Why Would Israel Reportedly Have Missiles That Reach Beyond Iran

Last week, Israel tested what foreign reports said was a nuclear-capable Jericho missile amid reports that Iran has deployed its own missiles in Iraq, 400 kilometers from Israel

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Smoke from an Israeli missile test.
Smoke from an Israeli missile test.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Last Friday, Israel’s Defense Ministry laconically announced that it had carried a test launch of a “rocket engine propulsion system.”

Foreign reports claimed that the test was of a surface-to-surface Jericho missile. Though the Defense Ministry said that the test was planned in advance, it was hard to ignore the timing and not to interpret it as a warning and threat directed at Iran. Indeed, its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, complained in a tweet that while Western democracies accuse his country of secret intentions to develop nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them them, Israel is actually the only country in “Western Asia” (in his words) that possesses nuclear weapons and develops missiles for delivering them.

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In the background are reports that Iran has deployed missiles in Iraq, 400 kilometers from Israel, and Yemen, 2,000 kilometers away. A letter sent by Germany, France and the U.K. to the UN secretary general accused Iran of having the capability to develop missiles equipped with nuclear warheads in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime. According to the letter, a MTRC breach occurs when a missile can carry a 500-kilogram warhead with a range of 300 kilometers. Last April, Iran was seen testing the Shahab-3 missile, which fits such a definition. But the Jericho has similar capabilities, based on foreign reports.

Israel has an arsenal of sea, air and ground rockets and missiles for interception and offensive purposes, whose existence it acknowledges. For the sake of this article, let’s only focus on its land-based arsenal. It has short-range (up to 50 kilometers) rockets like the Tamuz, which have been occasionally used against targets in Syria and Lebanon.

Credit: Haaretz

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman advocated the creation of a missile command meant to extend the range of surface-to-surface projectiles to 200 kilometers, in order to improve the military's firepower and to provide the Air Force with an additional tool. But the military, including former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, objected to the notion and killed the initiative. The military has a long tradition of rejecting new ideas and “out the box” thinking. So, for example, the military, and especially the air force, opposed the creation of systems to protect civilian infrastructure, including the Iron Dome system.

The military has the Iron Dome's interception missiles (with a range of up to 70 kilometers), David’s Sling (up to 200 kilometers, although its operational capabilities are still flawed), U.S.-made Patriots (up to 80 kilometers), and the Arrow 2 and 3 (over 300 kilometers). An Arrow 4 model, which uses multiple warheads, is reportedly under development. The Arrow 3 is a missile that flies above the atmosphere (according to foreign reports, at a height of over 100 kilometers) and is made for intercepting ballistic missiles far from Israel's borders.

Yet Israel has never admitted that it possesses Jericho missiles. According to foreign reports, these missiles were developed from a French-made missile type. In 1957, Shimon Peres, then a senior Defense Ministry official, was present when France conducted a nuclear missile test in Algeria.

Since then, according to such reports, Israel has extended the Jericho's range and given it the capability to carry nuclear warheads. The Jericho reportedly now has a range of 4,000 kilometers. It is thus the only ballistic missile Israel has. It also reportedly has the Shavit missile launcher, which sends satellites (mainly reconnaissance) into space.

One of the most interesting questions is why Israel has never launched the Jericho during military operations. The possibility was reportedly raised at least twice. The first time was early in the Yom Kippur War, when Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and some of his generals, including Rehavam Zeevi, reportedly panicked and spoke in apocalyptic terms of the “destruction of the Third Temple.” They debated the possibility, rejected outright by other generals and by politicians, of threatening to use a nuclear weapon. There were reports that Israel had armed and deployed nuclear-tipped Jericho missiles stationed in underground silos.

The second occasion, according to foreign reports, was during the Gulf War, in January 1991, the first night that Saddam Hussein ordered the firing of Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Smoke from an Israeli missile test.Credit: Pavel Wolberg

Fearing that Israel would fiercely retaliate and sabotage the U.S.-led coalition war, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney suggested to Israel that it respond in measure by launching conventional Jericho missiles at Iraq. Cheney used the biblical comparison of “an eye for an eye,” i.e. a missile for a missile. But Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, rejected the idea. American sources explained that at that time, that at the time the Jericho’s range was insufficient to hit Baghdad or other significant Iraqi targets.

But based on the foreign reports, the main reason the idea was rejected was that Jericho missiles are meant to serve as strategic weapons (similar to the submarines) as a nuclear last resort. Such an assumption makes sense. Foreign experts estimate that one Jericho missile, without its warhead, costs $10 million. It is a very expensive missile, and experts believe that Israel has dozens, or even up to 100, such missiles. Assuming that a Jericho missile can carry a one-ton conventional warhead, it seems useless to "waste" when a warplane can deliver a payload eight times heavier.

Thus, assuming that Israel will never use the nuclear weapons that most of the world believes it has (such a use would also mean the country's demise), it is clear that the Jericho missiles' sole purpose is deterrence – above all against Iran but also against Pakistan, located around 4,000 kilometers away, which is the exact range of Jericho. Not that Israel leaders think in such terms. Pakistan's main enemy is India. But in Israel's eyes, Pakistan is the only country that has an "Islamic bomb."

In the past, Israel was very worried about Pakistan. Libya, under Muammar Gadhafi, gave millions of dollars to help Pakistan build the bomb. Pakistan ignored the request. Yet Dr. Abdul Khader Khan, the “father of the Pakistani bomb,” was also the number one nuclear proliferator who helped Libya and Iran obtain nuclear know-how and technology. The concern about Pakistan remains at the heart of the Israel-India strategic partnership, which includes military intelligence. It was also reported in the past that the Mossad was monitoring Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. It is only reasonable that after Iran, Pakistan’s capabilities are of a high priority in Israeli security considerations.

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