Israel’s New Arrow Missile Defense System

HOWARD BERKES: There’s a new defensive strategy for Israel in case the United States attacks Iraq. Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel during the Gulf War in 1991. American Patriot missiles were used then to try to intercept Iraqi Scuds, but they didn’t have much success. So Israel has a new missile defense system in place. Its designers believe it’ll do a better job of shooting down Scud missiles.

Joining us now to talk about that is Michael O’Hanlon. He’s a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Michael, describe this system for us. How does it work?

MICHAEL O’HANLON: The basic idea is that somebody alerts the system to the launch of an Iraqi Scud. That somebody, of course, would be the United States, using its satellite technology. And then one particular radar in the Israeli system would start to look for the Scud, as it rose far enough above the horizon to be visible from Israel. And then that radar would track the missile as it continued its ascent and then stopped burning and reached its top altitude and then came down towards Israel—this whole process might take six or eight minutes—and then launch the interceptor missile at some point along this trajectory of the Scud to go up to a relatively high altitude, relatively high in the atmosphere, and then explode a charge, once it got near the Scud, to try to destroy that Scud with shrapnel.

BERKES: Arrow is the name of this system. And is there any sense of how effective it actually is?

O’HANLON: I would think the chances of any one Arrow intercepting an incoming Scud are probably in the general vicinity of 50 percent. Any one test, of course, may not perfectly mimic battlefield conditions. But the good news about Scuds is there aren’t that many things an enemy can do to change the basic process, even during the heat of battle, because these rockets fly on very predictable trajectories. So I would think that even in real battle conditions, the chances are pretty good. And when you combine that with the fact the Iraqis don’t have very many Scuds, and those they have may not work very well, I think it begins to become a fairly good defensive capability for Israel.

BERKES: And how does this system differ from the Patriot missiles that were used to defend Israel during the Gulf War?

O’HANLON: Well, there are at least a couple of big differences. One is the Arrow would intercept at a higher altitude, and I think it’s going to be in the general vicinity of 10 to 20 miles’ altitude, whereas the Patriot allowed the Scud missile to descend to within a fairly close distance to Earth. Also, the Arrow is guided by a more sophisticated radar, so it can get closer to the target. And perhaps most of all, this system really is designed to intercept ballistic missiles. The Arrow has a computer code and a basic maneuvering capability that’s much better suited to the high-speed descent of a ballistic missile.

So when you put it all together, the Patriot really was, at best, a fledgling capability and probably did not intercept any incoming warheads in Israel or Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War. I think the Arrow has a much better chance and will probably be more in the 50-50 ballpark, as I said before.

BERKES: What about other responses there are likely to be to the development of this system from others in the Middle East?

O’HANLON: Well, of course, those countries that still see themselves as potential enemies of Israel can’t be too happy about it, and perhaps Iran is the other country you’d put near the top of that list. Many other Arab states, of course, have begun to come to terms with Israel in one way or another, certainly don’t envision themselves fighting Israel in a traditional conflict anymore. And so for them, it really has more to do with the issue of the Iraq-Israel possible engagement.

And in that situation, I don’t think there are too many Arab countries that are worried that deeply about Israel’s security, but if they had to choose between Israel using an Arrow interceptor to try to stop a Scud or Israel retaliating against that Scud, they would certainly prefer the defensive Arrow capability over seeing F-16s from Israel strike at some Arab country, even if it’s Saddam Hussein’s regime.

BERKES: Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Thanks for talking with us.

O’HANLON: My pleasure. Thank you.