The head of Israel’s missile defense program says that recent modifications to the Arrow II system will allow it to successfully intercept and destroy any ballistic missile in the Middle East, including nuclear-capable missiles under development by Iran. Arieh Herzog, head of the Defense Ministry’s Homa Missile Defense Agency, made the comments in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, which will run in Monday’s edition of the paper. A preview of the interview was published in today’s Post.
Herzog’s comments are certainly welcome news for a nation facing an ever-expanding ballistic missile threat. Mr. Herzog notes that both Iran and Syrian have essentially abandoned efforts at building modern air forces, and are devoting “unprecedented” amounts of money to their ballistic missile programs. In the case of Iran, the missile defense director noted that the Tehran government is buying “entire missile systems” from North Korea, an apparent reference to the intermediate-range BM-25, acquired last year. He also identified Pyongyang as the primary supplier of ballistic missile technology to Syria, although Damascus’s best missile system (the SS-21) was provided by Russia.
In terms of future threats, Herzog hedged a bit, telling the Post that “there might be missile systems in Iranian hands that the Arrow could not intercept.” Is that another reference to the BM-25, or a nod toward Iranian systems that are still in development? As we’ve observed in the past, Tehran’s scientists and engineers have experienced significant difficulties in extending the reach of their Shahab-3 medium-range missiles (maximum range: 900 miles), and developing intermediate-range systems. Those difficulties were likely a deciding factor in the decision to buy the BM-25, which gives Iran a ready-made capability to strike targets as far away as southern Europe.
Mr. Herzog’s comments also beg another question: is he admitting that the latest variant of Arrow II has significant limitations, or (perhaps) providing a bit of disinformation through the pages of the Post? Obviously, no missile defense system is completely fool-proof; to some degree, all are vulnerable to countermeasures (typically dispensed during reentry, along with the warhead), saturation, and simple physics. Clearly, hitting a missile with another missile is a difficult proposition, but as range and velocities increase, the complexity of that task grows almost geometrically. That’s why existing defense systems are capable against short or medium-range systems, but have little or no capability against ICBMs.
If I had to guess, I’d say Herzog’s observations are more disinformation than an admission of weakness. The Arrow II system and its components have sufficient room for “growth,” incorporating improvements in radar, computer and missile technology. Last Monday’s test launch is an example of how the system has matured since its introduction in the mid-1990s. The most recent test was used to evaluate the latest variant of the Arrow II’s interceptor missiles, which have undergone a number of modifications over the years. Israeli officials described Monday’s test as a “complete success.”
Moreover, since the Arrow program is a cooperative venture with the United States, Israel will continue to benefit from our own missile defense efforts (and vice-versa). As existing systems (eventually) reach their engineering limits, Israel will access technologies that would further expand their defensive shield, such as THAAD. The Israelis might also renew calls for a mutual defense pact with the U.S., which could lead to full integration of current and projected systems into plans for defending the Jewish State.
But even without a bilateral defense pact, Israel’s missile defenses are adequate for meeting the Iranian and Syrian threats, at least for the near term. Saturation will remain the Israeli’s greatest concern; there are only so many rounds for the Arrow II and Patriot batteries, to deal with ever-expanding missile arsenals in both Syria and Iran. As we’ve seen in simulations of a Taiwan-China conflict, extended barrages of ballistic missiles can eventually overwhelm ground- based defenses. That’s one reason the PRC has massed over 700 short and medium-range missiles opposite Taiwan, creating an offensive threat that will saturate the island’s few Patriot batteries.
However the Taiwan example can’t be fully applied to Israel, which has trump cards the Taiwanese clearly lack. The Israeli Air Force (with precision munitions and its ISR system) will make it difficult for the Syrians to sustain a missile barrage. More importantly, the Israelis can “up the ante” using the threat of nuclear strikes (using Jericho II MRBMs, cruise missiles, or aircraft-delivered weapons) to keep their enemies in check. And, neither Damascus nor Tehran has any defensive capabilities against an Israeli missile strike.