While Israeli political leaders may still harbor hope of diplomatically dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials are forging ahead with plans to develop new top-tier defenses against doomsday-like threats should diplomacy fail.
“Unlike the diplomats and politicians, we don’t have the luxury of hope,” a senior military planner here said. “Our job is to anticipate the most extreme, worst-case scenarios and make sure we’re prepared to handle them.”
Defense and industry officials say the prospective top-tier defensive layer — known here as Arrow-3 — requires development of an entirely new interceptor capable of blunting potentially devastating salvo attacks by nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles. Preliminary MoD plans envision the exo-atmospheric Arrow-3 as the nation’s future front line of active defense, with the operational Arrow-2 deployed as a second-echelon guard against lesser threats and so-called leakers.
The planned upward extension of Israel’s defensive envelope promises more opportunities to intercept incoming missiles, thereby boosting success rates — or so-called kill probabilities — from current levels of more than 80 percent to “somewhere in the very high 90s,” said the planner, a general officer in the Israel Defense Forces.
“After careful analysis, we’ve come to the conclusion that we need an upper layer,” said Arieh Herzog, director of the MoD’s Israel Missile Defense Organization. “Our requirement is now quite clear: We need to give ourselves more chances to intercept the threats we will face.”
Herzog said he is confident that existing Block 3 and new Block 4 upgrades of the Arrow-2 are now capable of defending against current and projected near-term threats. But for the longer term, given the specter of synchronized launches of increasingly high-performance nuclear-tipped missiles, the top tier becomes imperative, he said.
Looking at All Threats
In a preliminary conceptual design study conducted over the past year or so, Herzog’s team and experts from the Israel Air Force examined options for defending against future threats. Options included more Arrow-2 upgrades and the U.S.-planned Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
“What we discovered is that THAAD is an excellent system, and I’m sure whoever uses THAAD will derive great benefit from it. But in our specific case, it cannot fit our requirements,” Herzog said.
According to Herzog, Israel’s operational force of Arrow-2 and PAC-2 systems now provide the type of high-low mix that the MoD plans to recreate — through Arrow-2 and the proposed Arrow-3 — for future, far more sophisticated threats.
“Right now, with Arrow-2 and existing Patriot systems, we have a good solution against the Scud-family of threats from Iran, Syria and other points in the region,” he said.
The Israeli missile defense boss said security classification prevented him from discussing specific reasons that his evaluation team ultimately disqualified the THAAD. He said, however, Israeli professionals are discussing the top-tier report and the new Arrow-3 with counterparts from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
He said MDA support for the prospective interceptor is critical, not only for the considerable funding anticipated from Washington, but because of the need to share data and subsystem technologies over the life of the program.
“We’ve not yet decided how much year-by-year funding each side must earmark for the program, and we’ll probably need to sign new documents about how technical information should be handled,” Herzog said. “But I hope by the end of this year, all these details will be sorted out and we’ll be able to say we have a real program.”
He estimated it would take at least five years and “several hundred million dollars” for the first Arrow-3s to become operational.
Herzog said the new interceptor would use the same radar, battle management and other supporting systems developed for Arrow-2, helping to keep interoperability up and costs down.
Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) will remain the prime contractor and lead integrator for the prospective Arrow-3 program, Herzog said.
In interviews here, industry sources said IAI has already begun negotiations with Boeing Missile Defense Systems to extend the co-production partnership begun in 2003. Boeing produces nearly 40 percent of Arrow-2 components under a complex, U.S.-funded government-to-government teaming agreement managed by Israel’s MoD and the Arrow program office in Huntsville, Ala.
Two-Part Iran Strategy
Israel’s two-pronged strategy for countering the Iranian threat was clearly evident last week, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Moscow pushing harsher sanctions on Tehran and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Washington drumming up support for strategic cooperative initiatives.
In an Oct. 16 Pentagon meeting focused largely on the Iranian threat, Barak and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed to collaborate jointly on multiple layers of anti-rocket and anti-missile defense. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the two sides agreed to establish a committee to evaluate Israel’s proposed Arrow-3, as well as new developments aimed at halting “Palestinian rockets coming from Gaza.”
Barak also reaffirmed Israel’s “understanding” of multibillion-dollar arms packages planned for Arabian Gulf states as part of Washington’s Iran-focused Gulf Security Dialogue, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. The Iranian threat also dominated discussions Barak held with U.S. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and key congressional leaders, Israeli sources here said.
Meanwhile, Olmert was attempting to persuade Russian President Vladmir Putin of the need for get-tough sanctions favored by Israel, the United States and many leading European states. In three hours of one-on-one deliberations — which included presentation of the latest Israeli intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program — Olmert managed to offset some of the Russian-Iranian solidarity exhibited during the Russian leader’s visit to Tehran earlier last week, an Olmert aide said.
Yet key issues remain open, including pending Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria, the aide said. And while Putin “expressed genuine interest in understanding our security concerns,” the aide said Moscow remains opposed “at this time” to sanctions.
Earlier last week, following meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Putin rebuffed U.S., European and Israeli calls for sanctions and insisted he had seen no convincing evidence to counter Tehran’s claims that ongoing nuclear efforts are for peaceful, energy-related purposes. In an Oct. 16 news conference in Tehran, he upbraided Bush, French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy and other world leaders for even hinting at use of a military option to solve the dispute.
Israeli officials are taking comfort in Washington’s commitment to deny Iran nuclear weapons.
They are also intensifying efforts in China, where they are appealing for support — or, at least non-active objection — to sanctions. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to visit Beijing later this week in attempts to persuade Chinese leaders not to veto resolutions planned for introduction in the U.N. Security