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December 2, 2015 / 20 Kislev, 5776
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Iranian Nuclearization And Israel’s ‘Arrow’ Implications For Preemption Option (First of Two Parts)


Israel’s security from enemy state aggression depends upon a carefully conceived mix of deterrence, preemption and war-fighting postures. It also requires an integrated and capable system of active defenses. The current core of Israel’s active defense system is the Arrow anti-ballistic missile program. An Israel Air Force (IAF) operational undertaking, the Arrow was developed jointly by Israel and the United States and is managed by the Israel Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) in close cooperation with the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The prime contractor for the Arrow ABM is Israel Aircraft Industries/MLM Division.

On July 29, 2004, as part of the ongoing Arrow System Improvement Program (ASIP) which is carried out jointly by Israel and the United States, an Arrow ABM successfully intercepted and destroyed its target at the Point Mugu Sea Range in California. This was the 12th Arrow intercept test and the seventh test of the complete Arrow system. According to a statement issued by Israel’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) on that same day: “The target trajectory demonstrated an operational scenario and all the Arrow system components performed successfully in their full operational configuration.”

From the standpoint of Israel’s security, these test results are very significant. They indicate not only continuing close cooperation between Washington (DOD) and Tel-Aviv (MOD), but also the intrinsic technical promise of Israel’s ballistic missile defense. But now, serious decisions need to be made. Still faced with a steadily nuclearizing Iran, Israel must quickly consider carefully whether it can rely upon a suitable combination of deterrence and active defenses or whether it must also prepare energetically for an appropriate form of preemption.

On its face, it would appear that with a successfully operating system of ballistic missile defense, Israel’s preemption option is now substantially less urgent. Indeed, if the Arrow is truly efficient in its reliability of intercept, it would seem that even an irrational Iranian adversary armed with nuclear and/or biological weapons could be dealt with effectively by Israeli active defenses. This means that even if Israel’s nuclear deterrent were immobilized by an enemy state willing to risk a massive “countervalue” Israeli reprisal, that state’s ensuing first-strike would still be blocked by Arrow. Hence, why preempt?

But this argument would rest upon altogether untenable assumptions. Ballistic missile defense systems cannot be appraised dichotomously; that is, as either “reliable” or “unreliable.” Here, Operational Reliability of Intercept is a continuous variable, and any BMD system – however successful in its tests – will always have “leakage.” Whether or not such leakage would fall within acceptable levels would depend, primarily, upon the kinds of warheads fitted upon the enemy’s incoming missiles. Moreover, the Arrow’s recent success in intercepting a Scud might not be as easily replicated with more advanced targets. Iran’s newest missile – the Shahab-3 – travels almost three times as fast as the Scud.

In evaluating its preemption option via-a-vis Iran, Israeli planners will need to consider the expected “leakage rate” of the Arrow. Expressed as a percentage, a very small number of enemy missiles penetrating Arrow defenses could be acceptable if the associated warheads contained only conventional high explosive or even chemical high explosive. But if the incoming warheads were nuclear and/or biological, even an extremely low rate of leakage would almost certainly be unacceptable. A fully zero leakage-rate would be necessary to adequately protect Israel against nuclear and/or biological warheads, and such a zero leakage-rate is unattainable. It follows, given intrinsic limitations of deterrence, that Israel can not depend entirely upon its anti-ballistic missiles to defend against any future WMD attack from Iran, and that even a very promising Arrow system would not obviate Israel’s preemption option.

At the same time, a rational adversary will need to calculate that Israel’s second-strike forces are substantially invulnerable to first- strike aggressions. Additionally, this adversary will now require many more missiles for an assuredly destructive first-strike against Israel than would be the case without Arrow. This means that Israel’s Arrow will at least compel a rational adversary such as Iran to delay any intended first- strike attack until such time as this adversary can deploy a fully robust nuclear and/or biological offensive missile force.

In this way, ballistic missile defense – while not permitting Israel to reject the preemption option altogether – does offer Israel two distinct and complementary levels of protection: (1) protection afforded by Arrow’s demonstrated capacity for physical interception of incoming ballistic missiles; and (2) protection afforded by Arrow’s allowing Israel to “buy time” until a nuclearizing adversary is able to deploy a more or less substantial number of offensive ballistic missiles. By definition, of course, Arrow will have no deterrent effect upon any irrational adversary, but it could still have some consequential damage-limiting benefit in the event of an enemy attack by such an adversary.

In the best of all possible worlds, Israel would not need to make any of these complex strategic calculations, and could rely instead upon those codified norms of international law associated with methods of peaceful dispute settlement. But we surely do not yet live in the best of all possible worlds, and Israel surely still faces a number of state enemies in the Middle East whose undisguised preparations for the Jewish State are authentically genocidal. Jurisprudentially and strategically, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive, and certain ongoing enemy state preparations for war against Israel are fully consistent with the definition of genocide found in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

(To be continued)

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LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971), Professor of International Law at Purdue University and Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is Chair of “Project Daniel.”

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.

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