Israeli and U.S. missile defense agencies just completed, together with their leading defense industries, a successful test of the new Arrow 3 interceptor. While the Israeli Air Force declared the system operational almost a year ago, these tests now serve as a clear indication to enemies — notably Iran — that Israel's multi-layer missile defense system has the country covered.
Israel began to develop its multilayered missile defense in the 1990s, following the first Gulf War, when Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein fired Scuds at the Jewish state. Washington positioned Patriot missiles in the country to intercept them, but several Scuds landed, causing damage and casualties. This prompted Israel, with generous U.S. support, to begin construction of the missile defense architecture Israel boasts today.
Over decades of development, the Israeli multilayer system currently consists of four operational layers: Iron Dome (short-range), David's Sling (medium-range), Arrow 2 (longer range), and now Arrow 3 (very long range). Other lower layers, including the use of lasers, are being discussed among Israeli officials or are already under development.
Iron Dome is often touted as a brilliant technological achievement for its ability to accurately and affordably target short-range rockets fired by Hamas and other terrorist groups out of the Gaza Strip, thereby granting Israeli policymakers the time and space to respond judiciously. But Israel's most important strategic needs are met by the new Arrow 3 system. This system provides Israel with the ability to defend against long-range, advanced Iranian missiles like the Shahab 3. It allows for exo-atmospheric interception high in space, offering Israel ample time to defend itself. Unlike other missile defense systems, the Arrow 3 also gives Israel the capability and flexibility to better deal with nuclear warheads, and to do so with impressive interception rates.
Israel received permission by the Pentagon to run a series of tests in Alaska, simulating a range of threats — most notably from Iran. According to reports, the system met or exceeded expectations, and the Israeli defense establishment is now unambiguous about the country's deterrence and defense capabilities.
American and Israeli coordination in missile defense has been important for both sides. The joint development of the Arrow 3 underscores this. Other Israeli missile defense technology has recently proven to be very valuable to Washington. The U.S. Army recently signed an agreement to acquire two Iron Dome batteries for testing and possible broader acquisition. In the coming weeks, the Marines are going to test the system, as well.
David's Sling, jointly developed by Rafael and Raytheon for middle range threats and against cruise missiles, may ultimately serve the needs of the U.S. and its allies in places like Poland, Japan, and South Korea, to name a few, particularly if its missile (the Skyceptor) is paired with the Patriot system. Indeed, the key to effective missile defense is adaptability and multiple layers.
Lasers are likely to be an important part of the next frontier in missile defense. Of course, scientists have been predicting this for decades. But in recent years, the technology of solid state lasers has made strides. Still, it is not yet ready for deployment. And even when it is, it won't be applicable for upper layers of defense. If anything, lasers are expected in the coming decade to be particularly effective at the short range as part of an existing system, like Iron Dome. And while it may be expensive to build a laser interceptor, it will likely not be as expensive to operate, particularly when compared to the cost of the kinetic interceptors.
Missile defense will continue to be one of the largest expenses in Israel's military budget. This is because of spike in missile and rocket threats posed by Iranian proxies. The terrorist groups specifically aim to target Israel's civilian population. This challenge will continue to prompt continued Israeli innovation. This, in turn, would spark close cooperation and technological sharing between Israel and the United States.
Of course, America does not face the same threats that Israel does on its borders. But some of Israel's missile defense solutions can help augment or improve the systems deployed in the United States. Moreover, such cooperation sends a clear message to common foes, like Iran, that new and effective missile defense solutions are the result of an alliance that is multi-layered, as well.
Professor Jacob Nagel, a former head of Israel's National Security Council and a former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD). Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, is senior vice president at FDD.