Anti Missile Defenses Proliferate in Middle East
This week, Brigadier-General John Shapland, chief defense attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, raised the idea of extending Israel’s anti-missile umbrella while speaking at a security conference in Israel. He suggested that the upgraded Israeli Arrow 3 anti ballistic missile could also protect Egypt and Jordan.
“If we were able to build a regional defense capability in, say, Jordan, that capability could easily defend Israel, Jordan and even Egypt, if you so desired, adding one more layer to your multi-layered defense,” he told Israeli officials and experts gathered at the INSS think-tank.
Although Egyptian and Jordanian officials refused to comment on the suggestion, it was positively received in Israel by the head of Israel’s missile defense organization, Yair Ramati. He said, “The policy of the (Israeli) Defense Ministry is always to cooperate with the countries of the region, including the countries cited.” Although he refused to comment, he also implied that the current Arrow 2 ABM system was already capable of providing some protection to both Egypt and Jordan.
Unclassified information on the Arrow 2’s interception range suggest that it could protect much of west Jordan, including the capital city Amman, and eastern regions of Egypt, as well as Israel and the occupied West Bank. The Arrow 3, which is scheduled for deployment by 2016, would be capable of shooting down incoming Iranian rockets over Iraq – well before they reached Jordanian or Israeli-controlled airspace.
Proliferating ABM Systems
The fact is that ABM systems are proliferating in the region. Israel has several systems, each designed to meet a specific threat. The US is beginning to deploy naval vessels capable of providing mobile anti ballistic missile protection, in addition to the Patriot missiles currently in the region. The GCC nations are interested in an ABM system to protect themselves from a perceived Iranian threat. And, although not in the immediate vicinity, India is interested in a partnership with Israel in developing an ABM system to protect themselves from Chinese and Pakistani missiles.
Undoubtedly, the leader in ABM systems in the region is Israel, who has a multitude of ABM systems in use and in development. The network of systems is called Homa, which is Hebrew for wall. However, this “wall” has been questioned by some of Israel’s leading missile experts, who claim that Israel can’t intercept all of Iran’s missiles, should Iran decide to launch a massive salvo at one time..
The most capable system in operation is the Arrow 2. The Arrow missile system defends against medium to long-range ballistic missiles. The Arrow 2 was designed to defeat the largest, longest-range, and fastest missile threats. The most likely missiles that Arrow would target would be the Iranian Shahab-3, Shahab-4, and Sejil missiles. Israel has developed three versions of the Arrow missile: the Arrow 1, which was a prototype to test the technology; the Arrow 2, which is deployed; and the Arrow 3, which will be operational in a few years.
Although it is common to focus on the missile itself, the Arrow radar is critical. It is difficult to jam and can track up to 200 targets up to 500 kilometers away. It can direct up to 14 Arrow interceptor missiles at one time.
The Arrow 2 has a range of 100 kilometers, with a maximum altitude of 50 kilometers. This allows the Arrow the ability to intercept inbound missiles at a range far from any possible target. By destroying missiles far from the intended target, the Arrow system minimizes the risk of collateral damage around the target area.
While the Arrow 2 is designed for longer range missiles, Israel also has several other systems designed for shorter range threats. The American developed Patriot Advanced Capability–3 (PAC-3), is intended to defend against short- to medium-range ballistic missiles. The most likely missiles that IDF Patriots would target include older Scud missiles and Scud variants, such as Shahab-1 and Shahab-2. The Patriot is also stationed in Jordan to protect that nation from potential Scud attacks by the Syrians.
The Patriot is less capable and can only track 100 targets at 100 kilometers. It can direct up to 9 missiles at a time and the missiles have a range of 100 kilometers and an altitude of 25 kilometers. It can be used to kill ballistic missiles that leak through the Arrow 2 envelope.
Shorter range, tactical missiles and mortar shells are covered by Israel’s Iron Dome ABM system. It came on line three years ago and has been used extensively, unlike the Arrow, which has never been used in actual combat conditions.
The Iron Dome system is the newest and most technologically advanced component of the IDF missile defense system, and it is the only missile defense system in routine use. The Iron Dome system shoots a radar-guided missile interceptor with an explosive warhead. After being guided to the inbound rocket or mortar by the radar, the Iron Dome interceptor explodes in close proximity to the rocket or mortar. Because it targets short-range rockets and mortars, it has much less time than either Patriot or Arrow to detect an inbound projectile, track it, and launch an interceptor to hit it. According to the Israelis, Iron Dome has an interception rate of 90%, although there are many who call that figure greatly exaggerated and insist that 66% is a more accurate figure and some experts discount the effectiveness of the system altogether.
Since Iron dome missiles are too expensive to fire at every incoming missile or mortar shell, the Iron Dome radar can differentiate between incoming missiles that may hit populated areas and those that will hit fall elsewhere. This allows the system to effectively counter missile barrages by only using interceptors against threatening missiles. The Iron Dome missile has a range of 70 kilometers.
The Arrow 2, Patriot, and Iron Dome ABM systems provide a wide level of protection against threats. However, Israel is expanding its ABM capabilities in order to tackle a wider spectrum of threats.
The Arrow 3 is being built to expand Israel’s capability against longer range threats. Arrow 3 is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in space before they’re over Israel and shoot them down at high altitudes to disintegrate nuclear, chemical or biological warheads. Unlike the Arrow 2 variant currently in service, which is designed to intercept ballistic missiles at lower altitudes within Earth’s atmosphere with explosive warheads, Arrow 3 uses interceptors that ram their targets.
With the introduction of the Arrow 3, the Arrow 2 will be used as a back up to target and intercept missiles that leak through the Arrow 3 envelope.
Since the Patriot ABM system is 30 years old and designed to combat Soviet tactical missiles of the 1980s, Israel is developing a new ABM system called David’s Sling. Although the specifications are still in flux, it will be able to intercept every missile threat that the Patriot is capable of and overlap some of the capabilities of the Arrow and Iron Dome systems. It will probably have a range of up to 300 kilometers.
One weakness of the total system is short range missile threats that can hit their targets before Iron Dome can react. As a result, Israel has worked with the US on laser weapons development to fill this gap. It is called Iron Beam and is reportedly nearly ready for deployment. It will become the innermost layer of protection. Iron Beam is designed to intercept close-range drones, rockets and mortars which might not remain in the air long enough for Israel’s Iron Dome system to intercept. Some of the specification of the system were made public last month at the Singapore Air Show.
Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which is building it, said test data show Iron Beam lasers are destroying more than 90 percent of their targets. One advantage of the laser is that the cost to destroy an incoming missile with a laser is considerably less than the cost to destroy that same missile with an interceptor missile.
Israel’s Iron Beam will not be the first laser interceptor to be deployed in the region. The U.S. Navy announced last year that it will attach a prototype of its Laser Weapons System (LaWS) to USS Ponce and send the amphibious transport docking ship to the Middle East this summer. It can be used for a “hard” kill on smaller targets (directing enough energy at the target to set it on fire or explode fuel aboard it) or for a “soft” kill by blinding a drone or missile’s imaging sensors. The ship will also support embarked forces of the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) and US 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf.
The US will also have other ABM systems either in the Middle East or within a few days range of it. Last month, the first of four Aegis equipped American destroyers was moved into the European theater. The USS Donald Cook took up station in the Spanish port of Rota from where it will operate as an anti-missile platform and take part in other tasks such as maritime security and NATO deployments, a statement said. Rota is an important American military base and a critical logistics hub for the American fleet in the Mediterranean.
“For the first time, a ship of the United States Navy equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile-defense system is permanently based in Europe” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
Although Rota is on Spain’s Atlantic coast, it is just outside the Mediterranean and only a couple of days away from the Middle East, should circumstances call for it. Three other Aegis destroyers will be deployed in the area in the next two years, which will mean that one of them will probably be stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Israel isn’t the only nation to worry about the missile threat in the Middle East. GCC nations are also looking at ABM systems in the face of Iran’s growing missile threat. And, the US is relaxing the rules to allow the GCC to buy American ABM technology. The move was made to assure the GCC nations that the US was committed to their protection, even while pursuing an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.
The relaxing of the rules governing sales to the GCC has already meant sales to American firms. Raytheon received an order for two Patriot units from Kuwait. Meanwhile, the UAE has ordered the more capable Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) from Lockheed Martin.
Although a beginning, these purchases still leave the GCC vulnerable to many types of missile threats. Iran military presence in several disputed islands around the Strait of Hormuz most likely includes surface to surface missiles that are capable of reaching the UAE. These shorter range missiles are not the type of missiles that THADD was designed to intercept and therefore still pose a threat.
Despite these weaknesses, the Middle East is rapidly becoming a maze of ABM systems, primarily designed to counter Iranian growing missile capabilities. From the growing ABM system presence in the GCC nations, to the massive Israeli ABM network that can reach Jordan and Egypt (and, undoubtedly parts of western Saudi Arabia), Patriot batteries in Turkey and Jordan, to the mobile ABM defenses of the American Navy, much of the western portion of the Middle East have fallen under the cover of some sort of missile defense.
Of course, the ability of the systems to kill incoming missiles and the cost of the interceptor missiles make these systems very expensive and subject to a degree of uncertainty, which raises the question of their value.
Experts agree that a system with a 100% ability to defeat incoming missiles is not necessary. Their importance in a strategic sense is to drastically reduce the number of missiles that hit their target and increase the uncertainty factor for the attacking nation.
Iran could launch a salvo of missiles against Israel, knowing that only 20% may penetrate the Israeli missile defense system. And, although that 20% may be devastating, Iran couldn’t rely upon what they would hit and what might be missed. While Tel Aviv might be hit, would the IDF command centers or the nuclear tipped Jericho missiles be hit? If not, Iran could expect an immediate and massive nuclear retaliation. That fact alone, is a deterrent against an attack.
This, in fact, was the idea of the limited ABM systems deployed by the US and Russia during the Cold War – inject enough uncertainty to make a first strike unthinkable.
Within a few years, the Middle East will have a similar situation. While Iran may have enough missiles to threaten its adversaries, local ABM systems and the concept of dispersing military assets will make the concept of a first strike in the region equally unthinkable.
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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
National Security Affairs Analyst
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