October 15, 2002 9:00 a.m.
Israel’s Arrow Defense
How Israel has prepared for the next strike.
f past behavior predicts future performance, then Iraq is sure to fire Scud missiles at Israel when the United States attacks. Saddam Hussein will use his weapons not as military assets, but as instruments of terror whose main mission will be to ignite a wide conflict throughout the region. He failed to achieve this goal during the first Gulf War, and odds are he will fail again because, as David Smith of National Institute for Public Policy puts it, "Israel is about to become the first country in the world to have a true national missile defense."
Probably no other country has such a pressing need for one. Eleven years ago, Iraq launched 93 Scuds at its enemies, including 39 at Israel. Most missed their targets, but the barrage killed two Israelis and injured 200 more. (At Dharan, in Saudi Arabia, a single Scud killed 28 Americans.) None of the Scuds was loaded with biological or chemical weapons, as had been feared, though some Israelis believe that at least one may have been aimed at a nuclear reactor. A single well-aimed missile could inflict catastrophic damage on a tiny nation like Israel.
There's nothing like a crisis to focus the mind, and the experience of the Gulf War convinced the Israelis to redouble their missile-defense efforts. Not only had Iraq just taken a few shots at them, but Syria also stockpiled Scuds and Iran remained committed to developing rockets capable of delivering warheads to Tel Aviv. So while the United States deliberated over whether a missile-defense system could be made to work or whether it would destabilize international relations, Israel went ahead and built one. A battery of antiballistic Arrow missiles is now operational, another is about to go online, and a third should be ready within a year or so. Meanwhile, the United States is swiftly approaching the 20th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative speech — the inauguration of its modern effort to build missile defenses — and it remains almost completely naked to attack.
The Arrow system would not have been built without substantial assistance from the United States, which footed about three quarters of the bill and also provided most of the technical know-how. In addition, providing a missile defense for Israel is a relatively simple chore: It's a small country surrounded by local foes armed with short and medium-range projectiles. The United States, in contrast, is much larger; any attack on it would involve speedy ICBMs that are much more difficult to knock out of action. Still, the Israeli example shows how a determined effort can lead to a great accomplishment — and perhaps finally end a long debate that our country at least has had the luxury of having.
Al Qaeda awakened many Americans to the necessity of homeland defense last year — and missile defense is nothing if not homeland defense writ large. Yet its diehard adversaries have persisted in their opposition. "I think the proponents of missile defense have a lot to answer for in terms of why we were so unprepared for September 11," said Joseph Cirincione of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace during an episode of Frontline that debuted last Thursday (October 10).
The irony is startling: No other country suffers from more terrorism than Israel, which now has gone on to develop a function missile-defense system. "Blaming September 11 on missile-defense supporters is like saying the Israelis who built the Arrow are responsible for the Intifada," says Peter Huessy of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense-consulting firm.
In fact, Iraqi Scuds shot at Israel are nothing but weapons of terror. They certainly hold no military value. Their single purpose is to frighten the Israeli public, commit its political leadership to a drastic response, and transform a small war between a handful of countries into a large one between Arabs and Jews.
Hussein is perhaps more likely to attack Israel today, compared to the Gulf War. Back then, regime change was not the official policy of the United States. This time, Hussein knows he's a priority. "Even a dictator is not suicidal," President Bush said in September, though a dictator who believes he's going to die may not be a rational actor taking a long view.
Iraq can launch a chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes of receiving an order, according to a recent report by the British government. Hussein possesses many fewer Scud missiles than he once did — perhaps as many as 20, which were either hidden from U.N. inspectors during the 1990s or since reassembled from parts. There is also concern that his henchmen may have converted L-29 training jets into unmanned drones able to carry chemical or biological agents. Hussein apparently set down some ground rules for using weapons of mass death during the first Gulf War: Kenneth M. Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, reports that Hussein set up a special Scud unit with orders to use chemical or biological weapons in the event of a march on Baghdad.
If he had used them, there's no guarantee he would have hit anything. Iraqi Scuds were plagued with technical problems and often ripped into several pieces upon reentering the atmosphere. This is one of the reasons Patriot missiles were credited with so many strikes during the conflict, and then had their performance downgraded during later investigation: The Scuds would fragment as if they'd been hit successfully, but in reality the Patriots often had nothing to do with it and instead would find themselves in the position of not knowing what to target. "We won't ever have a totally accurate score sheet for the Patriot," says Lt. Col. Rich Lehner of Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, because so much of the assessment relies on sketchy video analysis. They probably hit a few of their targets, though it's also possible they didn't hit any.
A handful of hits wouldn't be awful, considering the circumstances — the Patriot was built as an air-defense weapon, meaning it was designed for use against aircraft rather than missiles. And it must be acknowledged that the Patriot achieved a substantial political success, no matter what its actual performance: Its mere presence elevated the comfort level of the Israelis and thereby reduced the terror value of the Scuds. Hussein sought to provoke a response, but the Israelis refused him, in part because of the Patriots.
Two lessons from the Gulf War, then, were that missile defense was useful — and that it had to be improved. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, about three quarters of the missile-defense budget had gone toward national missile defense (i.e., defending the continental U.S.) and only one-quarter toward theater missile defense (i.e., defending a region the size of Israel or Taiwan). By the mid-1990s, these portions had swapped places. Yet missile defense as a whole suffered from steep cuts — theater spending didn't increase so much as national spending decreased. "During the Clinton years, we should have made a whole series of technological steps on seeker systems, radar guidance, and so on that would have put us and Israel in a better position today," says Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation. "But we didn't." The existing Patriot missile has undergone improvements, but its next generation, the completely revamped PAC-3, has not yet been deployed.
What has been deployed, of course, is the Arrow system, whose missiles operate at higher altitudes than the Patriot. A single battery can fire 36 shots before reloading (which takes a few hours). This may be more than enough against a limited Iraqi attack, especially considering it won't act in isolation. Israel also operates several batteries of Patriots as backups, and it can probably count on the United States to hunt for Scud launchers on some of the very first missions of any invasion. Israel also has a sophisticated civil defense — bomb shelters in many homes, the widespread distribution of gas masks, and thousands of emergency-response personnel already vaccinated.
Yet the Arrow system is not without its shortcomings. Its current size is clearly insufficient to defend against, say, Syria's entire Scud arsenal. It also relies on a proximity fuse rather than hit-to-kill technology, which is to say it simply tries to get near its target and then blow up rather than scoring a direct hit. This means that Arrow missiles, like the Patriots, are susceptible to knocking their targets off course rather than decimating them — a reasonable shortcoming if the Scuds crash in the desert but not if fragments containing chemical or biological agents plummet into cities.
What's more, Israel has no defense at all against the thousands of Katyusha rockets now in the hands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon. Most have a range of about 12 miles and are at best instruments of harassment, though in August one Israeli soldier was killed during a missile and mortar attack. There are also reports of Fajr missiles in the area; they have a 45-mile range that puts them within reach of the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The best weapon for defending against these attacks, the Theater High Energy Laser (THEL), another joint U.S.-Israeli project, is still in development.
Despite these vulnerabilities, Israelis themselves seem optimistic about missile defense. In September, Moshe Yaalon, the head of their army, announced, "We are prepared so that nothing will reach the area at all." No matter what happens, though, the Arrow system won't be proven until it defeats a real-world threat. If it does, that will be good news for the Israeli people whose lives are in immediate danger — and for the American people who still need to be defended from missile attack.