Israeli Army Probing Whether Unprecedented Use of Arrow Missile System Was Justified

Intercepting the Syrian projectile on Thursday forced the army to acknowledge military activity across the border. 'It could be that with more thorough thought, it wasn’t worth firing,' former PM Ehud Barak says.

The Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile being test-fired.
Defense Ministry

Following the unusual clash between Israel and Syria overnight Thursday, Israel confirmed for the first time on Friday that it made use of the Arrow anti-missile system in the incident, in which Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were fired.

This was the most serious confrontation between the two countries since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war six years ago. In the incident, Israeli Air Force planes struck several targets in Syria, and in response, the Syrian regime deployed air defense systems and fired a number of missiles toward Israeli jets.

The Israeli army said that none of the missiles struck the jets, though in Syria, the military claimed Friday that one Israeli jet had been shot down and another damaged. Apparently, the Arrow system was deployed because one of the Syrian missiles could have landed in Israeli territory. The system successfully intercepted the missile north of Jerusalem. Fragments from the interception landed in Jordan.

The Arrow system, which the Israel Air Force initially deployed in 2000, was originally designed to intercept heavy, long-range ground-to-ground ballistic missiles such as Scuds. In recent years, however, the Israeli military has worked to expand the system’s capability to protect against medium-range missiles and rockets, complementing the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

To cover the gap in the range between the short-range Iron Dome system and the Arrow system — and expanding the Iron Dome’s capabilities — the military has developed the Magic Wand anti-missile system, also known as David’s Sling, which is expected to be declared operational shortly.

The Arrow system is deployed manually, meaning that in Thursday night’s incident with Syria, the Israeli Air Force had to make the decision to intercept the missile fired from Syria, which entered Israeli air space. The Israeli Air Force and the military more generally are still investigating, however, whether the decision to use the Arrow system against long-range Syrian anti-aircraft rockets was justified.

It is possible that the Arrow system’s radar identified the SA-5 missiles as another target. It’s also possible that these were fragments of the Syrian missiles that exploded in midair and were detected as a greater threat than they actually posed. It’s also possible that the Syrians fired missiles other than the SA-5 that they have used in the past against Israeli aircraft and which the Syrians said they deployed this time as well.

Since the start of the trials on the Arrow system in the 1990s until the system was received by the Israel Defense Forces in 2000, there was disagreement among the military, technology experts and members of the public over the need for the system. The main argument against it was that deploying an Arrow interception missile, at a cost estimated at several million shekels, was not appropriate in the face of a much less expensive target such as Scud missiles.

Similar arguments were made against the Iron Dome system, but proponents said the proper comparison is the cost of the interception missile and the potential damage that would be caused by the incoming projectile. Former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak said Saturday that the fact that the Arrow system was used against the Syrians required Israel to acknowledge military activity beyond the Syrian border.

“It could be that with more thorough thought, it wasn’t worth firing,” Barak said at a community lecture in Be’er Sheva.

“We have usually tended to reserve what would be called ‘room for denial’ for Syrian President [Bashar] Assad,” Barak said, explaining that this would then give Assad the grounds to say, “he doesn’t know what this is,”as the former prime minister put it.