Israel and Iran on Tuesday exchanged signals on the sidelines of the regional drama playing out in Libya. In the United States, a joint Israeli-American testing of the Arrow 2 missile-interception system was successful.
Meanwhile, closer to home, two Iranian battleships sailed through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, en route to the Syrian port of Latakia and a joint exercise with the Syrian navy.
The proximity of the two events was coincidental. In the Israeli case, the Arrow 2 test is not even indirectly linked to the recent turmoil in the Middle East; the test had been scheduled long before the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes.
The Iranian case is different. Hosni Mubarak’s regime had for years prevented the passage of Iranian military vessels through the Suez Canal. In fact, over the past two years it allowed Israeli battleships and submarines to pass through in the opposite direction, to deter Iran. The passage of the Iranian ships was meant to convey a message − Iran is celebrating the downfall of longtime opponent Mubarak. The Islamic Republic is also underlining − perhaps to the chagrin of Cairo’s military regime − an improvement in its relationship with Egypt.
At the same time, Iran is also indirectly threatening Israel, though the actual danger from the move is virtually nothing. The ships are not expected to come anywhere near Israel, and the Israel Navy is more than capable of taking care of them if they decide to do otherwise.
Far away, in California, the Arrow 2 system successfully intercepted a missile fired from a ship at sea. The experiment was meant to test improvements to the system and its ability to cope with what was defined as “future threats” − advanced land-to-land missiles. In other words, the Iranian Shahab, we may assume.
A similar experiment six months ago was not as successful, with the system canceling the launch of the intercepting missile at the last moment after deciding that the data was unclear. This time, the launch was flawless. About a week earlier, the Iron Dome interception system against short-range rockets was successfully tested in the Negev, assuring that it will be operational soon enough.
But all this is only part of a larger picture. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who on Tuesday welcomed the news of the Arrow 2 success, has reiterated his support for the idea of a multilayered interception system. Barak believes that such an approach is more needed than ever, but the technological advances need to be matched by the appropriate funding.
As reported recently by Defense News, Israel stopped ordering Arrow missiles after the planned production quota was complete. A Boeing proposal to manufacture more missiles as part of American aid to Israel was rejected by the Israel Defense Forces; it seems the military prefers to channel funds to offensive purposes, like the acquisition of the new F-35 fighter jet, even as Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles keeps growing. Documents released by WikiLeaks contain an estimate by former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi that Iran has around 300 Shahab missiles alone.
The Iron Dome project appears to be in a similar quagmire: Only two batteries have been produced so far, even though a team at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee says 13 batteries are needed to protect the country. The Obama administration’s promise of a $205 million grant for the project a year ago is being delayed by red tape.
As is often the case, the engineers are way ahead of the politicians and the generals. Technological capabilities keep advancing, sometimes in surprising leaps, but their application for effective defense purposes is still very far away. One reason is the IDF’s position, with the army paying lip service to multilayered defense but not having the commitment the defense minister’s comments would imply.
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