Israel Set to Use New Missile Shield to Counter Scuds
Sun Oct 6, 9:10 AM ET
By MICHAEL R. GORDON The New York Times
PALMACHIM AIR FORCE BASE, Israel Israel has deployed an operational missile defense and is ready to use it to protect Tel Aviv and other major population centers if they come under fire from Iraq's arsenal of Scud missiles.
Known as the Arrow, the system is designed to avoid the pitfalls of the American Patriot system, which Israelis say had little success in stopping Iraq's Scud missile attacks during the Persian Gulf war ( news - web sites) in 1991.
The program, which will cost more than $2 billion, is partly financed by the United States. One battery is already deployed here, and when the final interceptors and radars are installed about two years from now, Israel will be the first nation in the world to have a nationwide missile defense system.
If the Bush administration follows through with its threats to attack Iraq, and Saddam Hussein ( news - web sites) lashes out at Israel, the Arrow could be put to the test in what would be an important trial of antimissile technology.
"It would be the first time in history that an interceptor that was developed strictly to shoot down incoming missiles is used," a Pentagon ( news - web sites) official said. "The Patriot used in 1991 was designed to shoot down airplanes and modified to give it some kind of antimissile capability. But from the start, the Arrow was built to intercept ballistic missiles. The whole world will be watching to see what happens, and we will be watching."
At the heavily guarded Palmachim air force base south of Tel Aviv, the Israeli military has been preparing for one of Israel's worst nightmares: a salvo of Al Hussein Scud missiles from Iraq, possibly carrying chemical or biological agents. The flight time for an Iraqi Scud to a target in Israel is only about six or seven minutes.
Wearing gas masks and protective suits, Arrow crews practice reloading the Arrow missile launcher in an environment contaminated with chemical agents. In the fire control center, Israeli officers practice tracking and intercepting incoming Scud missiles under various attack scenarios. Unlike the Patriot system used in the gulf war, whose fire control system was essentially automated, the Israeli system allows military officers to decide when to fire the Arrow interceptor.
At a firing site, huge launchers, each loaded with six Arrow interceptors, stand at the ready while Israel's Green Pine radar scans the skies.
"We did a lot of testing, and most were successful," said Danny Peretz, the program manager for the Arrow at Israel Aircraft Industries, which makes the system. "But we know in our hearts and put it in the design that this weapon will be tested only in war."
The Arrow has its origins in President Ronald Reagan ( news - web sites)'s Strategic Defense Initiative. After Mr. Reagan began his "Star Wars" program, Israel joined in the research and development effort. At first there was considerable debate in Israel as to whether it really needed a missile shield, a dispute that was essentially ended during the gulf war when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles struck Israeli territory.
"There were lot of arguments that Israel was so powerful that nobody would launch a missile at us," Mr. Peretz said. "But that all changed in 1991. Would anybody dare launch a missile at Israel? Well, somebody did."
After the conflict, the Israeli government decided that it needed its own antimissile system and that the system needed to do a better job of stopping Scuds than the Patriot did. The Arrow program moved into high gear.
The Arrow is what military experts call a theater defense system, meaning it is designed to intercept medium- and short-range missiles, not ocean-spanning intercontinental missiles. But because Israel is such a small country, the three batteries it plans to deploy will be a true nationwide system, protecting all of Israel's territory.
The primary threats are from the east and north, and they are growing. Iraq has a small covert force of Al Hussein Scuds, according to American and British intelligence. Iran is on the verge of fielding the Shahab-3, which will have the range to strike Israel. Syria is also building up its force of Scud missiles. Israel has used the Green Pine radar to monitor tests of Syria's Scud-D missile. If Libya improves its missiles, Israel will face a potential threat from the west as well.
Operated by the Israeli Air Force, one Arrow battery has been operational here at the Palmachim base for two years. The deployment of the second battery in central Israel was delayed when people who lived nearby complained that the Green Pine radar might endanger their health.
The Israelis are trying to make the second battery operational before any American attack on Iraq. As a stopgap, the Arrow missile launchers from the second battery can be linked to Palmachim battery to improve its effectiveness, an Israeli Defense Ministry official said.
"We can cover the heart of the country and the largest population centers in central Israel and in the north," said Lt. Col. Shahar Shohat, who commands the Arrow battery here.
The United States paid about half of the $1.6 billion cost of developing the Arrow system, a Pentagon official said, while Israel paid the entire several hundred million dollars needed to develop the Green Pine radar, which tracks incoming missiles and guides Arrow interceptors toward their targets.
The Arrow differs from the Patriot in several important respects. During the gulf war, the Patriot intercepted Iraq's Scud missiles toward the end of their flight. By then, the missiles purchased from the Soviet Union, modified by the Iraqis to extend their range and called Al Hussein often fell apart in flight and broke into pieces. This confused the Patriot system, which fired lots of interceptors at the pieces or sometimes was unable to discern which was the warhead and fired no interceptors at all.
So the Israelis did it differently. They designed a system that is intended to intercept the Scud at a higher altitude. Destroying the warhead sooner, and farther from Israeli territory, is also prudent if the missile is carrying a chemical or biological warhead.
"The Iraqi Al Hussein missiles separated when they got inside the atmosphere," Colonel Shohat said, "So if we intercept at a higher altitude, we don't have to deal with separation."
The Arrow is not what the Pentagon calls a "hit to kill" system, meaning it would not destroy the incoming missile by smashing into it. Instead, it would maneuver close enough to the incoming Scud to destroy it with an explosive charge.
Israeli officials said the Arrow had been integrated into the nation's military planning. If Iraq staged an attack, the first warning would come from the Americans, whose spy satellites can detect the heat from rocket plumes as soon as they ignite. The information would be quickly transmitted to Israel.
Soon after, Israel's Green Pine radar would begin to track the Scud, probably in the ascent phase. Using tracking data from Green Pine, Israeli officers would determine the probable launching point. That information could be immediately transmitted to the Israeli Air Force, which could carry out airstrikes on the Iraqi Scud launchers, which are mobile, before they could move or shoot again.
Data from the Green Pine system would also be used to estimate the point of impact. Based on this information, Israel's Home Front Command would sound an alert in the target area. Israeli citizens would have several minutes to go to their shelters and put on gas masks.
Then the Arrow batteries would swing into action. Interceptors would be fired toward the incoming Scuds. The Arrows would be directed toward their target by Green Pine and would then close in using sensors that detect the Scud's heat. Then the Arrow's warhead would explode, destroying the Scud warhead.
But the Israelis are still in a touchy situation. They have a limited supply of Arrows, which cost $3 million a missile. Boeing is teaming up with Israel to increase the production of interceptors. But the additional interceptors will not begin to become available for about two years, too late if war breaks out soon between the United States and Iraq but in time for possible new threats from Iran and Syria.
So Israel must husband its inventory of Arrow interceptors. That is one reason why the Arrow, unlike the Patriot, does not rely exclusively on computers to make the decision to fire. An Israeli officer can override the computer and decide whether to fire and with how many interceptors.
"The only sure thing in war is that the unexpected is going to happen," Mr. Peretz said. "You cannot build a weapon system that will rely on a computer only. You have to be able to work manually as well as fully automatic."
Any Scud that eluded the Arrow could be attacked by Patriot systems, which work at lower altitudes and are also part of the Israeli arsenal. The United States is also likely to send additional Patriot batteries in the event of war. They will be under the command of Colonel Shohat, who was trained in air defense at the United States Army base at Fort Bliss, Tex.
Thus, the Israelis now have a two-track capability: a high-altitude defense using the Arrow and a lower-tier Patriot.
The initial Arrow test failed when there was a computer mishap and the interceptor was blown up five seconds into the test by the range safety officer. The two next tests also failed. But Israeli officials said eight of the last nine tests had been successful. Still, officials acknowledge, the real test will be in war.
"If this war is going to emerge it, could be a test case of 14 years of development by a lot of people," Mr. Peretz said.