An Arrow to the heart
To what extent is Israel prepared for a ballistic missile attack by its neighbors? Uzi Rubin, founder and head of the `Homa' - Wall - project in the Ministry of Defense, provides some answers
Last Sunday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz visited the MLM division of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) in Be'er Yaakov. The division produces Arrow missiles which are designed to intercept ballistic missiles. Participants in the visit, which took place in the context of the preparations being made by the Defense Ministry for the American offensive in Iraq (which is the term given to this contingency), included the ministry's director-general, Amos Yaron, and Moshe Keret, IAI's president and CEO. The visitors were welcomed by the division's director, Yair Ramati.
When the project's senior administrators offered to show their guest transparencies on the process of the Arrow missile's development and manufacture, Mofaz, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, declined the offer, saying impatiently: "I'm familiar with all that. What interests me is how many missiles do we have at the moment."
After being presented with the classified statistics on the scope and pace of the missile's production, he reacted with visible surprise: "What, so many? This is very impressive, indeed." In another two years, when Boeing launches the production line in the United States, the pace of the Arrow missile's production will be trebled. Mofaz then said: "It is a good thing that you have laid the foundations for this system. What would we have done without the Arrow system? Where would we have been? In what kind of situation would we have found ourselves today?"
One of the other participants in the visit to the Arrow's production line was Uzi Rubin, who established and, during the 1990s, headed the administration of the "Homa" (Wall) anti-ballistic missile defense system project in the Ministry of Defense. Mofaz's remarks reminded Rubin of the hostile attitude that the military displayed toward the development of the Arrow weapons system in its early stages. The opposition to the project was spearheaded by then chief of staff Ehud Barak, and then commander-in-chief of the Israel Air Force, Major General Avihu Bin-Nun. Barak was not against development of the Arrow, which was being funded by the Americans, but he was adamantly opposed to the construction, through Israeli funding, of a national anti-ballistic missile system comprising an Israeli-made radar system (Green Pine) and a command and control system (Golden Citron).
Like Mofaz, Barak, on becoming prime minister and defense minister, visited the MLM division. At the end of his visit, prime minister Barak walked over to Rubin, shook his hand, and told him: "You were right and I was wrong. I never thought that we would beat the Americans in this race and in the deployment of a national system of missile defense against surface-to-surface missiles."
In 1998, a short while before he was reelected governor of Texas, George W. Bush visited Israel. Bush as well was interested in the development of the Arrow. Although at the time he was not considered a serious candidate for the presidency, the governor was invited to IAI's campus at Lod. Rubin, as head of the Homa administration, provided him with an analysis of the Arrow anti-missile defense system's characteristics and performance capabilities.
As it turned out, Bush was very impressed by the survey he was given in Israel. In a book he recently published on American missile policy, The Washington Post's Bradley Graham writes about the lecture Bush heard from an "Israeli general" (Rubin) concerning the Arrow system and about the impact the lecture had on the formation of the future president's strategic philosophy. Bush asked Rubin about the Arrow's level of accuracy and about its capacity for operating against attacking missiles.
Graham quotes Bush as saying that the moment a nation thinks that there is no effective solution to countering its ballistic missiles, the nation (that is threatened by those missiles) is much more vulnerable. Bush is also quoted as saying that deterrence, whether real or not, is still deterrence.
Rubin, who will be retiring at the end of this month, believes that the Arrow weapons system effectively fulfills its two principal tasks: First, it deters enemy states from attacking Israel, and, second, it supplies defense against a ballistic missile attack.
"The heart of the Arrow's envelope," notes Rubin, "is its ability to intercept Al-Hussein missiles or Scud C missiles or any other missile with a range of between 550 and 650 kilometers that Iraq may fire. We developed the Arrow in order to deal with such missiles. That is why it was designed. That was the first operational requirement."
The Arrow's development began in 1988 as an experimental missile for the Americans, who funded the development program within the context of their Star Wars project. In the summer of 1990, then defense minister Moshe Arens ordered the establishment of a defense system based on the Arrow 1 missile. The Homa administration was established before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Rubin had just returned from a sabbatical year at Stanford University, where he had directed a research project on missile proliferation throughout the world. Rubin, a graduate of the Faculty of Aeronautical Engineering at Haifa's Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, worked in the IAI's engineering section, specialized in the missile field and joined the Defense Ministry. He was appointed head of the Arrow project administration shortly before the Gulf War broke out. When that war ended, the Homa administration began studying what anti-ballistic missile defense system would be best suited for Israel. The agency investigated the Patriot missile's deployment concept. One of the chief flaws in the Patriot missile system is the fact that its missile battery and radar system are separated by only a few hundred meters.
"When you are talking about a national anti-missile defense system," explains Rubin, "you must place the radar system in the best possible location and the missile battery where the missiles can be the most effective - and that location is not necessarily close to the radar system."
This is how Israel developed its own original concept of an entire weapons system for locating and intercepting ballistic missiles. In line with this concept, the intercepting missile batteries are separated from both the radar system and the launchpad control system. The fire-management system, from its base in Palmahim, activates the missile battery in Ein Shemer. This concept enables a defense umbrella for a large section of the country with only a small number of missiles batteries.
`Not a white elephant'
"Arens wanted us to prepare a long-range program," recalls Rubin. "We presented the program first to Arens and then before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Sitting on that committee as representatives of the opposition ... were Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. They looked at the program and said, `This is not the Lavi [fighter plane].' In other words, this will not turn out to be a white elephant."
The Arrow defense system is capable of carrying out various functions. The Green Pine radar system can simultaneously handle a large number of attacking missiles (that is, identify and take action against them). The two operational missile batteries at Palmahim and Ein Shemer are capable of dealing with volleys of Scud missiles. In the test firings conducted in the past four years, the Arrow missile intercepted targets in the upper regions of the atmosphere - up to an altitude of 330,000 feet (approximately 100 km.). Precise figures on the Arrow's operational range are classified. Regarding one figure, there is no certainty and no one is willing to place any bets on it: the extent of the Arrow's precision and success.
"We planned a high kill rate," says Rubin. "We proved the validity of that rate in all the test firings. However, one point must be clearly understood: An accuracy rate of 99 or 100 percent simply runs counter to the laws of physics. There is no such thing as perfect performances. Thus, it can be said that the Arrow can down most missiles, but a few could still get through."
The Homa administration headed by Rubin is responsible for the entire Arrow project. Created as a unit within the Defense Ministry's Armaments Development Authority, Homa has a 21-member staff consisting of military personnel and civilians, and has two main functions: The first is to characterize Israel's anti-missile defense program and to build a national anti-missile defense system based on the capacity of the Arrow and its radar system. The second is to make purchases in the United States.
Myths and costs
When its development program began, the Arrow was regarded as an extremely expensive project. The projection for the total cost of its development and manufacture - including the initial production of missiles - was an estimated $1.6 billion. Half of the development costs were funded by the Americans. Many people were skeptical about the figures. Some members of the U.S. Congress, which approved a special budget for the project each year, in addition to the annual defense aid package to Israel, argued that the overall expenditure would be something in the neighborhood of $10 billion.
Rubin claims that there was hardly any deviation from the planned costs. By the time the third missile battery is deployed sometime around 2005, some $2 billion will have been invested in the project. When you calculate the expenditures since the project's launching, says Rubin, the burden on the Israeli taxpayer - approximately $65 million annually - is not so high, relatively, when weighed against the project's importance.
However, in the early stages of the project, the estimated high expenditures generated serious doubts as to whether the investment was worthwhile. The price of a single Arrow missile was estimated at $3 million. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, assessments were that the market would be flooded with Scud missiles and their price was estimated at tens of thousands of dollars; thus, the capacity for producing Arrow missiles would always be limited in contrast with the cheap mass production of attacking Scud missiles.
"This is a myth," states Rubin categorically. "This is a commonly held but fundamentally incorrect view. There is a limit to the number of missiles Iran and Syria can use. The quantity of missiles they will arm themselves with will depend on the capacity of their human resources and their infrastructure. That is the main point, not the cost of a single missile. Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi at one time purchased 300 Scud missiles. So what? They are rusting in warehouses. He cannot deploy them. Thus, it does not really matter how many missiles are in storage. The question is the capacity for deploying them.
"The second myth revolves around arithmetic. Let us, for example, calculate the extent of the damage caused by a single 250-kilogram Scud warhead that landed during the Gulf War of 1991 in a residential neighborhood - on Abba Hillel Silver Street in Ramat Gan. Thus, the real calculation should not be a comparison of the price of the Arrow versus that of the Scud, but rather a comparison of the possible damage that a Scud can produce versus what an Arrow that has intercepted a Scud can prevent from happening."
Can the Arrow intercept ballistic missiles carrying chemical warheads?
Rubin: "Even the Americans have their doubts. The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization decided to determine the Arrow's capabilities in tests conducted in New Mexico. The tests were conducted in a land-based rocket accelerator facility. With the help of a device traveling at supersonic speed, the tests determined the extent of the Arrow warhead's effectiveness and its capacity for destroying all the chemical cargo in the target missile. The tests proved unequivocally that the Arrow warheads had managed to destroy all the chemical cargo."
The advanced missiles that Iran and North Korea are developing will have fragmentation warheads. Can the Arrow provide a solution for that kind of technology?
"This is the direction that the Americans are envisaging. In our view, they do not understand the difficulties involved in the development of that kind of technology. However, even if a fragmentation warhead is developed, the missile will not be able to carry a nuclear warhead. The reason is that a nuclear warhead weighs several hundred kilograms. When you fragment it, it can only be a chemical or biological warhead. We have developed a passive defense capacity for dealing with that contingency. Thus, the very transition to a fragmentation warhead represents a partial attainment of our goal - namely, the cancellation of the nuclear threat to our survival."
Iraq has antiquated Al-Hussein missiles. They broke apart during the flight to Israel in the Gulf War. How can we defend ourselves against such missiles in the event we are attacked?
"We discovered solutions for missiles that come apart even before the end of the Gulf War. We know how to identify the warhead inside a cloud of broken pieces. How? That I cannot tell you. The solution is to be found in Israel, as well as among the commanders of Patriot missile batteries in Saudi Arabia. The solution can be found through the application of simple logic. Granted, we were unable to carry out the required changes in the Patriot system before the war's end. However, if we are attacked once more, we have an answer. It is being applied automatically in the software of the Arrow's weapons system."
What will happen if Iran, Iraq, Syria and perhaps other nations as well decide to attack Israel simultaneously with ballistic missiles?
"The Middle East has a greater proliferation of ballistic missiles than any other region in the world. Libya surprised us when it announced its intention of arming itself with long-range North Korean Nu Dong missiles, capable of hitting targets in Israel. Iraq is a real enemy, an ideological enemy. The Iraqis have marked us as a target. But Syria is a much greater danger. Syria is part of the threat for which the Arrow was planned in the first place. The problem is that the advanced-warning time of a missile fired from Syria is shorter than that of a missile fired from Iraq. However, because of the geographical proximity, the Israel Air Force has the capability of destroying the Syrian missiles. If the Syrians distance their missiles, the advanced-warning time will increase and the element of surprise at their disposal will be undermined.
"Regarding the likelihood of cooperation between the four countries in attacking Israel, I would not say that this option was a total impossibility. However, the likelihood of that happening is low. In such a coalition, the problem is not necessarily the missiles: They could deploy all their fighter planes."