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Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints

No. 493     28 Adar I / 2 March 2003


Beyond Iraq: Missile Proliferation in the Middle East

Uzi Rubin


  • Beyond the Iraqi missile threat to Israel in the 1990s, missile threats to Israel have emerged from Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Libya. Yet many of the New Middle East missile powers are determined to project their power toward Europe.

  • Missile suppliers in the Middle East include North Korea, China, and Russian and Indian companies. Suppliers have found ways of evading the Missile Technology Control Regime!!

  • Iran's 2,000 km range Shihab-4 will reach targets beyond Israel. Iran's missile program is a matter of national pride that will be unaffected by regime change. The Iranians are determined to develop missiles of even longer range.

  • In about ten years, Libya will have 50-100 missiles that can threaten Israel.



Who are the Suppliers?

Who are the suppliers of missiles in the Middle East?

North Korea continues to view the selling of missiles as an export commodity. Missiles are their only dollar-earning export item.

Russian companies - not the Russian government - continue to support Iran with missile technology. Although the Russian government tries to curb this trade, the proliferation goes on.

China continues to sell missile technology. China is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), but says it adheres to it. Chinese policy is not to sell complete missile systems, but some technologies sold by China are also considered MTCR-sensitive. The Chinese allow themselves more leeway in the export of what is called "banned technology" in the West. China lately issued its own missile export laws which are somewhat different from the MTCR.

Indian companies - not the Indian government - exported missile-related technology to Iraq and, currently, the Pakistanis are also becoming active in proliferation to the Middle East.


Who are the Users?

Who are the users? Iran is continuing to develop the 1,200 km-range Shihab-3 missile, which is adapted from the North Korean Nodong. Iran says it is operational, and there have been tests from time to time, sometimes successful and sometimes not. Less known is the fact that the Iranians continue firing the Shihab-1 into Iraq from time to time.

The Shihab-4, 2,000 km-range missile program was unveiled in a recent interview by Gen. Ahmed Wahid, head of the Iranian missile program. At the time he made three important statements:

  1. The Shihab program is aimed to balance the alleged Israeli Jericho missile threat.
  2. Iran will continue to develop missiles of longer ranges.
  3. Iran is going into space. This may sound innocent, but it is important to understand that any space launcher is a potential intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach anywhere on earth.

Another ominous development is the deployment of missiles in Lebanon. These are not Category 1- weapons of mass destruction missiles, but Category 2 missiles of shorter range, deployed by Iran in southern Lebanon.

Iraq is developing a 150 km-range missile that has all the current technologies of long-range ballistic missiles. We now know of at least six instances when these missiles reached over 150 km "by mistake."

Syria has the largest stockpile of ballistic missiles in the region today; in fact, Syria is investing most of its military budget in its missile arsenal at the expense of its air force and its ground forces. Syria has established production lines and is producing the Scud C, a 550 km-range missile.

The Syrians have also acquired a 700 km-range missile that we call the Scud D. When Syria fired such a missile two years ago, Israel was able to observe the enemy missile launch for the first time with its own Green Pine radar, part of the Arrow system. The Syrians have also improved their Scud B warheads and have tested them. Israel tracked a test of an improved warhead for the Scud B, probably with chemical agents.

Egypt is very quiet. It has a small arsenal of Scud B and Scud C missiles. Lately, however, there have been reports in the media of Egyptians buying - or trying to buy - Nodong technology from North Korea.

Libya is very active now in acquiring long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, Libya is buying Nodong missiles from North Korea with a range of 1,200-1,300 km, which can strike Israel.

There are also signs of secondary proliferation: Iran is now an exporter. This is very natural once a nation has established an industrial infrastructure. The Iranians are reported to be trying to sell missiles to African countries. They are selling technologies and missile components to Syria, and they are deploying missiles in Lebanon.


The Threat of Long-Range Missiles

In the future we will see a trend toward longer-range missiles, driven by a number of motivations:

  1. Projecting power toward Israel.
  2. Projecting power toward Europe. A hypothetical Iranian Shihab-4 missile with a 2,000 km range could reach parts of Eastern Europe. The motivation of power projection becomes obvious since Iran does not need a missile with such a range in order to reach Israel.
  3. Fear of Israel's preemptive capabilities.

Libya cannot hit Israel now; they only have Scud-B missiles with a 300 km range. The Egyptians have the Scud-C and can hit Israel from south of the Nile Delta. The Syrians can hit Israel from mid-Syria with the Scud-C. The Iranians have a 1,300 km missile that can reach Israel from western Iran.

Everyone is buying longer-range missiles. The Syrians went for the Scud D, the Libyans and Egyptians opted for the Nodong, and the Iranians went for the 2,000 km Shihab-4. There is a clear trend toward extending the ranges of missiles so that they can be deployed beyond Israel's preemptive range.

Russian aid to Iran might decrease because the Russian government is attempting to reduce this trade, but Iran could be compensated by North Korea. Now North Korea is going into the nuclear business and might start selling nuclear weapons.

Iran has passed the point of no return. The Iranians cannot be stopped anymore. They have their indigenous capability now and they will continue with their programs regardless of what the international community thinks. Iran will continue to develop missiles because their missile industry has nothing to do with the degree of radicalism of the regime. For Iran it is a matter of pride. Iran's missile program has become a national program that will be unaffected by any regime change.


Order of Battle

Syria has the largest stockpile, with about 500 missiles altogether, including Scud-B (300 km) and Scud-C (550 km). The SS-21 missile is a very accurate, Russian-made, solid propellant, battlefield weapon with a range of about 100 km. In Israeli terms this is a strategic weapon because, if deployed north of the Golan Heights, it can hit most of northern Israel.

In about ten years, Libya will have 50-100 missiles that can threaten Israel.

Iraq will remain a big question mark, even if Saddam falls. Iraq has the infrastructure and the experts who know how to make missiles. They may now have a stockpile of perhaps fifty missiles, but in the future, Iraq could produce hundreds of missiles and not just because they have Israel in mind. Iran remains Iraq's historical enemy - these two enemies have been fighting each other in the Mesopotamian Valley for the past three thousand years under different names, such as the Persians and the Babylonians.


Launch Capability the Key Measure

The number of missiles stockpiled is not the key measure of enemy threat. Rather, it is the number the enemy can actually fire in war. In 1988, in what was known as the war of the cities, the Iraqis fired about 190 missiles into four Iranian cities - Teheran, Shiraz, Qom, and Isfehan - over four months. In the Gulf War, Iraq managed to fire about 80 missiles in four weeks. Thus, actual firepower is defined not by the number of missiles but by launch capability, which depends on a whole supply structure including launchers and manpower.


The Origins of Israel's Arrow System

The United States faces two different missile threats: a tactical threat to its military forces and a strategic threat to its home territory. In Israel, the tactical threat and the strategic threat are encapsulated in the same territory. First and foremost is the tactical threat of interdiction of the mobilization of Israel's military reserves, or the interdiction of our air force. Then there is the strategic threat of nuclear missiles. In between lies the threat of missiles with chemical warheads. In a country with a large territory, the threats tend to be separated from each other, but with Israel's constricted territory, everything is meshed together.

This is the story of how Israel developed its response to the missile threat and the considerations behind it. In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, we first saw Iraq's use of El-Hussein missiles, an upgraded Scud with a range of 600 km., which was not only capable of reaching Teheran but also Tel Aviv. This meant that we were facing a future threat that we had not considered before, what is now called the "depth threat" - attacks from beyond the immediate tier of neighboring countries. We also realized that we had no way to stop it.


Passive Defense: An Initial Approach

In the discussions in Israel about what to do, the decision-makers initially concluded that unless the threat involved nuclear missiles, there was no need to invest in anti-missile defenses. What was considered important against chemical missiles was passive defense (sealed rooms and gas masks) with early warning. This is why the passive defense program in Israel is so extensive.

However, passive defense without early warning is worthless. A minimum warning time is required to put on protective gear and move into sheltered areas. In Teheran in 1988 when missiles struck without any early warning, people were caught in the streets and in the markets, with hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded.

In retrospect, the decision at that time not to embark on a missile defense system was not very wise. In the 1991 Gulf War, despite overconfident predictions that the Iraqis wouldn't dare fire one missile at Israel, they fired 40 missiles. In reaction, Israel began the Arrow program.

The Arrow program was actually launched under Scud fire, and I was appointed head of the program on an evening when two Scuds fell. I was called to the director-general of the Defense Ministry and he told me to start work. It was like a battlefield commission. As the saying goes, "there is nothing that clarifies the thought processes like the threat of death."


Born with "Star Wars"

In 1986, Israel had joined the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly referred to as "Star Wars." Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, the first director of the SDI, met with David Ivry, then chairman of Israel Aircraft Industries and later director-general of the Ministry of Defense. Abrahamson suggested that since the SDI charter was to defend the United States and its allies, and since Israel was an ally that faced a threat from short-range missiles in the Middle East, Israel should work on defense against "theater ballistic missiles." In 1988, a commercial contract was signed between Israel Aircraft Industries and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) to develop an experimental missile, not a system, and to try to hit a target in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It was defined as an experiment, not as the development of a system.

Israel's program was called "Homa," an acronym for "Hetz" (Arrow) and "Makam Hagana" (early warning radar). The acronym forms the Hebrew word for "defensive rampart." Yet until 1994, the program experienced failure after failure. Finally in July 1994 we managed to hit a target with the Arrow-1 missile. Though big and cumbersome, the success of the Arrow-1 encouraged us and saved the program.


To Develop a System, Not a Missile

In parallel, we developed the initial version of the "Green Pine" early warning and fire control radar, as well as the "Citron Tree" battle management system. This was really a turning point to the program because the soul of any missile defense system is not the missile; it is the radar, its main sensor. It took us some time to appreciate that we needed to develop a system program rather than a missile program. In 1995 we rolled out the first version of "Green Pine."

The Arrow program used practically no U.S. technology, just U.S. money. It was almost entirely based on Israeli technology, though we bought some components in the U.S. because they were cheaper.

When I showed the first photographs of the newly assembled radar to the Pentagon, I could see they were impressed at how we were developing a full system.

The Arrow-2 achieved its first successful interception in 1997. In seven interception tests of the Arrow-2, six have been successful. In 1999, the full system operated on its own and correctly detected a realistic target. An intercept solution was automatically computed, the Arrow missile fired, and scored a direct hit. In 2000 the first battery was delivered, and today two batteries are deployed - one in the south and one in the north.


Key Questions in the Arrow Decision

In the development of the Arrow, the questions we sought to answer included: Will the system work? Will it be effective? Will it be affordable? And how is it going to impact on regional stability?

Is it going to work? Yes, technically we have every reason to believe it is going to work.

Is it going to be effective? Effectiveness is really a question of resources. If we want to be very effective, we can fire five Arrows against every target, but this becomes very costly.

We were frequently criticized about launching an expensive Arrow against a cheap Scud, but that is not really a proper equation. During the 1991 Gulf War, an el-Hussein missile - a Scud with only a quarter ton instead of a ton of explosives - fell in a Ramat Gan courtyard between four apartment houses. Fortunately, no one was killed, though scores of people were injured. Everyone was evacuated and the buildings had to be condemned; after the war, the 48 apartments were bulldozed. The cost of the damage to these four buildings caused by one Scud shows that the real equation must compare the cost of the Arrow to the damage caused by the Scud, and this is without taking into account the cost of human life.

Regarding the question of regional stability, the Arrow was blamed for instigating an arms race. However, the development of the Arrow was actually Israel's response to the arms race. The Arabs started arming with ballistic missiles not because of Arrow, but because they sought a way to penetrate Israeli skies that are so efficiently protected by the Israeli Air Force.

Furthermore, any government is obliged to defend its people. This is the moral and ethical dimension of the issue. We regarded the Arrow program as the fulfillment of the Israeli government's obligation to Israel's people.


How Effective Against Chemical Weapons?

The Arrow system - like the Patriot system - does not distinguish between missile warheads. We really don't know what is coming at us, so we designed our defense system in such a way that it destroys any warhead of whatever type. To do so, our defensive system employs a very powerful warhead of its own to impart a lot of impact onto the incoming missile and destroy it completely. The Arrow is also designed to intercept the missile as high as possible. We tested to see whether chemical agents would reach the ground after interception and reached the conclusion that absolutely nothing comes down to the ground. If we can destroy the hostile warhead above the jet stream, which flows from west to east, everything that comes down from the destroyed warhead will enter the jet stream and be blown back to the sender.

The missile threat to Israel is extensive and growing. Long-range, nuclear missiles are clearly a possible threat. If and when we have peace, the Arrow is part of a shield that Israel will have to maintain in order to preserve that peace.

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Uzi Rubin is former head of Israel's Arrow-Homa Anti-Missile Defense Program. This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 27 January 2003.


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The opinions expressed by the authors of Viewpoints do not necessarily reflect those of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.