JERUSALEM (Jan. 6)
As the sun began to set Sunday afternoon, Israel’s great white hope streaked into the winter sky.
The occasion was a dress rehearsal of the Arrow anti-missile system, which will be called on to protect Israeli cities if Iraq lashes out at Israel in the event of an American strike on Baghdad.
On Sunday, the air force fired four Arrow missiles from the Palmachim base, south of Tel Aviv, west toward the sea. The exercise tested the Arrow’s ability to dispatch several missiles simultaneously to different targets.
Flights into Tel Aviv were temporarily suspended during the exercise, though there was no physical target: The incoming “missiles” existed only on a computer screen.
Nevertheless, Israel Aircraft Industries, the state-controlled aerospace manufacturer that created the Arrow, called the test “a successful multi-launching fly-out.”
The Defense Ministry said the test’s success was “a major step in response to the evolving threat of ballistic missiles in the area.”
If the United States leads a war against Iraq this winter — a growing possibility — Israel believes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may launch missiles at Israel, as he did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
At the time, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, which tried to intercept them with U.S.-made Patriot missiles. However, that version of the Patriot could intercept incoming missiles only at lower altitudes, and the Scuds caused damage and several casualties in Israel.
This time Israel has the Arrow — or Chetz, as it is known in Hebrew — made by a team of more than 100 Israeli engineers and partially funded by the United States. It is considered the most advanced missile defense system in the world.
The Arrow can travel at nine times the speed of sound and intercept missiles more than 30 miles from their targets.
It was created to work as a “stand-alone system,” said Boaz Levi, the chief engineer on the project.
After the Gulf War, Israel and the United States invested $2 billion in the Arrow project. Israel Aircraft Industries began working on a new system that would be able to detect and intercept incoming missiles at both low and high altitudes — from as little as zero to hundreds of miles away — allowing the army to warn Israeli civilians, notify ground forces and intercept the missiles.
Israel is located about 250 miles from Iraq, well within range of Saddam’s arsenal of Scud and Al-Hussein missiles, which can travel about 400 miles.
Development of the Arrow began before the Gulf War, during the late 1980s. The goal was to create a missile defense system that could “hit a bullet with a bullet,” Levi said.
What they created was something far more sophisticated, a multi-layered system that uses American-made satellites to detect incoming missiles. The satellites send messages to a radar network known as Green Pine.
The Green Pine radar screen can detect incoming missiles on its virtual “fences” in the sky, and sends the information to the Arrow’s launch control center.
In the launcher, Arrow missiles are poised for firing in a six pack-like pod of six canisters. A hot-ejection system can shoot the missiles out of the launcher in a matter of seconds.
The Arrow has two internal motors, as well as homing sensors to detect the missile. Its warhead releases fragments into the target, enveloping and exploding the incoming missile.
This week’s simulation was the 10th test of the Arrow missile and the fifth test of the entire system, including the radar, control system and launchers. But it was the first time Israel’s air force tested the system with several incoming missiles, not just one.
Over the next week, Israel and the United States will test Israel’s entire missile defense system, including an upgraded version of the Patriot missiles known as Patriot-3. Dozens of American soldiers who arrived recently in Israel will man several batteries of Patriot-3′s, working in tandem with Israeli Arrow operators, according to Israel Radio.
Two other Patriot-3 units are being supplied by Germany. In addition, a U.S. radar ship capable of detecting missile launches will patrol the Israeli coast.
The commander of Israel’s air force, Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz, told Army Radio on Sunday that Iraq’s ability to hit Israel with Scuds is “very limited.”
“We have to think about what might come our way, but we don’t think it will be too serious,” Halutz said. “But we also have to be prepared for surprises.”
The United States hopes that strengthening Israel’s missile defense system will lower the need for Israeli retaliation after an Iraqi attack. Israel has said its response to an attack would depend on the damage caused and on whether Iraq uses nonconventional weapons.
“It’s not our war, and I have made it clear to the United States that we won’t interfere,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said in a recent interview with the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. “But if we’re attacked during the action, we have all the right in the world to protect the citizens of the State of Israel.”
The Defense Ministry has set Jan. 15 as the final date for completing defense preparations, and believes an Iraqi attack could come anytime between Jan. 27 and early March.
Ministry officials say the threat of an Iraqi attack is lower than it was in 1991, but Mofaz is concerned that the public might panic in response to reports about the threat.
“Things are being published that aren’t correct, and which create waves of panic among the citizenry,” Mofaz told Ma’ariv. “I can say with full confidence that Israel’s citizens can rely on our defense system.”