Recent developments in Israel’s defensive situation and strategy

Israel's Arrow 3 missile defence system being tested in Alaska (Photo: Israel Defence Ministry)

Update from AIJAC

08/19 #01

This Update is focused on analysing the implications and wider picture behind some recent events affecting Israel’s defence posture and strategy – namely, claims Israel launched raids on Iranian targets in Iraq over recent weeks, reports that Hezbollah has now established a presence in Syria on the Golan border with Israel, and the recent successful test of  Israel’s new Arrow-3 missile defence system in Alaska (see video here).

First up is Israeli military affairs analyst Yaakov Lappin commenting on the wider context of the alleged Israeli raids into Iraq. He says the context is that Iran, despite severe economic pressure, is still trying to build up attack capabilities throughout the Middle East. In the face of a successful Israeli effort to counter Iranian attempts to “turn Syria into a missile, drone and terrorist launchpad against Israel,” Iran is now trying to put its missiles in Iraq. Lappin also discusses new developments in Iran’s plan to build a “land bridge” to the Mediterranean” across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and Israeli attempts to counter these efforts. For his complete analysis,  CLICK HERE.

The next article, by Anna Ahronheirm of the Jerusalem Post, looks at the increasingly volatile situation on the Golan border. Experts cited note that the Assad regime’s success in the Syrian civil war, including the capture of the Golan border region by regime forces, has allowed Hezbollah to redeploy forces to the region, leading to an uptick in Israeli strikes in response. The report also notes that the changing situation in southern Syria has led to the end of Israel’s “good neighbour” policy of supplying aid and medical assistance to regional communities across the border, with those communities now having little choice but to align with the regime and Hezbollah. For this look at the Golan situation faced by Israel in full, CLICK HERE.

Finally, top Israeli security writer Ron Ben Yishai looks at the Arrow-3 and how it fits into Israel’s strategic planning. He says the Arrow-3 is the main Israeli defence asset against nuclear ballistic missiles, especially from Iran, because it can stop a missile outside the atmosphere, thus preventing it hitting the target area or spreading radioactive contamination after it is destroyed.  Ben Yishai also discusses how Israel is now preparing to deal with the future “hypersonic” missile against which no defence currently exists, and why lasers are the ultimate hope for future missile defence. For this important examination of Israel’s overall missile defence plans,  CLICK HERE.

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Iran continues efforts to surround Israel with missiles and hostile forces

Despite U.S. sanctions cracking down on its economy, Iran isn’t giving up its hegemonic aspirations, and is now focused on using Iraq for its purposes.

BY YAAKOV LAPPIN

JNS.org, July 31, 2019

Fateh-110 ballistic missiles being fired as part of Iran’s “Great Prophet 7” military exercise in July 2012. Credit: Hossein Velayati via Wikimedia Commons.
Iran is facing severe economic pressure due to U.S. sanctions, yet recent reports indicate that the Islamic Republic is still investing significant resources in building up attack capabilities throughout the Middle East, with a new focus on Iraq.

According to the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Israel struck two Iranian military sites this month in Iraq. The report, citing Western diplomatic sources, said Israeli stealth F-35 jets hit an Iranian rocket depot northeast of Baghdad on July 19, and on July 28, a base in Iraq that lies just 80 kilometres from the Iranian border in an airstrike. That base reportedly contained a shipment of Iranian ballistic missiles, as well as Iranian “advisers,” the report stated.

Iran’s apparent shift to Iraq comes after an intensive Iranian push in recent years to turn Syria into a missile, drone and terrorist launchpad against Israel. That attempt ran into a brick wall, in the form of hundreds of Israeli airstrikes that largely prevented the rise of an Iranian war machine in Syria. Iran already established a forward division in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah, and Israel has no intention of allowing Iran to replicate that success in Syria.

Iran appears to have responded to Israel’s intelligence superiority by repositioning itself in Iraq. If the latest reports are true, Israel is signalling that it is prepared to use the same effective combination of intelligence and precision firepower to thwart Iranian threats as they form in Iraq, just like it did in Syria.

In addition, it seems that the shadow war between Tehran and Jerusalem in Syria is far from over. Last week, Israeli jets reportedly struck a target in southern Syria’s Tel al-Hara, apparently to stop Iranian-backed forces from seizing control of a strategically important hill that can be used to gather intelligence on Israel.

Reports also surfaced last week of a Hezbollah operative—a Syrian-Druze resident of the village of Khadr, near the Israeli border—being killed after his car exploded as it drove in south Syria.

And on Sunday, rebel media sources in Syria released images of smoke rising from a Hezbollah headquarters building north of Damascus in what could be an additional strike.

Israel’s “War Between Wars”—the lowprofile campaign designed to stop Iran from setting up attack and weapons bases in Syria and beyond—seems to remain highly active. It is a direct response to Iran’s own intensive attempts to build up threats against Israel, including the attempt to flood Syria with missile factories, rocket launchers, drone bases and terror cells.

Iran has failed to achieve many of its central goals in Syria, so the Iranian Quds Force, led by the notorious Qassem Soleimani, looks determined to set up some of the missile bases on Iraqi soil instead.

From a practical perspective, Iran’s commitment to expanding its forces around the region while its economy crumbles makes little sense. But Iran’s fundamentalist Shi’ite ideology and hegemonic ambitions have fused to keep this effort going.

Iran working to construct land bridge to the Mediterranean

In this context, reports that a new border crossing that links Syria to Iraq is set to open deserves special attention.

According to a July 25 report published by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, preparations are underway to open the Albukamal border crossing in the coming two months.

The Meir Amit Center identified why this crossing is critical to Iran’s ambitions, noting that it is “vital for the land bridge Iran seeks to construct between its territory and the Mediterranean Sea. The route allows Iran to send forces, supplies and weapons through Iraq to Syria and from there to Lebanon. It can be assumed that Iran is of the opinion that the land bridge will enable it to reduce its dependence on risky aerial and naval routes. The new crossing, when it opens, will enable larger numbers of vehicles to enter Syria and make it easier to preserve secrecy.”

In June 2018, reports surfaced of unidentified planes striking Iranian-backed militias in the Syrian border town of Albukamal, resulting in many casualties.

Reconstruction in the Albukamal crossing – a crucial link in Iran’s plans for a landbridge to the Mediterranean –  and the road passing through it (ImageSat International – ISI)

With the new border crossing under construction, it seems difficult to believe that Israel would allow Iran to create its long-desired land bridge.

The Meir Amit Center assessed that “it is likely that the new crossing is being constructed with Iranian aid, and possibly with Iranian involvement. In addition, Iran participates in securing the area between Albukamal in Syria and al-Qa’im in Iraq by using Shi’ite militias deployed permanently in the region.”

Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias backed by Iran seized Albukamal in November 2018, remaining active on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

It seems unreasonable to believe that after putting a dent in Iran’s scheme to flood Syria and Lebanon with arms by trafficking them in planes, Israel would simply agree to those same arms entering the area by road.

Ultimately, it is the Israeli Air Force that acts as Israel’s “police force” in the skies of the Middle East, enforcing Jerusalem’s red lines against Iranian entrenchment.

To be able to achieve this, its personnel must function in a very high operational tempo and remain with a finger on the pulse of the rapidly changing geopolitical reality. The challenge is enormous.

Nevertheless, the IAF has been highly successful in waging Israel’s active defence campaign as it manoeuvres in the most dangerous and sensitive regions in the world. Syria alone has the most densely crowded air-defence network on the globe, and is also the scene of intense Russian military activity.

Operating largely behind the scenes, the IAF has been able to protect Israel’s vital security interests, roll back Iran’s presence, and so far, delay the outbreak of the next major war.

Yaakov Lappin is an Israeli military and strategic affairs analyst, an Associate Researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and the Israel correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS.org).


Things are heating up between Israel and Hezbollah in the Golan – analysis

By ANNA AHRONHEIM

Jerusalem Post, 07/25/2019

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

It’s been a hot summer in the Golan. And it’s not only the weather.

The past week alone saw two deadly attacks against Iranian proxies in southern Syria attributed to Israel. Earlier this week an explosion killed Hezbollah operative Mashour Zidan in southern Syria and a few days later a rocket struck the strategic Tel Haraa site not far from where Zidan was killed.

Israel has remained mum on the attacks, but the Jewish State has made it clear that it won’t accept Hezbollah’s growing presence in the Syrian Golan.

But Assad, along with Iranian backed troops, retook the Golan last summer, so what’s changed?

According to Phillip Smyth, the Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the buildup of local forces by Iran and Hezbollah is a major aspect that has been overlooked.

“Hezbollah doesn’t want to have to execute an entire war on its own in southern Syria. It’s much easier to apply plausible deniability and harder to bust a Hezbollah cell if they are locals,” he told The Jerusalem Post, adding that they have taken a slightly different approach and being very pragmatic in terms of who they recruit.

Zidan, a Druze resident from the village of Hadar, is believed to have been a senior Hezbollah operative responsible for recruiting volunteers from villages near the border with Israel as part of Hezbollah’s Golan File.

Senior intelligence officers in the IDF’s Northern Command said that Hezbollah’s Golan Project began last summer following the reconquering of the Syrian Golan by regime troops. Operatives involved in the clandestine file have weaponry available from the civil war and if needed, will receive additional weaponry from Lebanon or existing arsenals kept by Hezbollah and Iran.

“Hezbollah knows that Israel is watching, so they are being much more covert than in the past,” Smyth said, adding that they are using more local forces rather than sending brigades of Lebanese fighters to the area.

Military success in Syria has also allowed Hezbollah to redeploy senior operatives and troops to the area as well as southern Lebanon. The group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has said as much himself in a speech in mid-July.

“We are present in every area that we used to be. We are still there, but we don’t need to be there in large numbers as long as there is no practical need,” he said, adding that “if there was a need to return, all those who were there would go back.”

According to David Daoud, a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran, the uptick in Israeli strikes in the area is because “there has been increased Hezbollah presence.”

In mid-March US President Donald Trump announced the formal recognition of the Golan as sovereign Israeli territory, handing Hezbollah a present for their recruitment in the area.

“Recognition of the Golan creates common ground for different factions to agree upon – the same applies to the embassy move, and the ‘deal of the century,” Daoud said, adding that “Different regional groups or axes that might not otherwise agree now have something in common.”

Smyth told The Post that while “Trump’s statement has sent some signals to Iran,” Tehran has “upped the ante because of the situation on the ground, not because of Trump’s statement. They know that their goals will outlast the Trump administration. But if it rallies the troops, they will use it. They are very pragmatic.”

While the “Iranians have been following the same program in southern Syria for years, now they’re trying to secure and resecure their gains,” Smyth said. “There’s a lot more opportunity, it’s a net gain no matter how you look at it.”
Israeli strikes on Tel Haara, a strategic site overlooking the Golan in Syria’s Deraa province. Photo: EFE 

The attack on Tel Haara on Wednesday was not the first.

The site has been used by the Syrian army for years to observe Israeli movement, and since the Assad regime re-took the area from rebels last summer, there have been several strikes on the site blamed on Israel.

While the base, which has electronic surveillance capabilities, was supposed to be manned solely by regime troops, pro-Iranian militias including Hezbollah are known to be stationed in it.

According to Smyth, Hezbollah and Iran “have been at the forefront of using electronic means to counter their foes, its existed for decades and it wouldn’t shock me if they were testing the waters there.”

The opportunity was there for the taking.

The retaking of the Syrian Golan by Assad also forced Israel to end Operation Good Neighbor, where Israel provided humanitarian and, according to foreign reports, military aid to rebels in the Syrian Golan.

Israel also treated thousands of Syrians who arrived at the border, both combatants and civilians. According to officials some 70% of the wounded treated by Israel were men of fighting age while the other 30% were women and children.

A year later, “times have changed,” Smyth told the Post. “Not everyone has switched over but if your stuck in Syria and you have no options…and you can’t run into Israel…you have to back the strongest horse.”

And that’s Hezbollah.


The Arrow 3 is crucial to Israel’s defence – for now

Analysis: The new missile defence system is a vital component of Israel’s response to the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads; and while the IDF is constantly upgrading its four-fold protection against such attacks, it is also working on a new system to counter the next generation of hypersonic projectiles

Ron Ben-Yishai

Israel’s new Arrow 3 system (Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defence)

The successful testing of the Arrow 3 missile defence system in the Alaskan skies last week is worth a moment or two of Israel’s attention.

The Arrow 3 is Israel’s safety net in the event that Iran comes to possess nuclear weapons. It has the ability, now proven beyond any doubt, to destroy a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead before Israel is endangered in any way.

And it works not just against Iranian missiles; any missiles fired at Israel from other locations around the world could be brought down if, as feared, Iran’s atomic aspirations lead to worldwide nuclear proliferation.

The successful test in Alaska was a product of cooperation with the American AN-TPY2 radar (also known as X-band radar), which can identify targets from a great distance and even in outer space.

This does not mean that Israel’s Oren radar system is incapable of doing the same thing, but compatibility with an American system permanently stationed in the Negev Desert is a vital safety net should anything go wrong with the Israeli system.

Now Israel must make sure it has the launcher and missile stockpiles needed to counter an attack that may include large barrages of missiles carrying nuclear or hydrogen warheads fired from Iran at Israel.

In order to better understand the significance of Arrow 3 for the national security of the State of Israel and its citizens, one must appreciate that every military nuclear program is based on three basic components:

1. Fissionable material – plutonium or highly enriched uranium, which forms the nuclear explosive

2. Explosive device – the blast mechanism that initiates the nuclear fission process inside the bomb’s plutonium or uranium core

3. The method of delivering the nuclear weapon, which makes it possible to send the bomb over the target and detonate

In terms of delivery, there are three main options get a nuclear bomb to its target: Aircraft, as the Americans did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II; cruise missile, which is basically a small unmanned aircraft carrying a nuclear device; and ballistic missile.

With a ballistic missile, the projectile rises, exits the atmosphere, flies in an arched orbit, returns to the atmosphere when the warhead has separated, and then the warhead explodes. This usually involves a single warhead weighing 800 kilograms per tonne, or several warheads weighing some 250 kilograms each. These small nuclear warheads separate from the missile close to the target, before or shortly after it reenters the atmosphere.

The Iranians, to the best knowledge of Western and Israeli intelligence organizations, do not yet have proven capability to build an efficient nuclear explosive device – nor do they seem to have the ability to minimize a prototype of a nuclear explosive device to fit a missile warhead, let alone for a missile with divergent warheads – but they do want to produce divergent warheads for their Shihab-3 missile or other missiles with a range of more than 1,300 kilometres, which can reach from central or eastern Iran to Israel.

This is the driving force behind Israel’s insistence on its Arrow 3 having the capability to stop a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead from entering the atmosphere and detonating where it will can cause damage to Israel.

Of course, there are other options, such as placing a large nuclear bomb inside a container on a ship pretending to be a civilian merchant vessel and detonating it close to an Israeli port.

This is just an example, but one must recognize that any country that achieves nuclear capability, expending vast resources on the development of a nuclear facility and nuclear warheads will not risk said nuclear device making a long land or sea journey that would allow foreign intelligence services to track it, and putting it in danger of being intercepted or destroyed. It could, of course, also malfunction.

Even a plane could be intercepted by enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft missiles, therefore any country that does acquire a nuclear weapon would likely launch it toward its target using a ballistic missile, a cruise missile, or even in the future a hypersonic missile.

The United States, France, Britain and China are already developing new types of missiles, which travel at five times the speed of sound towards their target. The existing missile interception systems are not capable of stopping them.

With this being the case, one may wonder why Israel views the Arrow 3 as so crucial to its national security. It is because the system is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles once they have left the atmosphere – namely, in space – even before the warhead or warheads split off.

Destroying the warhead while it is still in space ensures that not only will the missile miss its target on Earth, but what remains of it and its warheads will not reenter the atmosphere and hit the target area -namely, Israel.

Furthermore, successfully intercepting a nuclear warhead that has reentered the atmosphere in or near Israeli airspace could cause severe radioactive contamination even if it does not hit precisely the target area.

In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), an Iran’s Shahab-3 missile is launched during military manoeuvres outside the city of Qom, Iran, Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Photo Credit: AP

Finally, stopping a nuclear warhead before it reenters the atmosphere affords Israel the opportunity to destroy it in another way should the initial interception fail.

The Arrow 3 is one of Israel’s four missile defence capabilities that can counter different methods of warhead delivery and also provide backup when one of the other systems fails.

These defence capabilities include the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow 2, and now Arrow 3. David’s Sling can also bring down cruise missiles with a range of hundreds of kilometres, should the Iranians, Hezbollah or the Syrians employ such weapons.

It is unclear whether the Arrow 3 system can provide a response to hypersonic weapons that will appear over the next five to ten years in the hands of the superpowers. The Iranians will take a little longer, but one has to be ready and think about it now.

But one should also bear in mind that every interception system, especially those that bring down missiles, undergoes endless cycles of development. The Iron Dome system of July 2019, for example, has far more capabilities than the original. This is also true of David’s Sling and Arrow 2.

These innovations must be introduced on a continuous basis so that Israel is always at least three steps ahead of the Iranians or anyone else developing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Israel cannot afford to be asleep at the switch, assuming that it has a relatively solid response to any high-trajectory threat, especially a nuclear one.

The next thing the defence establishment and defence industries are working on is laser defence, which is supposed to enable the destruction of multiple targets within minutes.

And it is only when the State of Israel has operational laser systems can its citizens truly sleep peacefully.