After absorbing thousands of rocket and missile attacks this summer, Israel is keener than ever to expand its missile defenses. As international tensions with Iran mount, Israel also is moving to boost its offensive military capabilities with the purchase of two new submarines.
Reacting to the July 12 kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants, Israel launched a four-week offensive to root out and eliminate members of the radical Shiite group in southern Lebanon. As Israeli air strikes pounded targets across southern Lebanon and its ground forces poured across the border, Hezbollah unleashed a torrent of rocket attacks against northern Israeli cities.
By the time hostilities ended Aug. 14, 3,970 rockets and missiles had struck inside Israel, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The projectiles killed 43 Israeli civilians and forced more than a million people to seek protection in shelters, the ministry reported.
Israel possesses two operational anti-missile systems: the joint U.S.-Israeli Arrow and the U.S.-manufactured Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2). Although both systems were activated during the recent conflict, no interceptors were fired because the incoming rockets were of a shorter range capability than the two missile defenses are designed to counter.
An estimated 80 percent of the rockets that struck Israel were 122-millimeter Katyushas with ranges of 20 kilometers or less and flight times of roughly one to two minutes. Hezbollah also fired 220-millimeter and 302-millimeter rockets but did not apparently launch many Fajr-type missiles, with ranges of 40 to 70 kilometers, or a single one of its longest-range missiles, the Zelzal, which has an estimated range of up to 200 kilometers. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) claimed that it succeeded in destroying some of these more potent missiles before they could be fired.
Prior to the recent conflict, the Israeli government had estimated that Hezbollah had stockpiled up to 12,000 rockets and missiles primarily from its patrons in Iran and Syria. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted in an Aug. 15 statement that “most of the missiles [that] hit Israeli cities were manufactured by Iran.”
To prevent Hezbollah from importing additional arms, UN Security Council Resolution 1701, approved Aug. 11, calls on countries to prevent arms shipments into Lebanon except to the Lebanese government. The resolution also reiterates a demand from Resolution 1559 two years ago that Lebanon disband and disarm all militias inside its borders.
On Sept. 12, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had provided personal assurances that his country, a key conduit for arms into Lebanon, would “undertake all necessary measures” to implement the arms embargo. The Lebanese government also pledged to deploy more troops along its border with Syria to prevent arms flows into Lebanon and requested that the United Nations help step up maritime patrols along the 200 kilometers of Lebanese coastline. France, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom have pledged to provide forces for this mission.
Still, Israel harbors doubts about the potential effectiveness of the embargo, particularly because it blames Lebanon for failing to disarm Hezbollah over the past two years. The group “would never have obtained the missiles and military equipment at its disposal had the Lebanese government not allowed this weaponry to reach Lebanon,” according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Hezbollah remains defiant. In a Sept. 22 speech, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah claimed the group still possessed 20,000 rockets and that “no army in the world” could disarm it, according to several press reports.
Consequently, Israel is looking to secure itself, in part, by augmenting its missile defense capabilities to intercept shorter-range rockets. Earlier this year, Israel started moving in this direction by selecting Raytheon Corp. and Israel’s Rafael Corp. to develop the Short Range Ballistic Missile Defense (SRBMD). This program is supposed to produce an interceptor missile that is faster and has a greater range than the PAC-2.
Yet, the system will be geared toward destroying projectiles with greater ranges than the Katyushas, leaving Israel vulnerable to attacks by these and similar shorter-range rockets. To address this void, Israel is evaluating a series of weapons concepts, including lasers, with the goal of selecting an option by the end of this year.
The United States and Israel previously explored a joint laser system, the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, for the Katyusha-type threat, but Washington terminated the program in September 2005. Dan O’Boyle, a spokesman for Army missile defense programs at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, told Arms Control Today Sept. 20 that the program was cancelled because of “higher priority funding requirements and pressing financial obligations to support our deployed soldiers.”
In general, Israel relies on U.S. funding to pursue its anti-missile projects. For example, the United States has provided roughly $1.5 billion since 1988 to the Arrow program. Israel keeps its missile defense funding secret.
With U.S. help, Israel is also aiming to improve the Arrow. Israel wants to expand the interceptor’s range, enable it to conduct intercepts at a higher altitude, and possibly shift it to a kinetic, or hit-to-kill, capability. Current Arrow interceptors employ a conventional explosive warhead.
Israel’s motivation for pursuing these upgrades is to stay ahead of what it views as Iran’s efforts to enhance its ballistic missile arsenal and develop nuclear weapons. Iran’s Shahab-3 is estimated to be capable of striking Israel. (See ACT, November 2004. )
The recent conflict with Hezbollah, which Israel considers an Iranian proxy, appears to have sharpened Israel’s concerns about Iran. “I think the Iranian threat is now also clearer,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters Sept. 13 in Washington.
In a move aimed at bolstering its military capabilities vis-à-vis Iran, Israel in July signed a contract to purchase two Dolphin submarines from Germany. The deal came to light in August.
Israel already has three earlier versions of the diesel-electric-powered vessels, which allegedly have been outfitted to carry nuclear-armed missiles. (See ACT, November 2003. ) Although generally suspected of building up an inventory of nuclear weapons numbering in the tens to low hundreds, Israel adheres to a policy of nuclear ambiguity, only saying that it will not be the first country to “introduce” nuclear arms into the region. The German government has said the submarines are not designed to deliver nuclear weapons.