Even if the Hetz Succeeds

The failure of the Arrow missile test last week emphasizes the conclusion policy makers must draw: An active defense is not the solution to the threat of nuclear missiles.

Everything was ready at the California test site. Over a thousand kilometers away, way out in the Pacific Ocean, a huge C-17 transport plane let the target missile loose. The Israeli Arrow (Hetz) missile system was supposed to intercept the incoming missile, which simulated an Iranian Shahab-3.

Everything was working properly, but the test failed. The Arrow missile never left its launcher. The Defense Ministry said: "The interceptor missile was not launched since all the conditions of the test were not fulfilled."

We can only imagine what would have happened if the target missile was really a nuclear missile launched from Iran and the attempt to shoot it down had failed, resulting in a nuclear explosion in the middle of Tel Aviv. Hundreds of thousands would have died immediately, and tens of thousands of others - bathed in radiation - would be doomed to a terrible death after extreme suffering. Whole neighborhoods would have been wiped out and particles of nuclear fallout would have been scattered over much of Israel, polluting crops and causing cancer for many Israelis down the road.

The failure of the Arrow to intercept its test target, a simulation of an Iranian ballistic missile, is the story of the Israeli failure to prepare for the Iranian threat.

The Arrow missile system was declared operational nine years ago. The stated policy of the defense establishment is that the response to the Iranian nuclear missiles is the Arrow, which will intercept them before they hit their Israeli targets.

The problem is that, just as the Arrow failed in its attempt to stop the target missile during the test, it may also fail to stop Iranian missiles at the moment of truth. Moreover, no one can guarantee the Arrow system will work at maximum effectiveness. So many factors and unknowns affect the operation of weapons systems during times of war, it is impossible to predict all of them. It should be enough to remember the Patriot anti-missile defense, which was stationed in Israel during the Gulf War.

The Patriots arrived in Israel after a very successful string of tests, during which the Patriots intercepted every target missile fired at them. And then, right in the middle of the war, the effectiveness of the Patriot system dropped from 100 percent to zero - because the Iraqi missiles fired at Tel Aviv and Haifa did not behave according to the scenarios designed by the Patriot's engineers.

The Patriot's failure in 1991 left one Israeli dead, along with property damage. But the cost of the failure of the Arrow against Iranian nuclear missiles would be unbearable. The failure of the Arrow test last week once again emphasizes the conclusion policy makers must draw: An active defense is not the solution to the nuclear threat. We cannot base our preparedness against Iran's future nuclear weapons on attempts to shoot them down. Israel cannot afford the price of failure.

The expected failure of the Arrow to intercept incoming missiles when it counts is not only based on the instance of a non-launch because the proper conditions were not met; even if every Arrow is launched against its target as planned, and all conditions are actually met, the system will still not provide effective protection against nuclear missiles.

Since the price of a nuclear warhead hitting Tel Aviv is too great for us to even consider, only a perfect defense against the expected Iranian threat can be considered relevant. And since no system, as advanced as it may be, is able to guarantee a hermetic defense - the whole foundation of the policy of intercepting Iranian nuclear missiles is hollow.

It is almost certain that the next Arrow tests will be impressive successes, but we should not let such successes blind those responsible for formulating Israeli policy against the Iranian nuclear threat.