Australia/Israel Review

Ballistic Blowout

Jul 29, 2008 | Ben-Zion Jaffe

Israel’s race against missile threats


Iran’s latest war games on July 9, which included the firing of eight or nine medium- and intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching Israel and parts of Europe, have drawn much attention to Iran’s ballistic missile program and the threat it poses to the region. Of all the threats Israel contends with, Iran’s ballistic missile program, combined with Teheran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), is generally regarded as the most dangerous. Together with the bellicose stance of Iran’s leaders, Teheran’s missile and WMD progress have raised existential fears in Israel which have been mostly absent since 1973.

Israel is not helpless, however, and hanging over this tense situation is the question of Israel’s capability of intercepting a missile attack from Iran. Such capability exists, but assessing its strategic effectiveness is a complex problem.

Paradoxically, although Israel has been unable to stop the unrelenting barrage of crude Qassam rockets and mortars fired from Gaza since 2001, its defences against short- to medium-range missiles are probably the most comprehensive in the world. The technological differences between Hamas’ Qassams – basically pieces of pipe filled with home-made fuel – and Iran’s main ballistic missile, the Shehab-3, are striking. Yet Israel has focused a lot more time and energy in developing an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) program over a counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) system. The reasons for this technological imbalance are rooted in the history of arms proliferation in the Middle East and the shifting strategic threats against which Israel has had to defend itself.

Missile and Rocket Proliferation in the Middle East

The rapid proliferation of ballistic missiles in the Middle East dates back to the arms race triggered by the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. During that conflict’s so-called “war of the cities”, Iran launched more than 600 ballistic missiles while Iraq also fired hundreds. The heavy use of ballistic missiles represented a strategic shift in the region. David Ochmanek, Director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at the RAND Corporation’s Project Air Force in Washington, told AIR that by simply possessing an arsenal of ballistic missiles, an adversary can impose significant psychological, economic and military costs on a smaller nation that has many important sites in a concentrated area. One sustained or massive missile attack on that area would be utterly disastrous for the country. This is a scenario that clearly applies to Israel, which has three-quarters of its population located in a narrow coastal plane.

By the early 1980s, Israel’s adversaries began to recognise the new options that missiles and rockets offered them in confronting Israel. As Katyushas fired from Lebanon repeatedly pounded Israel’s northern border region throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, then-Syrian Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas declared in 1982, “the 1973 [Yom Kippur] War was a war of surface-to-air missiles. The next war will be one of surface-to-surface missiles.” By using missiles, Israel’s enemies could attack Israel’s population centres without having to subject their armies and air forces to another defeat at the hands of the Israeli Defence Forces. Further, Israel would have to deal with the heavy diplomatic and military price of entering another country’s territory to destroy its missiles.

This strategic shift was not confined to states. While regimes were arming themselves with missiles, non-state terrorist organisations began stockpiling rockets. (In military parlance, generally a rocket is a self-powered projectile which is unguided once fired, while a missile has a guidance system on-board.) Missiles offered Israel’s enemies an offensive weapon protected by physical distance, but arming proxy terrorist organisations with such weapons gave them the ability to strike Israel without inviting diplomatic and military repercussions. Today, in the aftermath of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, Hezbollah’s massive rocket stockpiles in Lebanon are seen by both Teheran and Damascus as key tools for threatening and deterring Israel.

The Syrian Threat

In the December 2006 issue of AIR, Prof. Uzi Rubin, a missile expert who headed Israel’s Missile Defence Organisation from 1991 to 1999, documented that Syria had between 400 and 500 Scud B, C, and D missiles, with a range of 300, 580, and 700 km, respectively. Syria was also attempting to acquire from Russia the short-range (280 km) but very modern and accurate SS-26 Iskander missile. The threat of these missiles is exacerbated by the fact that Syria has a chemical weapons program dating back to the 1980s in which it has produced and weaponised mustard gas, sarin, and the ultra-deadly VX nerve gas.

The American-designed Patriot missile defence system (PAC-2) is Israel’s main defence against Syrian missiles. Dr. Stephan Frühling, a lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, told AIR that the PAC-2 is intended primarily for defending Israel’s northern airbases. Although the Patriot does not have a good reputation after its poor record during the 1991 Gulf War, the system is much improved today, following a major upgrade in 2002. Michael Eisenstadt, Director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, confirmed to AIR that the PAC-2 is deployed against the slower Syrian missiles, which basically use 1950s technology and would target Israeli airbases, but would be ineffective against Iran’s faster missiles.

The Iranian Threat

Iran’s missile program is in a different league. In addition to a number of Scuds, Iran has the Shehab-3 and Shehab-3ER (extended range) with respective ranges of 1,300 and 2,000 km. This puts Israel and parts of Europe within reach. The Shehab-3 can carry a one-ton conventional warhead, while the Shehab-3ER can travel further, but has a lighter payload as a trade-off.

In January 2006, the German magazine Bild reported that Iran acquired 18 Soviet-era BM-25 missiles from North Korea. This missile is more advanced than the Shehab-3, with a greater range (2,500 km) and the ability to carry a nuclear warhead. Also, in February 2005, the Associated Press reported that a Ukrainian government probe revealed that an arms smuggler illegally sold several Ukrainian KH-55 cruise missiles to Iran in 2001 (some reports suggest the number sold was 12). This is of grave concern because a cruise missile functions quite differently from a ballistic missile, and is guided like a “small, low flying, unpiloted plane,” Prof. Rubin told AIR in a recent interview. He also said the Iranians are reportedly copying the KH-55, which can reach far beyond Israel, and can carry a nuclear warhead (although this would have to be a relatively sophisticated 200 kiloton hydrogen bomb, something the Iranians are nowhere near developing).

Israel’s Defences against Iran

Israel’s ABM program dates back to 1988, when the US Department of Defence, under the Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”), decided to fund an experimental missile defence program in conjunction with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Eventually, in 1991, after Israel had sustained 39 Iraqi Scuds during the first Gulf War, Israel’s Defence Ministry established the Homa, or “wall” program, headed by Prof. Rubin, centred on a new missile developed by IAI called the Arrow.

Deployed since 2002, the Arrow-2 is Israel’s high altitude missile interceptor, built to destroy an approaching missile at an altitude of 100 km. It is guided by the “Green Pine” radar system that is capable of simultaneously tracking 14 targets at a range of 500 km. It can put an Arrow-2 within four metres of the target, although the Arrow is capable of “killing” a target within a 50 metre radius by detonating its warhead in the vicinity of an enemy missile. According to a July 2008 report published by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, Prof. Rubin points out that the open literature on the Arrow indicates there are three Arrow batteries deployed with a total of 144 operational Arrow missiles. Fourteen of 16 tests of the Arrow-2 have been successful. It is widely believed by many missile defence experts that the Arrow-2 can, with high reliability, intercept the main Iranian threat, the Shehab-3, as well as some more advanced missiles.

Israel’s ABM strategic planning received an additional boost on June 28, when the US Navy tested the communications network that supports its ship-based Aegis ABM system in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Dr. Frühling told AIR that last year the US and Israel conducted a successful test in which the Aegis radar was integrated with Israel’s overall ABM management system, thus potentially adding another effective layer of defence in a crisis. On this recent development, Prof. Rubin told AIR “the presence of such systems in the eastern Mediterranean could buttress Israel’s missile defence, although not by much. The Aegis ships carry a limited number of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) missile defence interceptors,” which can intercept incoming missiles at a higher altitude than the Arrow. According to Dr. Frühling, the “SM-3 is good, if not better than the Arrow,” and moreover, both systems complement each other.

While the Arrow and the Aegis counter ballistic missiles, Israel lacks a trustworthy anti-cruise missile system, and Iran’s acquisition of the KH-55 exploits this hole. One program in development which may help deal with this threat is the David’s Sling system (see below). Israel is also due to acquire the newest Patriot system, the PAC-3, which is able to shoot down cruise missiles, amongst other threats. However, much of the effectiveness of these systems against Iranian launched cruise missiles depends on Israel’s retention of the Golan Heights, which gives Israel’s radar the ability to look east. Dr. Frühling said that as long as Israel still has the “radar stations up in the Golan, you’d expect to cover all the approaches where [enemy missiles] would come in.”

An Imperfect System

Several experts conveyed to AIR that a completely impermeable ABM system is virtually impossible to establish with the currently available technology, but a reasonably effective system is nonetheless of tremendous strategic importance. Victoria Samson, a research analyst and missile defence expert at the Washington-based Center for Defence Information (CDI), told AIR that there “are not nearly enough [Arrow batteries] to be able to handle an onslaught of missiles. Like any missile defence system, it has an Achilles’ heel of being vulnerable to [a] series of missiles; eventually, if you throw enough stuff at it, something’s going to make it through.”

However, in an interview with Haaretz in 2002, Prof. Rubin pointed out that, “there is a limit to the number of missiles Iran and Syria can use. The quantity of missiles they will arm themselves with will depend on the capacity of their human resources and their infrastructure… The question is the capacity for deploying them.” RAND’s Ochmanek agrees, explaining, “the inventory of Iranian missiles remains pretty small and they are not very accurate.” He said if Iran is interested in attacking Israel, it will be forced to launch a large salvo of missiles, and “unless you have a nuclear missile on the front end, there is [a] fairly small amount of damage you can do with this attack.” Dr. Frühling also concurred, saying that, “you don’t have to make a system impenetrable to have quite significant strategic benefits,” adding, “you force the Iranians to go for a higher stake.”

In the recent INSS report, Prof. Rubin argues that based on the Arrow-2’s successful test record of 87 percent, Iran would be deterred from launching an attack because Israel’s Air Force would survive Iran’s initial strike – allowing it to launch a retaliatory attack on Iran. This argument is nullified if Iran is in fact irrational or suicidal, a hotly debated yet crucial factor. Prof. Rubin suspects that “judging from Iran’s actions rather than its rhetoric, it can be assumed that Iran is deterrable.”

The Hezbollah and Hamas Threats

The rockets on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Gaza pose a very different threat to Israel than Iran’s missiles, but one that Israeli experts are taking increasingly seriously. There are varying reports on Hezbollah’s stockpile of Katyusha rockets, but Israeli government sources reported in July that they believe Hezbollah now has 40,000 short- and medium-range rockets and missiles, triple the amount it possessed before the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The weapon that was fired most often in that conflict was the 122mm Katyusha rocket with a 30-50 km range and a modified warhead packed with ball bearings to maximise civilian casualties. Hezbollah also occasionally fired 220mm (70 km range) and 302mm rockets (100 km) during the war. Although individually smaller and less deadly than a ballistic missile, a large barrage of rockets can cause extensive levels of damage. The onslaught of 4,228 Katyusha and other rockets fired upon northern Israel in 2006 shows the impact of such an attack, causing 250,000 Israelis to seek refuge further south. In July, a French diplomat was quoted to the effect that Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles have increased not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively. These “serious weapons”, according to the diplomat, can reach Tel Aviv from north of Lebanon’s Litani river, giving Hezbollah the ability to strike deep into Israel while remaining deep inside Lebanon, a country it all but controls politically.

Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza have fired over 2,000 indigenously made Qassam rockets on Israel since 2001, in addition to 2,500 mortars that have been smuggled into Gaza from the Sinai. Qassams are made from various everyday metal objects, such as street posts, and fuelled by sugar mixed with fertiliser. They have a range of about 15 km. The town of Sderot (population 20,000) has been the main target of Qassam attacks, but some improved models have hit further north into the city of Ashkelon (pop. 105,000), which houses vulnerable chemical plants. Ranges of these homemade rockets are expected to keep increasing to include other cities further north, such as Ashdod and Kiryat Gat. Katyusha rockets have also been smuggled into Gaza and occasionally have been fired into Israel.

Israel’s Missing Defence

Israel’s lack of defence against the short-range rockets and mortars from Gaza and Lebanon has left Israel’s citizens in the northern and southern sectors of the country vulnerable to attacks which can make daily life all but impossible for extended periods. Over 8,000 rockets and mortars have fallen on the country since 2001 and Israel is still at least two years away from having an operational C-RAM system, despite making this a development priority in recent years.

One of the systems in development is the David’s Sling. It is designed to counter cruise missiles, rockets and missiles fired from ranges of 40 to 200 km. This system uses the American multistage high performance Stunner missile, and may be operational within two years. According to Victoria Samson from CDI, the US Congress has been supportive of the system’s ongoing development.

While the David’s Sling is planned to counter the heavier rockets fired at Israel, the Iron Dome, which is being produced by Israeli weapons manufacturer Rafael, is being developed to counter Qassams, mortars, and Katyushas. Despite delays in testing and much speculation on the system’s effectiveness, in a successful July 6 test the Iron Dome exceeded previous expectations with its Tamir missile showing the ability to intercept all three kinds of projectiles. According to latest reports, the system may be operational by 2010.

Finally, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), also known as the Nautilus system, is another C-RAM system that has been successfully tested. Northrop Grumman offered to build mobile THEL systems for Israel in 2007, but Israel and America cancelled funding for the project in 2006.

Advocates for the deployment of THEL argue that while the laser-based system is very costly to deploy, it is much cheaper to fire than the Iron Dome or other missile-based systems (about $1,000 per THEL firing compared with $100,000 per Tamir). Some critics argue that C-RAM systems are easy to overwhelm with cheap rockets and thus not cost effective. For these reasons a laser system like the THEL may be revived in the future as a solution to this problem.

Israel’s Five-Tier Plan

The hoped-for future of Israeli missile defence is the achievement of a planned five-tiered defensive shield. The Arrow-3 will be the highest altitude interceptor in this scheme. It is due to be tested late in 2008. Prof. Rubin told AIR that the Arrow-3 is being developed to deal with any future threats and it should be a significant improvement on the Arrow-2, which will be on the second-tier. The PAC-3, replacing the current PAC-2, will be on the third-tier. According to Ochmanek, the PAC-3 is generally more effective, and is harder to overwhelm during a concentrated attack because it has 16 missiles per PAC-3 launcher, in contrast to four missiles on the PAC-2. The David’s Sling and the Iron Dome will make up the bottom two tiers. Finally, Israel will be able to enhance the overall effectiveness of all its ABM systems by acquiring real-time updates from American infrared satellites that can detect missile launches anywhere in the world. This recent development was agreed to during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to the US in June.

The Future for Iran

While Israel’s defensive capabilities progress, so will Iran’s offensive missile program. Prof. Rubin envisions a few major developments in Iran’s missile program in the next few years. First, the Shehab-3 will probably improve in terms of range and payload. Second, Iran may be able to utilise solid propellant fuel in a multistaged missile, which allows missiles to travel further and faster, and also reduces preparation time to fire a missile. The Ashura is an Iranian missile that has been tested and is currently under development to be their first solid-fuel, two-stage missile.

Finally, there are reports Iran may be trying to develop a “satellite-launcher” which could easily be converted into an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), putting most (if not all) of the world within range. During Iran’s latest war games, Iranian website carried a pledge from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to launch a satellite. Although Israel is already in range of Iran’s medium-range missiles, more powerful missiles, such as future ICBMs or the current BM-25, would significantly strain Israel’s defensive capabilities. “What you can do with a more powerful missile is you can shoot… it higher and it will come in quicker,” said Dr. Frühling. The Washington Institute’s Eisenstadt pointed out that “even the Arrows required a software upgrade two years back to enable them to contend with the higher terminal velocity of a Shehab-3.”

Dr. Frühling concluded that, “as the Iranians get longer range missiles, they are going to come in more steeply and faster into Israel. That is why the Israelis need to develop more powerful boosters and missiles for the Arrow.” Israel may have achieved some strategic breathing room with its current ABM system, but it will likely be constantly racing to maintain this position as Iran continues to develop its missile capabilities and, if not stopped, possible nuclear payloads.


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