Israel Allegedly Fielding Sea-Based Nuclear Missiles

Wade Boese

U.S. and Israeli officials have declined directly to address an October news report that Israel was arming U.S.-supplied cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. The news came amid increased international attention to nuclear weapons in the Middle East as the United States and European nations sought to halt Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 12 that two senior Bush administration officials said Israel has modified U.S. Harpoon cruise missiles, which can be launched from submarines, to deliver nuclear warheads. The paper added that an Israeli official confirmed the American statements. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., would not respond to the report. When contacted Oct. 20, he simply reiterated Israel’s long-standing position that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Although Israel refuses to confirm or deny whether it possesses nuclear weapons, it is almost universally recognized as having built up an atomic arsenal. Typical estimates of the arsenal’s size range from weapons numbering in the high tens to a couple hundred. Israel fields medium-range ballistic missiles and U.S.-supplied fighter aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Department of State spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Oct. 14 that he would not look into the Harpoon allegation because “it’s not the kind of subject we readily share information on.” Although Washington routinely condemns countries hostile to the United States for seeking nuclear weapons, it stays mum on Israel’s arms.

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which oversees U.S. military sales abroad, told Arms Control Today Oct. 23 that Israel’s contract for Harpoon missiles does not explicitly prohibit Israel from modifying them to carry nuclear warheads but added that “we have had no reason to believe that the government of Israel had any intention to modify or substitute the warheads of these missiles.”

More than 100 Harpoon missiles have been exported to Israel. The United States, according to DSCA, has also sold Harpoons to 25 other countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Robert Algarotti, a spokesman for Harpoon manufacturer Boeing, said Oct. 20 that the company has never studied whether the missile could be armed with a nuclear warhead.

However, a former top U.S. nuclear-weapon scientist and a leading U.S. missile expert interviewed each said the Harpoon could carry a nuclear warhead. They said the issue was whether Israel could build a warhead small enough for the missile, which has a relatively light payload capability of 220 kg and a short range of roughly 100 kilometers.

Israel’s receipt of two Dolphin-class diesel submarines from Germany in 1999 and a third in 2000 was widely perceived at the time as a move to acquire sea-based launching options for nuclear weapons. Past news reports further identified the Harpoon missile, which the United States transferred to Israel several years ago, as the potential delivery vehicle.

The United States is party to the 33-member Missile Technology Control Regime aimed at restricting exports of missiles capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads. Although the regime does not ban such transfers, there is a “strong presumption to deny” them. Washington is further committed in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce” nuclear proliferation.

The United States also endorses the concept of a Middle East without weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Yet it does not press Israel on the subject, saying such an arrangement must be “freely arrived at” by all the countries in the region.