San Nicolas, which lies some 100 kilometers off California's southern coast, serves as a "maritime missile range." Missiles at various stages of flight and interception trials are launched to and from the island. In the summer of 2004, an Arrow missile was launched at a Scud fired from a base on land. The Americans and Israelis offered conflicting interpretations of the results of the test, known as Caravan 1. The Israelis said the experiment was a 95 percent success. The Americans said the other 5 percent rendered the test a failure.
Five years passed until the Caravan 2 test was launched, last week. The results were similar, though this time there was no real argument between the Israelis and Americans. Everyone was satisfied. How amazing. The experiment succeeded even though the event for which hundreds of Israelis and Americans got together and toiled over for months did not come to fruition. The bride and groom blushed but did not kiss. The Arrow was not fired at the target missile that was deployed from a transport aircraft more than 1,000 kilometers away (apparently it was closer to 1,500 kilometers), like the distance between Iran and Israel.
The twisted logic that turns failure into success by mere words is formulated differently in Hebrew and English. The Israeli response is worded in engineering parlance: The systems operated as planned. The correspondence between the detection, control, data management and interception mechanisms - satellites, ground-based radar, unmanned aerial vehicles, a battleship armed with Standard missiles, the THAAD anti-missile system and the Arrow battery - was well executed.
It was decided in advance that the American missiles would not be fired, and the Arrow computer refrained from launching the missile because all conditions were not met for pulling the trigger. As we saw during Operation Cast Lead, the interceptors are supposed to hold their fire if the attacking missile lands in the sea or in an unpopulated area. While the experiment did cost millions of dollars, at least one-third of a million dollars was saved by not firing the Arrow.
The American explanation for their satisfaction, as bogus as it may be, has less to do with engineering and more to do with strategic considerations. It is important for the Americans to give Israel a sense that it is inching closer and at a proper pace toward a capability to defend against Iranian missiles. This is why the United States invests hundreds of millions of dollars in the Arrow and in preparing U.S. missile systems for use with the Arrow and Patriot missile batteries operated in Israel.
To that end, a huge radar system that specializes in early detection of missile launches from the east has been installed at the Nabatim base in the Negev. In addition, there is less weight given to complaints by the American defense industry about competition from Israel Aerospace Industries, Elta and Tadiran, the main contractors of both the Arrow and the Defense Ministry's missile defense program, known as Homa.
The calculus is simple and easy to understand for U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones, who are visiting the country this week. Israel is naked and exposed to Iranian missiles, whose range is equal to that seen in Caravan 2. Israel will also be anxious, sensitive to any developments, and perhaps even itching to launch a preemptive strike. If the Arrow failed and the development program is lagging, offense may be the only alternative.
The Homa missile defense program is meant to shield Israel's population, air force bases and infrastructure. It a very important link in the chain: One end features protective measures (shelters, survival kits in the event of chemical and biological weapons), the other is an offensive capability. The Homa will include various layers, from the Iron Dome, which guards against short-range rockets, to the Magic Wand, which offers protection from rockets with a range of dozens of kilometers, to the Patriot, Arrow and Standard. There is also the American missile defense system, in both its maritime and land versions, and finally the THAAD. The Homa still lacks the capability to destroy a nuclear warhead far from its target and near the country launching the missile.
As far as is known, the Iranians are in no hurry. They need five years to complete the development of intercontinental missiles that can reach New York and Washington. In their view, this is the way to gain deterrence against the Americans. Until then, it appears they will prefer to remain on the threshold of a nuclear-weapon capability in order to deny a pretext for a preemptive strike.
At the moment, the timetables for all three sides - Israeli, American and Iranian - are similar, but ultimately it will be clear who won the race, the attacker or the defender. And if the label of failure sticks to the defender's efforts to develop a missile defense, it will be under more pressure to preempt and attack.
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