Advanced System Could Alter Strategic Decisions in Region
By Howard Schneider
ASHKELON, Israel — As it pushes for international action against Iran‘s nuclear program, Israel is steadily assembling one of the world’s most advanced missile defense systems, a multi-layered collection of weapons meant to guard against a variety of threats, including the shorter-range Grads used to strike Israeli towns like this one and intercontinental rockets.
The effort, partly financed by the United States and incorporating advanced American radar and other technology, has been progressing quietly for two decades. But Israeli defense and other analysts say it has now reached a level of maturity that could begin changing the nature of strategic decisions in the region. Centered on the Arrow 2 antimissile system, which has been deployed, the project is being extended to include a longer-range Arrow 3, the David’s Sling interceptor designed to hit lower- and slower-flying cruise missiles, and the Iron Dome system intended to destroy Grads, Katyushas, Qassams and other shorter-range projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.
With the Arrow system in operation and the Iron Dome due for deployment next year, Israel “has something to stabilize the situation: the knowledge that an attack will fail,” said Uzi Rubin, a private defense consultant who ran Israel’s missile shield program in the 1990s. Iran, he said, now cannot be assured of a successful first strike against Israel, while groups such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon may find one of their favored tactics undermined.
Advances in Iran’s rocket technology, coupled with its nuclear program, are chief concerns of the United States and Europe, as well as of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. Alongside diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear research, missile defense programs have been designed with that country in mind.
The Obama administration decided this week to scrap a Bush-era plan to deploy a longer-range-missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, and said it would move toward a more intermediate system that better matches its assessment of Iran’s capabilities.
In Israel, the issue is considered a top foreign policy priority. There have been varying Israeli assessments about Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon: The head of the Mossad intelligence agency told a parliament committee over the summer that Iran may be five years away from acquiring an atom bomb, but the head of military intelligence has said it could happen by the end of this year.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, sees Iran’s program as an imminent danger. It “is something that threatens Israel and threatens the region and threatens the peace of the world,” he said during a recent visit to Germany. “There is not much time.”
A recent unannounced trip by Netanyahu to Russia was thought by some Israeli analysts to be linked to the broad set of issues regarding Iran, including Russia’s possible sale of advanced antiaircraft missiles to Tehran and the likelihood that Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if the United States and Europe cannot find another solution.
But the steady growth of Israel’s missile defenses sheds a different light on the country’s military doctrine and sense of vulnerability.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said this week that he did not consider Iran’s nuclear program an “existential issue” because “Israel is strong.” Part of that strength lies in its nuclear capabilities — never acknowledged but widely presumed to exist — and part in the assumption that the United States would stand behind Israel if it came under attack. But it also rests in the calculation that enough of the country’s air bases and other military facilities would survive a first strike to retaliate effectively.
The sort of deterrence — guaranteed retaliation — that the United States and then-Soviet Union once achieved by deploying nuclear warheads in submarines and keeping bombers aloft is what Israel is striving for through its antimissile systems.
Iran “is radical, but radical does not mean irrational,” Rubin, the defense consultant, said. “They want to change the world, not commit suicide.”
Israel’s program had its origins in the 1980s and grew out of concern about Syria’s suspected acquisition of chemical weapons. It took on added urgency in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when nearly 40 Iraqi Scud missiles hit the Tel Aviv area.