Israel and Iran spent the last weeks of the summer conducting missile tests and exchanging verbal volleys about their determination to match each other’s weapons capabilities.
On July 29, Israel, for the first time, successfully tested its Arrow-2 missile defense system against what was widely reported as a Scud ballistic missile. U.S. and Israeli officials would not officially confirm that the target was a Scud—a mainstay of the Soviet missile arsenal that has spread around the globe, including to Iran—but a Missile Defense Agency spokesperson implied as much, commenting Aug. 13 that the target was a “liquid-fueled short- to medium-range ballistic missile.”
The joint U.S.-Israeli test took place off California’s coast to provide a more realistic test scenario. Israel’s territory is too small and densely populated to fire the Arrow-2 against targets at ranges that would replicate a real attack.
The Arrow-2 system failed Aug. 26 to replicate its earlier success, missing an air-launched target off the coast of California. Although U.S. and Israeli officials said they did not know the cause of the failure, they reaffirmed their confidence in the system, which has been tested a total of 13 times but never used in combat. Israel has deployed two Arrow batteries and is seeking to deploy more of the interceptors.
Unlike U.S. missile interceptors that are designed to destroy enemy targets through collisions, the Arrow-2 carries a conventional explosive warhead. Israel Aircraft Industries, which works with U.S.-owned Boeing Corp. to build the Arrow-2 system, said the July 29 test marked “an important step in proving the system’s operational ability and its response to the existing and growing threat of ballistic missiles in our region.”
With Iraq and Libya currently out of the ballistic missile business, Syria and Iran were clearly the intended audiences. Iran was paying attention. Tehran announced Aug. 11 a successful test of its Shahab-3 ballistic missile, which is estimated to be capable of reaching Israel.
Speaking a few days earlier, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said Iran intended to match Israeli military advances with its own missile improvements. Iran declared the Shahab-3 ready for operations last year but is believed only to possess a handful of the estimated 1,300-kilometer-range missiles.
Iranian officials indicated that the August test sought to verify enhancements to the missile’s range and accuracy, but they were vague about whether the test was a flight or ground experiment. A U.S. official refused to comment on that aspect of the test.
The Department of State released an Aug. 11 statement warning that the United States has “serious concerns about Iran’s missile programs” and that it “will continue to take steps to address Iran’s missile efforts, and to work closely with other like-minded countries in doing so.”
In July, Congress approved $155 million in fiscal year 2005 for the Arrow system. Since 1988, the United States has funneled $1.2 billion to the program, the total cost of which is estimated to reach $2.2 billion by 2010.
The missile tests occurred against a backdrop of growing tension in the region surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington and Tel Aviv charge is intended for weapons purposes and Tehran defends as a civilian energy project.