The core of Israel’s active defense plan remains the phased Arrow anti-ballistic missile program. Designed to intercept medium and short-range ballistic missiles, the various operationalized forms of Arrow (Hetz in Hebrew) are expected todeal especially with Iran’s surface-to-surface missile threat. Basically a high stratospheric system, Arrow is also capable of low-altitude and multi-tactical ballistic missile interceptions.
For the moment, things seem to be looking good. Test results for the Arrow continue to be significant and promising. Indeed, they indicate not only the substantial mutual benefits of ongoing strategic cooperation between Washington and Tel-Aviv, but also the intrinsic technical promise of Israel’s primary active defense system.
Yet, there are also some very important and underlying conceptual problems. Still faced with a steadily nuclearizing Iran, Israel must carefully consider whether it can rely entirely upon a suitable combination of deterrence and active defenses, or whether it must still also prepare for preemption. Can Israel live with a nuclear Iran? The answer to this question will have genuinely existential consequences for the Jewish State.
Israel’s preemption option should now appear less urgent. Many strategic planners and scientists believe that the Arrow’s repeated success in testing confirms that Israel is suitably prepared to deal with any Iranian nuclear missile attack. After all, on many occasions, the Israel Air Force has already successfully tested the Arrow against a missile precisely mocking Iran’s Shihab-3.
In Israel, it seems, optimism should abound. On its face, it would appear that if Arrowwere efficient in its expected reliability of interception, even an irrational Iranian adversary armed with nuclear and/or biological weapons could be dealt with effectively. Indeed, even if Israel’s nuclear deterrent were somehow made irrelevant by an enemy state willing to risk an almost certain and massive “counter-value” Israeli reprisal, that aggressor’s ensuing first-strike could still presumably be blocked by Arrow. So, we should now inquire, why even still consider preemption against Iran?
The meaningful answer lies in certain untenable assumptions about any system of ballistic missile defense. Israel’s problem is essentially a generic one. No system of ballistic missile defense, anywhere, can ever be appraised as simply reliable or unreliable.
Operational reliability of intercept is a distinctly “soft” concept, and any missile defense system – however successful in its test results – will have “leakage.” Of course, whether or not such leakage would fall within acceptable levels must ultimately depend largely upon the kinds of warheads fitted upon an enemy’s incoming missiles. In this connection, the Arrow’s commendable test successes might not necessarily be reproducible against faster and more advanced Iranian missiles.
Shall Israel now bet its collective life on a defensive capacity to fully anticipate and nullify offensive enemy capabilities?
In evaluating its rapidly disappearing preemption option vis-à-vis Iran, Israeli planners will need to consider very carefully the expected leakage rate of the Arrow. In principle, a tiny number of enemy missiles penetrating Arrow defenses could still be “acceptable” if their 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 certainly be intolerable.
A fully zero leakage-rate would be necessary to adequately protect Israel against any nuclear and/or biological warheads, and such a zero leakage-rate is unattainable. This means that Israel can never depend entirely upon its anti-ballistic missiles to defend against any future WMD attack from Iran, and that even a thoroughly capable Arrow system cannot obviate altogether Israel’s preemption option. Moreover, even if Israel could somehow expect a 100% reliability of interception for Arrow– a technically inconceivable expectation – this would do nothing to blunt the unconventional threat from terrorist surrogates opting to use much shorter-range missiles, and/or delivery systems from ships, trucks or automobiles. Special points of vulnerability for Israel would obviously be in Lebanon, with Hezbollah proxies acting for Iran, and possibly also Gaza, where Iran-supported Hamas is currently developing dangerous new ties with al-Qaeda.
Israel must immediately strengthen its nuclear deterrence posture. To be deterred, a rational adversary will need to calculate that Israel’s second-strike forces are plainly invulnerable to any first-strike aggressions. Facing the Arrow, this adversary will now require increasing numbers of missiles to achieve an assuredly destructive first-strike against Israel. The Arrow, therefore, will compel any rational adversary, including Iran, to at least delay an intended first-strike attack against Israel. With any non-rational adversary, however, all Israeli bets on deterrence would necessarily be off. A non-rational adversary would be one that does not value its own continued survival more highly than all other preferences.
In Iran, Israel still faces a state enemy whose undisguised preparations for attacking the Jewish State are authentically genocidal, and which may not always remain rational. Aware of this, Israel is not obligated to sit back passively, and simply respond after a nuclear and/or biological attack has already been absorbed.
International law is not a suicide pact. Israel has the same right granted to all states to act preemptively when facing an existential assault. Known formally as anticipatory self-defense, this general right is strongly affirmed in customary international law and in “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.” It is also supported by the authoritative 1996 Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice.
Israel must continue to develop, test and implement an Arrow-based interception capability to match the growing threat dictated by enemy ballistic missiles. Simultaneously, it must also continue to prepare for certain possible preemptions, and to suitably enhance the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. Regarding such enhanced credibility, Israel must appropriately operationalize a recognizable second-strike force, one that is sufficiently hardened and dispersed, and that is ready to inflict a decisive retaliatory salvo against identifiable enemy cities.
Arrow is necessary for Israeli security, but it is not sufficient. To achieve a maximum level of security, Israel will also have to take appropriate and coordinated preparations for both deterrence and preemption. Moreover, ballistic missile defense will do nothing to thwart certain terrorist surrogates of Iran who could someday utilize ordinary modes of travel and transport as nuclear delivery vehicles.
Together with the U.S, Israel exists in the cross hairs of a far-reaching Jihad that that will likely not conform to any of the settled international rules of diplomacy and negotiation. Under no circumstances, can Israel and the U.S afford to allow a seventh-century view of the world to be combined with twenty-first century weapons of mass destruction. Left unimpeded in its relentless plan to nuclearize for war (so-called “economic sanctions” are not an impediment), Iran, in the future, could share certain of its atomic munitions with anti-American proxies in Iraq.
The Arrow-based ballistic missile defense is indispensable for Israel. But it is now critical for both Jerusalem and Washington to remember that it is also not enough. In the end, therefore, both Israel and the United States may still have to destroy Iran’s pertinent nuclear infrastructures at their source.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971), is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. Professor of International Law at Purdue, he was chair of Project Daniel, a private nuclear advisory group to counsel former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He is also the author of many books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war.