Home inFocus Israel: Beyond the Headlines (Spring 2016) Israel Missile Defense: A Work in Progress

Israel Missile Defense: A Work in Progress

Uzi Rubin Spring 2016

On January 18th 2016, speaking before a Tel Aviv conference on National Security issues, Israel’s Chief of the General Staff LTG Gad Eisenkot outlined the major force structure components of Israel Defense Forces in years to come. Prominent among them was a “four or five tier missile defense system that will provide Israel with the most advanced capability in the world.”  While some observers might find nothing remarkable in Eisenkot’s statement, this is far from the case. In fact, the IDF’s perception of missile defense as a crucial component of its military capability is a fairly recent development, following decades of suspicion against defensive weapons and strategies. The IDF, nurtured on Ben Gurion’s doctrine of waging wars by offensive means, was reluctant to accept the need for defensive weapons. It was only the shock of the 2006 Lebanon War – when thousands of Hizbollah rockets ravaged Northern Israel – and the resounding success of the Iron Dome batteries inblunting the Hamas rocket offensive in 2014 that the IDF finally accepted that missile defense is both essential and effective.

The Early Days of Ballistic Missiles

Ballistic missiles and rockets have been acquired and deployed by hostile states and organizations since the 1960’s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, then ruler of Egypt, embarked on a national ballistic missile program aimed at threatening Israel from deep within Egypt. When this program collapsed, he purchased SCUD missiles from the Soviet Union, some of which were fired against Israeli troop concentrations during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Likewise, Syria acquired Soviet SCUD missiles and FROG heavy rockets that were used to some effect against Israel’s northern air base during the same war.  Iraq, Libya, and even distant Yemen also acquired Soviet SCUD and other ballistic missiles.

While SCUDs, FROGs, and other ballistic missiles were being purchased and deployed by hostile countries, non-state actors such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by Yasser Arafat acquired light, mobile Katyusha type rockets with which to terrorize Israel’s border towns and villages immediately after the 1967 Six Day War. Scores of Katyusha rockets fired from North Jordan at the town of Bet Shean and various kibbutzim in the Jordan Valley caused damage, casualties, and economic disruption. After being evicted from Jordan in the 1970 civil war (“Black September”), Arafat and his PLO rocket teams moved to Southern Lebanon and resumed their rocket terror, this time against Israel’s Northern Galilee population centers, including Kiryat Shmona, Nahariya, and the dozens of Israeli villages in between. The increasing number of casualties and the growing damage triggered Israeli incursion into Lebanese territory to overrun the rocket launch sites: The Litani Operation of 1978 and the First Lebanon War of 1982. The main objectives of both operations were to expel the PLO from its rocket launching sites in Southern Lebanon. Both operations provided relatively short respites. The 1982 Lebanon war saw the replacement of the PLO by the Iranian- organized Hezbollah Shiite militia. In 1985, this terror organization launched its own rocket offensive against northern Israel.

While the 1982 Lebanon war brought a three-year respite from the rocket terror along the Lebanese border, it heralded a growing missile threat from Syria. From the crushing defeat of his Air Force during the opening stages of that war, Syria’s then ruler Hafez Assad drew the conclusion that Israel was and would remain unbeatable in the air. He turned to non-conventional ballistic missiles as his main strategic force, purchasing a large number of SCUD missiles from the Soviet Union. These were coupled with the development and deployment of chemical warheads. By 1985, the Syrian arsenal of chemical warfare ballistic missiles was recognized as a significant strategic threat to Israel.   

Israel’s Response: From Offense to Defense

Against this backdrop of growing missile and rocket threats, Israel’s only available response measure was offensive, hence escalatory: to go after the missile launchers. The technology of active defense – that is, intercepting and destroying the missiles and rockets while still in flight was considered unattainable at the time. This, however, changed when Israel joined President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1986. SDI’s core mission was to protect both the U.S. and its allies against ballistic missiles – Soviet ICBMs in the case of the U.S., theater range ballistic missiles in the case of the allies. SDIO’s first Director, LTG James Abrahamson, was quick to invite Israel’s Ministry of Defense to submit proposals for jointly funded programs that would advance Israel’s capability to defend against Syrian and Iraqi ballistic missiles. Consequently, a series of technology programs was launched in Israel that ultimately evolved into Arrow, the first indigenous Israeli missile defense program.

The notion of active defense went against the grain of the IDF’s culture and ethos of relying of offensive war-waging strategies. Hence, Arrow had few supporters among Israel’s generals. The IDF high command was generally skeptical about the strategic value of active defense, and doubted Israel’s defense industries’ ability to master the required technologies. This skepticism was mirrored by the media and elaborated on by civilian military analysts. Only shock and dismay from missiles and rockets hitting Israel’s undefended population centers in 1991 (yhe Gulf War) and 2006 (the Second Lebanon War), coupled with Iron Dome’s successful defense on the Gaza front brought a change of heart, leading to LTG Eisenkot’s whole-hearted endorsement of active defense as a major pillar in the IDF’s strategy and force structure.

The Israeli MOD, after studying the three candidate technologies for intercepting missiles in flight (high speed guns, laser weapons, and interceptor missiles) selected the last as the optimal and most cost-effective technology. Accordingly, Israel proposed a jointly-funded program for developing an experimental interceptor against missiles of the SCUD family. This program, launched in August 1988, created the first Israeli interceptor missile, Arrow 1. Following a series of failures in tests, an upgraded design, dubbed Arrow 2, successfully intercepted simulated SCUD-like targets in a series of flight tests, and was adapted as the standard missile in the Arrow Weapon System. In 1990, then-Minister of Defense Moshe Arens decreed the establishment of a program management office in the R&D directorate of the MOD and funding for developing the complementary subsystems, namely the fire control radar and the battle management system. Yitzhak Rabin, returning to the MOD as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, endorsed Arens’s decision and ordered the program to proceed all the way to actual deployment. In 1995, the U.S. agreed to share the cost of the entire program, rather than just the interceptor. Series manufacturing of Arrow commenced in 1998 and the system achieved initial operational capability in late 2000.

Increasing Threats and Increasing Defense

While the Arrow program was proceeding rapidly, the missile threat, too, was ratcheting up.  The tempo and range of the rocket harassment by Hezbollah increased during the 1990’s, incurring growing casualties and damage in Israel’s Galilee. Moreover, Hezbollah was starting to deploy heavier rockets from Iran, including the 75 km Fajr 5 and the 200 km Zilzal.  These new types of rockets flew below the effective envelope of Arrow, yet their enhanced threat to Israel’s home front could not be ignored.  Israel’s U.S.-supplied Patriot systems could have handled these threats, but they were prioritized for air defense. Accordingly, in 2003 the Ministry of Defense invited proposals from the Israeli Defense Industry for a dedicated lower missile defense system, based on a highly agile interceptor and newly developed second-generation phased array radar from Elta, Israel’s chief radar house. Rafael’s proposal for a very advanced, two-stage interceptor was selected. The program, dubbed “David’s Sling,” gained approval from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, and a joint U.S.-Israeli program was initiated in early 2006. Unlike in the case of Arrow, this joint program shared both costs and technologies, with the U.S. defense contractor Raytheon being selected as Rafael’s partner. The system achieved its first test range “kill” in November 2012 and its initial operational capability in April 2015. It is now in series production.

While the lower end threats described above were being matched by the new lower tier missile defense system, the upper end threats were also increasing. When the Iranians disclosed that their Shahab missile range was extended from 1300 to 2000 km, and in view of Iran’s then-ongoing nuclear weapon programs, it became clear that Israel needed to deploy a new missile defense tier outside of the atmosphere, to cope with the longer range – hence faster – ballistic missiles, as well as to provide more than one single opportunity to destroy them in flight. Israel’s solution was the Arrow 3, a completely new design that could exit the atmosphere and intercept ballistic missiles while still in space. At the same time, the new interceptor would be launched from the existing Arrow weapons system, thus saving the cost of specialized radars, launchers and battle management systems. 

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) suggested that Israel acquire one of the newly developed American missile defense systems – the Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) or the Navy’s Standard Missile 3 – for the new upper defense tier. Upon examination, both systems fell short of Israel’s specific needs. In 2007, the Arrow 3 program was launched as a jointly funded and jointly developed U.S.-Israeli program, with American defense contractor Boeing teaming up with Israel Aerospace Industries in the design and manufacturing of the new missile. Arrow 3 achieved its first test range “kill” in 2015.

While all this was going on, the drumbeat of short range Katyusha-type fire from Lebanon was quickening. In parallel, a new front was opened in Israel’s south when, starting in 2001, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza fired homemade rockets (Kassams) at Israeli villages and towns along the Gaza Strip border. Later, using the extensive tunnel system along the Egyptian border, longer range, Iranian-made Katyusha and even heavier Fajr rockets were smuggled in from the Sinai. The terrorizing of Israel’s southern communities grew steadily more severe and more costly in casualties, damage, and economic disruption. Israel’s offensive measures, such as destruction of the rocket launchers or temporary overrunning of the launch sites resulted in no more than temporary respites.

Defense Against Short Range Rockets

Until the early 2000’s, the required technologies for destroying short range and short duration rockets such as Kassams and Katyushas did not exist. Hence, Israel had no alternative to offensive response. Yet the shock of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, in which for 33 days the Hezbollah inundated Northern Israel with 4200 rockets causing 53 fatalities and hundreds of civilian casualties, convinced even the skeptics that missile defenses against short range rockets were crucial.  Selecting from three candidate technologies, the Israel Ministry of Defense chose the innovative “Iron Dome” concept of Rafael. The program was launched in early 2007, achieved its first test range “kill” in 2009, and its first operational “kill” of a hostile rocket in 2011.  Since than it has achieved world fame in defending Israel’s cities – including Tel Aviv – from Gaza launched rockets during operations Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014). The U.S. was not involved in the development of Iron Dome, but generously provided financial support for its series production, with Raytheon selected as Rafael’s partner in the ongoing manufacturing of the Iron Dome interceptor missile.

At the time of writing, Israel is deploying a 3-tier missile shield, capable of defending against rockets and missiles coming from as near as Gaza and as far as Iran. When the 4th tier (Arrow 3) joins in, Israel will be even capable of destroying even longer range threats. To operate this burgeoning array of systems and new equipment, the Israel Air Force reorganized its small Anti-Aircraft brigade into the up to date Air Defense Command, consisting of three wings – the Air Defense, Missile Defense and Training wings. 

The role of the U.S. in this story has been and remains decisive. It was the U.S. that first convinced Israel in the 1980’s to overcome its hesitation and add missile defense to its military capabilities. It was the U.S. that provided Israel with generous financial support for development and production – computed as nearly $4.6B between 1990 and 2015 in a recent Congressional Research Service report. Without this, it is doubtful that Israel could or would have achieved its present and forthcoming missile defense capabilities. Yet beyond this generous help, it must be emphasized that all those cutting edge weapon systems, from Arrow to Iron Dome, from the Green Pine to the MMR radars, were conceived and developed by Israeli engineers and scientists in what is truly a “startup nation” in military technology affairs.    

The Fifth Tier

And what about the 5th tier hinted at by LTG Eisenkot? This may entail an active defense system against very short range threats, some of which are even below the operational envelope of Iron Dome, such as mortar bombs. Mortar fire from Gaza during the 2014 fighting killed dozens of Israeli troops and civilians in the population centers abutting the border, and compelled many of then residents to leave for safer areas. It stands to reason that the 5th tier will be tasked to deal with such threats, perhaps with high power lasers weapons.

Israel missile defense is still a work in progress. The impressive achievements of Iron Dome during the latest rounds of fighting in Gaza demonstrated how missile defense can save lives, reduce property damages, safeguard vital national infrastructures, enhance the public’s resilience and provide the political leadership with a renewed degree of freedom in managing the conflict. It now remains to build up the rest of multi-tier missile shield to the levels that will provide and maintain defensive superiority against the growing numbers of longer range, more accurate, and more lethal threats from Iran and its regional allies. 

Uzi Rubin is former director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization. He is currently associate researcher in the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.