JCPA LOGO
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

Complete
List of
Issue Briefs
 
Institute for Contemporary Affairs
founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 2, No. 4     13 August 2002

Missile Proliferation in the Middle East

Moshe Arens


  • The present Iraqi capability is relatively limited. According to recent U.S. estimates, Iraq may have a dozen or two Scud missiles that were not caught by UN inspectors. They are working to attain nuclear capability but do not have it at the moment. However, both the Iraqis and the Iranians have chemical warheads, and both probably have biological weapons as well.

  • During the Gulf War, Saddam thought that provoking Israel was a way to help break up the U.S.-led coalition he faced that included Arab countries, something that is not a factor this time. Indeed, Israel's situation today is much different and considerably better. With the Arrow system in place, Saddam must take into account that there is a high probability that any missile sent against Israel will be intercepted. If the missiles were to carry non-conventional warheads, not only would the missile be intercepted, but it would be revealed to the entire world that he had tried to send a missile with a non-conventional warhead against Israel.

  • It has been suggested that in the age of missile systems, borders are not really important anymore because missiles fly over borders. This might be the case if missiles were the only way of conducting war, but, as a matter of fact, no war has yet been won by missiles alone. Wars are still won by forces on the ground. So unless Israel can protect itself against enemy ground forces, even the most advanced missile interceptor system will not keep enemy tanks out of the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Defensible borders still matter.

  • In the immediate future, the threat that Israel most likely will have to contend with, even if it is not the greatest threat in terms of destructive capability, is that of Syria with its 150 missiles, some of which may be armed with chemical or biological warheads. This kind of threat on Israel's doorstep obviously arouses very deep concern.


  • The Proliferation of Old Technology

    Ballistic missiles have the potential to cause very serious destruction, loss of life, and loss of property. But as a weapons system, missiles are a rather curious phenomenon, especially those proliferating throughout the Middle East. The ballistic missiles found in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Egypt are really of ancient vintage. They are minor improvements on the German V2 missile that was launched against London in the last months of World War II, that Hitler in his craziness thought would be the secret weapon that would turn the tide of the war. These are liquid fuel rockets with primitive guidance systems. More modern missiles are solid fueled, with reasonably accurate inertia guidance systems. The missiles in the region have come via North Korea, which received the technology from the Soviet Union, which originally obtained the technology from German scientists immediately after the war.

    Both the United States and the Soviet Union had concluded that these missiles were not useful implements of war. They were not sufficiently accurate to be efficient delivery vehicles unless they carried a nuclear warhead. In that case, they could be effective if delivered against cities or large target areas. The missiles that concerned the world during the years of the Cold War were more modern ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads, capable of being launched from underground silos and from submarines. Even though they did not have pinpoint accuracy, they were considered to be effective because of the warhead they carried.

    On the tactical level, ballistic missiles were not considered to be effective weapons. At one time, the United States did employ the Lance short-range, tactical nuclear missile, but it turned out not to be an effective weapon and was never really popular with the U.S. armed forces. Eventually it was discarded.

    Suddenly, the relatively inexpensive, old-style missiles have appeared throughout the Middle East, thanks to North Korea, and they serve the objectives of countries that are in reasonable proximity to each other -- that is, the ranges required are relatively short compared to intercontinental ranges. At these smaller ranges, the accuracy of these missiles was sufficient to threaten cities even when the warhead was conventional. We saw this during the Iraq-Iran War when Teheran, and afterwards Baghdad, were hit by a large number of these missiles, and also during the Gulf War when Israel and Saudi Arabian targets were hit by Scud missiles.

    The missiles in the region have been improved to some extent in the sense that their range has been extended to 500 kilometers, yet the engineering is not very good and the structural design is poor. Some of the missiles directed against Israel during the Gulf War broke up in flight because they were not structurally sound. This made their interception much more difficult because it was hard to identify the warhead among all the pieces.


    Missiles in the Gulf War

    Thirty-nine missiles landed in Israel during the Gulf War over five and a half weeks. Probably more were launched. Some may have aborted on take-off. Six hit populated areas, a little more than 15 percent of the total number that landed in the country. The accuracy of the missiles was such that the Iraqis did not know whether the missile was going to land in Ramat Gan or in Tel Aviv or fall into the sea. Three landed in Ramat Gan, two landed in Tel Aviv, and one landed in Savyon. The rest fell into the sea or in unpopulated areas. Loss of life was minimal. I believe one Israeli was killed as a result of one of the missiles in Ramat Gan, and a number of people were wounded. There were others who suffered heart attacks as a result of the shock of the missiles landing.

    However, the property damage when the missiles landed in populated areas was quite significant. Thus, despite their inaccuracy, the missiles proved to be reasonably effective. When I went to see President Bush, Sr., during the Gulf War to discuss the Israeli response, he told me that he thought their impact was really not very serious and therefore it did not require an Israeli response. I replied that some of the impact sites in Israel reminded me of pictures of the London blitz.

    The difference between a very significant loss of life and a minimal loss of life was just a matter of luck. During the last week of the war, a Scud missile launched against Saudi Arabia fell onto a U.S. army barracks, killing 29 soldiers. Had the same thing happened in Israel and 20 or 30 people had been killed as a result of a missile, there would have been an immediate Israeli response. No Israeli government would have been able to withstand the pressure to respond.

    During the Gulf War, while Israel was considering and planning a response to the Scud attacks, the United States thought the U.S. Air Force could neutralize Iraq's missile capabilities within 24-48 hours. The U.S. was very concerned that Israel might take preemptive action against these missiles or that there might be an immediate Israeli response if Israel were to be hit. It turned out that the Americans seriously underestimated the problem of hitting the mobile Scud launchers that moved out of hiding places, were capable of launching in a matter of minutes, and then moved back into hiding. During five and a half weeks of very intensive efforts by the U.S. Air Force to locate and target these launchers, not a single Scud launcher was hit.

    Israeli planning was based on the assumption that this was a very difficult task for an air force, and that it would take ground forces to have a significant impact on Iraq's launch capability. Therefore, Israel planned to land ground forces in western Iraq and was training for just such an operation. We had even appointed a general to command the operation.

    Israel was on the verge of responding when the war suddenly ended. President Bush announced a ceasefire without any prior coordination with Israel, so before we had a chance to do what we intended to do, the war was over.


    Current Missile Threats to Israel

    The Syrians have over 150 ballistic missiles. They bought not only missiles but also missile production facilities from North Korea, and today are capable of producing these missiles themselves. The fact that the Syrians have such a quantity in their armory, and the fact that in Lebanon today shorter range rockets with sufficient range to hit the cities in northern Israel are deployed with Syrian and Iranian help, all have a strategic effect on the response of the Israeli government to various provocations on the northern border.

    The Iranians are extending the missile capability that they originally received from North Korea to create long-range missiles like the Shahab. All in all, this provides a relatively cheap system that can have a substantial effect on the strategic situation, despite the fact that people who deal in design and evaluation of weapons systems would say that this is not really a very effective system.

    Adding a non-conventional warhead changes the situation completely. Instead of something that can be classified as an irritant, these missiles could become an existential threat to the State of Israel and its citizens. Just about all of the countries in the area that have acquired or are producing these vintage ballistic missiles are in the process of trying to acquire non-conventional warheads. In some cases, they may already have done so.

    According to intelligence estimates, the country that is closest to the possession of nuclear capability today is Iran. It used to be Iraq, which came very close to having a nuclear capability. It is easy to imagine the strategic situation that the United States and its allies would have faced during the Gulf War if Saddam Hussein had nuclear capability on his Scud missiles. By now it is generally accepted that the only reason Saddam did not have that capability is because the Israeli Air Force knocked out his nuclear reactor back in 1981.

    The assumption today is that, as a result of the Gulf War and a few years of UN inspections in Iraq, Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain nuclear capability have been set back considerably, although there is no doubt he is still trying. Indeed, not long ago he appeared on television with his nuclear scientists, urging them to hurry up and finish the job.

    In Iran, the attempt to develop nuclear weapons is being made without there having been any UN inspectors, and without anything substantial having been done to delay the effort. To the contrary, Iran has received considerable technological assistance from other countries, especially from Russia. Thus, Iran is in the process of developing intermediate range (1,300-2,000 kilometer) ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel and, eventually, even Europe.

    It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to visualize what the world will be like if and when the Iranians develop a long-distance nuclear delivery capability. Iranian leaders have repeatedly declared that there will be no peace in the Middle East until Israel is destroyed. The Iranians are also funding, training, and encouraging the Hizballah in Lebanon to carry out hostile activities against Israel. The many medium- and short-range rockets deployed in Lebanon have come from Teheran, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard units are deployed throughout Lebanon.

    The present Iraqi capability is relatively limited. According to recent U.S. estimates, Iraq may have a dozen or two Scud missiles that were not caught by UN inspectors. They are working to attain nuclear capability but do not have it at the moment. However, both the Iraqis and the Iranians have chemical warheads, and both probably have biological weapons as well.

    In the immediate future, the threat that Israel most likely will have to contend with, even if it is not the greatest threat in terms of destructive capability, is that of Syria with its 150 missiles, some of which may be armed with chemical or biological warheads. This kind of threat on Israel's doorstep obviously arouses very deep concern.

    The Egyptians in recent years have decided that they would also like to acquire a ballistic missile capability. Their armed forces is based almost totally on U.S. equipment obtained through U.S. foreign aid, totaling some $1.3 billion a year. The Egyptians are now diverting some of their scarce hard currency resources in order to purchase ballistic missiles from North Korea. The Libyans, who have plenty of hard currency, are doing the same.

    So in the Middle East today, there are probably more ballistic missiles per square kilometer than exist anywhere else in the world. Any of these countries -- the Ayatollahs in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, or even Bashar Assad in Syria -- when in possession of this kind of capability are a danger to the world. They are certainly a danger to Israel, because we are located right in the center of the Middle East and a lot of the rhetoric of these countries' leaders is directed against Israel.


    Israel's Response -- The Arrow Interceptor

    In recent years, Israel has developed the Arrow ballistic missile interceptor system, a system that was not available when I was defense minister during the Gulf War, and one with a high probability and capability of intercepting ballistic missiles like the Scuds.

    For many years, the defense community assumed that intercepting a missile was a mission impossible. It was like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet, it was just moving too fast, and it was too small a target, we were told. All we could do was take defensive measures, move people into shelters, or use our deterrent capability to warn the enemy against directing these missiles against us.

    Then along came President Reagan, who said we need a system that will be able to intercept missiles before they come raining down on us. Originally known as the "Star Wars" project, it was later called the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the Israeli development of the Arrow was initiated under this framework.

    Israel presented its plans for such a system to the United States, they were considered promising from an engineering standpoint, and Israel received some American financial assistance for development, though more than two-thirds of the financial costs of the Arrow missile system were carried by Israel. A few years later, Israel was the only country in the world that had a ballistic missile interceptor system. In a succession of successful tests, the Arrow has intercepted ballistic missiles or targets simulating ballistic missiles. Israel today has operationally deployed the Arrow system to provide an umbrella of coverage over the entire country against ballistic missiles that might be launched, for example, from Iraq.

    This comes to be of paramount significance if and when the United States takes action against Saddam Hussein, who may again launch missiles against Israel. Yet, some of the incentives that Saddam had the first time do not exist at the moment. During the Gulf War, Saddam thought that provoking Israel was a way to help break up the U.S.-led coalition he faced that included Arab countries, something that is not a factor this time.

    Indeed, Israel's situation today is much different and considerably better. With the Arrow system in place, Saddam must take into account that there is a high probability that any missile sent against Israel will be intercepted. If the missiles were to carry non-conventional warheads, not only would the missile be intercepted, but it would be revealed to the entire world that he had tried to send a missile with a non-conventional warhead against Israel. That does not mean that he will not try, but this may be a factor in Baghdad's calculus.

    How was the interception capability achieved from an engineering point of view? First of all, in order to intercept an incoming missile, a very high energy launch is required that will allow the intercepting vehicle to attain very high speeds. In recent years there has been considerable improvement in the ability to achieve such a high acceleration launch. Furthermore, there has been significant improvement in the ability of radar to achieve early detection of the incoming ballistic missile. At the same time, there has also been very substantial improvement in computer technology, in the ability to process data as it is received and, therefore, to direct the intercepting missile to the appropriate location.

    Another advantage today that did not exist when I was defense minister is the Israeli reconnaissance satellite. The advanced Ofek satellite provides us with photo reconnaissance for all of the Middle East, something that Israel seriously lacked during the Gulf War. When we planned an Israeli response against the Iraqi Scud launchings, we were short of intelligence information on western Iraq, and the United States at the time was not very forthcoming in providing us with intelligence from their satellites. Today, if we are concerned about the areas from which missiles might be launched against Israel, we have our own intelligence capability.

    All in all, Israel is in pretty good shape today as it faces many types of very unpleasant dangers in the region. Twelve years of intelligent investment of Israeli resources and the application of its scientific and engineering capabilities have moved us very substantially forward in being able to face the kind of threats that exist in the Middle East today.

    It has been suggested that in the age of missile systems, borders are not really important anymore because missiles fly over borders. This might be the case if missiles were the only way of conducting war, but, as a matter of fact, no war has yet been won by missiles alone. Wars are still won by forces on the ground. So unless Israel can protect itself against enemy ground forces, even the most advanced missile interceptor system will not keep enemy tanks out of the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Defensible borders still matter.


    Dore Gold, Publisher; Lenny Ben-David, ICA Program Director; Mark Ami-El, Managing Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 1515 Locust St., Suite 703, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3726; Tel. (215) 772-0564, Fax. (215) 772-0566. Website: www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

    The Institute for Contemporary Affairs (ICA) is dedicated to providing a forum for Israeli policy discussion and debate.
    To subscribe to the Jerusalem Issue Brief, please send a blank email message to: brief4-subscribe@jcpa.org