects that have emerged, have been championed by the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, the well-established and powerful pro-Israel lobby active in Washington that has blocked several attempts by US administrations over the years to reduce funding for Arrow some $2 billion so far since there are no plans to absorb it into the United States’ own missile shield program.