Vol. 2, No. 19 March 5, 2003
During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s use of El-Hussein missiles, an upgraded Scud with a range of 600 km., meant they could reach not only Teheran but Tel Aviv – and we realized we had no way to stop them.
The soul of any missile defense system is not the missile; it is the radar, its main sensor. It took us some time to appreciate that we needed to develop a system program rather than a missile program, based on the “Green Pine” early warning and fire control radar and the “Citron Tree” battle management system.
In seven interception tests of the Arrow-2, six have been successful. Technically, we have every reason to believe it is going to work. If we can destroy the hostile warhead above the jet stream, which flows from west to east, everything that comes down from the destroyed warhead will enter the jet stream and be blown back to the sender.
A Wake-Up Call from the Iran-Iraq War
The United States faces two different missile threats: a tactical threat to its military forces and a strategic threat to its home territory. In Israel, the tactical threat and the strategic threat are encapsulated in the same territory. First and foremost is the tactical threat of interdiction of the mobilization of Israel’s military reserves, or the interdiction of our air force. Then there is the strategic threat of nuclear missiles. In between lies the threat of missiles with chemical warheads. In a country with a large territory, the threats tend to be separated from each other, but with Israel’s constricted territory, everything is meshed together.
This is the story of how Israel developed its response to the missile threat and the considerations behind it. In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, we first saw Iraq’s use of El-Hussein missiles, an upgraded Scud with a range of 600 km., which was not only capable of reaching Teheran but also Tel Aviv. This meant that we were facing a future threat that we had not considered before, what is now called the “depth threat” – attacks from beyond the immediate tier of neighboring countries. We also realized that we had no way to stop it.
Passive Defense: An Initial Approach
In the discussions in Israel about what to do, the decision-makers initially concluded that unless the threat involved nuclear missiles, there was no need to invest in anti-missile defenses. What was considered important against chemical missiles was passive defense (sealed rooms and gas masks) with early warning. This is why the passive defense program in Israel is so extensive.
However, passive defense without early warning is worthless. A minimum warning time is required to put on protective gear and move into sheltered areas. In Teheran in 1988 when missiles struck without any early warning, people were caught in the streets and in the markets, with hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded.
In retrospect, the decision at that time not to embark on a missile defense system was not very wise. In the 1991 Gulf War, despite overconfident predictions that the Iraqis wouldn’t dare fire one missile at Israel, they fired 40 missiles. In reaction, Israel began the Arrow program.
The Arrow program was actually launched under Scud fire, and I was appointed head of the program on an evening when two Scuds fell. I was called to the director-general of the Defense Ministry and he told me to start work. It was like a battlefield commission. As the saying goes, “there is nothing that clarifies the thought processes like the threat of death.”
Born with “Star Wars”
In 1986, Israel had joined the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly referred to as “Star Wars.” Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, the first director of the SDI, met with David Ivry, then chairman of Israel Aircraft Industries and later director-general of the Ministry of Defense. Abrahamson suggested that since the SDI charter was to defend the United States and its allies, and since Israel was an ally that faced a threat from short-range missiles in the Middle East, Israel should work on defense against “theater ballistic missiles.” In 1988, a commercial contract was signed between Israel Aircraft Industries and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) to develop an experimental missile, not a system, and to try to hit a target in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It was defined as an experiment, not as the development of a system.
Israel’s program was called “Homa,” an acronym for “Hetz” (Arrow) and “Makam Hagana” (early warning radar). The acronym forms the Hebrew word for “defensive rampart.” Yet until 1994, the program experienced failure after failure. Finally in July 1994 we managed to hit a target with the Arrow-1 missile. Though big and cumbersome, the success of the Arrow-1 encouraged us and saved the program.
To Develop a System, Not a Missile
In parallel, we developed the initial version of the “Green Pine” early warning and fire control radar, as well as the “Citron Tree” battle management system. This was really a turning point to the program because the soul of any missile defense system is not the missile; it is the radar, its main sensor. It took us some time to appreciate that we needed to develop a system program rather than a missile program. In 1995 we rolled out the first version of “Green Pine.”
The Arrow program used practically no U.S. technology, just U.S. money. It was almost entirely based on Israeli technology, though we bought some components in the U.S. because they were cheaper.
When I showed the first photographs of the newly assembled radar to the Pentagon, I could see they were impressed at how we were developing a full system.
The Arrow-2 achieved its first successful interception in 1997. In seven interception tests of the Arrow-2, six have been successful. In 1999, the full system operated on its own and correctly detected a realistic target. An intercept solution was automatically computed, the Arrow missile fired, and scored a direct hit. In 2000 the first battery was delivered, and today two batteries are deployed – one in the south and one in the north.
Key Questions in the Arrow Decision
In the development of the Arrow, the questions we sought to answer included: Will the system work? Will it be effective? Will it be affordable? And how is it going to impact on regional stability?
Is it going to work? Yes, technically we have every reason to believe it is going to work.
Is it going to be effective? Effectiveness is really a question of resources. If we want to be very effective, we can fire five Arrows against every target, but this becomes very costly.
We were frequently criticized about launching an expensive Arrow against a cheap Scud, but that is not really a proper equation. During the 1991 Gulf War, an el-Hussein missile – a Scud with only a quarter ton instead of a ton of explosives – fell in a Ramat Gan courtyard between four apartment houses. Fortunately, no one was killed, though scores of people were injured. Everyone was evacuated and the buildings had to be condemned; after the war, the 48 apartments were bulldozed. The cost of the damage to these four buildings caused by one Scud shows that the real equation must compare the cost of the Arrow to the damage caused by the Scud, and this is without taking into account the cost of human life.
Regarding the question of regional stability, the Arrow was blamed for instigating an arms race. However, the development of the Arrow was actually Israel’s response to the arms race. The Arabs started arming with ballistic missiles not because of Arrow, but because they sought a way to penetrate Israeli skies that are so efficiently protected by the Israeli Air Force.
Furthermore, any government is obliged to defend its people. This is the moral and ethical dimension of the issue. We regarded the Arrow program as the fulfillment of the Israeli government’s obligation to Israel’s people.
The Situation Today
The Iraqis have a very limited capability to fire any missiles toward Israel, but one can still be surprised. They are adept at hiding their secrets. The Iraqis also have capabilities in other areas, such as unmanned aircraft, which are also quite dangerous.
If they do have the capability, will they use it? I am doubtful they will. As soon as they fire a ballistic missile anywhere, this will justify the entire effort of the Bush administration to take out Saddam. It would be a very irrational thing for the Iraqis to do. Even if Saddam personally is in danger, his Takriti clan will want to stay in power and I doubt they would want to see the war justified by firing one missile. So they may not do so even if they have the capability.
The Arrow will be very effective against Iraqi Scuds. It was designed against missiles of this type. Of the 40 missiles fired at Israel during the Gulf War, only eight caused damage and casualties. All the rest fell into the sea or into the open spaces east of Tel Aviv and Haifa. They were rendered inaccurate precisely because they broke up in mid-air.
How Effective Against Chemical Weapons?
The Arrow system – like the Patriot system – does not distinguish between missile warheads. We really don’t know what is coming at us, so we designed our defense system in such a way that it destroys any warhead of whatever type. To do so, our defensive system employs a very powerful warhead of its own to impart a lot of impact onto the incoming missile and destroy it completely. The Arrow is also designed to intercept the missile as high as possible. We tested to see whether chemical agents would reach the ground after interception and reached the conclusion that absolutely nothing comes down to the ground. If we can destroy the hostile warhead above the jet stream, which flows from west to east, everything that comes down from the destroyed warhead will enter the jet stream and be blown back to the sender.
The missile threat to Israel is extensive and growing. Long-range, nuclear missiles are clearly a possible threat. If and when we have peace, the Arrow is part of a shield that Israel will have to maintain in order to preserve that peace.
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Uzi Rubin is former head of Israel’s Arrow-Homa Anti-Missile Defense Program. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 27 January 2003.