Israel’s Ballistic Missile Defense Two-Front War

Israel flag and arrow
The Scuds weren’t very good. The only Israeli fatality in that bombardment was from a heart attack. But the Patriot was unfairly disparaged afterwards, in part because Israeli planners wanted to get lots of U.S. funding for their own Arrow (pictured).

“Hear the word of the LORD, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock. For the LORD hath redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of him that was stronger than he.”
—Jeremiah 31:10-11

“And it shall come to pass, that as ye were a curse among the heathen, O house of Judah, and house of Israel; so will I save you, and ye shall be a blessing: fear not, but let your hands be strong. For thus saith the LORD of hosts; As I thought to punish you, when your fathers provoked me to wrath, saith the LORD of hosts, and I repented not: So again have I thought in these days to do well unto Jerusalem and to the house of Judah:fear ye not.
—Zechariah 8:13-15

On Tuesday, we reported in our sister BMD Watch column about Israeli defense planners’ decision to radically beef up the deployment of their Arrow anti-ballistic missile interceptors in the north of their country to prepare for a massive very short-range ballistic missile bombardment from Syria in the event of war.

Most of the coverage of Israeli ballistic missile defense procurement and planning over the past few years, our own included, has focused on the Jewish state preparing to deal with a possible eventual nuclear threat from far-off Iran. The excellent Arrow — probably the best ABM interceptor in the world for longer ranges and higher altitudes — was designed and upgraded with precisely this kind of threat in mind. As we have noted in these columns over the past few months, a recent series of highly successful tests measured the effectiveness of upgraded versions of the Arrow against target missiles configured to perform like Iranian intermediate-range Shahid-3s.

However, the Syrian ballistic missile threat to Israel, while non-nuclear, adds an ominous level of complexity to the threat that defense planners in Tel Aviv must deal with.

The Syrians do not have nuclear weapons, and there appears to be no likelihood that either Russia or Iran will trust them with such devastating weapons in the foreseeable future.

But they are armed to the teeth with short-range missiles and the intermediate range and much more formidable Iskanders that they are now buying from Russia.

Where Iranian missiles would be relatively few in number but pose the threat of eventually carrying nuclear weapons, Syria already has vastly more much smaller and shorter-range missiles, which do not possess a nuclear potential. But they pose a very different but also very serous threat — that in the event of war they could disrupt the mobilization of the Israeli army and the regular delivery of munitions and other supplies to the Israeli army fighting the regular Syrian army on the Golan Heights.

The striking increase in the number of Arrows deployed in the north of Israel is designed to try and prepare against this threat. So is the renewed interest of Israeli planners in buying more Patriot PAC-3as. Ironically, Israeli media outlets disparaged earlier Patriot performance in the 1991 Gulf War when they did so much to defend Tel Aviv against Scud missile attacks with conventional warheads fired by Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The Scuds weren’t very good. The only Israeli fatality in that bombardment was from a heart attack. But the Patriot was unfairly disparaged afterwards, in part because Israeli planners wanted to get lots of U.S. funding for their own Arrow.

In fact the Arrow and the Patriot complement each other very well, with the Patriot providing lower altitude protection against the shorter-range missiles and against any higher trajectory longer range ones that the Arrows missed.

Ironically, some Israeli news reports in recent months have gone to the other extreme, disparaging the Arrow at the expense of the Patriot. The writers assumed that because Israeli planners were looking at the Patriot PAC-3, there had to be something seriously wrong with the Arrow. In fact both systems perform extremely well, but given the scale of the threat the Israelis face, they need all the Patriots and Arrows they can get.

Nor are the Israelis limited in their range of BMD options to the tried and tested Patriots and Arrows. The Jerusalem Post reported Aug. 24 that the country’s Air Defense Forces were also carrying out exercises with the U.S. armed forces “in an effort to increase coordination between the two countries and to prepare for the possibility that Washington will send U.S. missile defense systems to Israel if and when they are needed.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli Defense Ministry had recently formally asked the U.S. Department of Defense to send it detailed data on the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense and about the sea-based Aegis ABM system, which employs Standard Missile 3s. Japan is investing heavily in Aegis and the SM-3s on its warships as well as ground-based Patriots as part of its own multi-tiered BMD system against possible nuclear ballistic missile threats from North Korea.

The Jerusalem Post report also noted that in March this year, U.S. Army officers serving in the European Command came to Israeli to participate in the Juniper Cobra exercise, which is carried out every two years and in which Israeli and U.S. forces jointly run missile defense simulations.

“Our objective is to create the infrastructure and ensure that the Arrow will be interoperable with other systems,” one Israeli officer told the newspaper.

The Israelis are understandably taking every precaution they can and are receiving unstinted support and cooperation from the Bush administration and the U.S. Department of Defense.

However, the greatest danger the Israelis may face is not the Iranian or Syrian threats in themselves, but the combination of them. Their need to defend themselves simultaneously against intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles with potential nuclear warheads from Iran, at the same time as possibly having to deal with hundreds of much shorter-range, lower trajectory weapons fired from Syria, injects a degree of complexity into Israeli BMD planning that is quite unique. The distinction is not a welcome one.

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