Background / Israel's Scud killer: Shot heard round the world

Bradley Burston

Haaretz Correspondence

This time, the shot heard round the world was fired in California.

In an area better known for surfing than for strategic impact, last week's test-firing of an Arrow anti-missile off sleepy Point Magu barely made wave one in the States, coinciding as it did with the prime-time, straw hat and Chuck Berry hullabaloo coronation of a Democratic presidential candidate.

The demonstration, in which the U.S.-financed, Israeli developed Arrow for the first time successfully intercepted a Scud missile in flight, may well have made more noise halfway around the globe, in places like Tehran and Damascus.

To be sure, some of the claims made at home for the anti-ballistic missile system reflected a blend of wishful thinking, chamber of commerce chest thumping, and just plain fear - a vestige of the memory of the 1991 Gulf war, in which American Patriot anti-missiles may have only deepened the destruction caused by the dozens of Saddam-fired Scuds they were deployed to block.

Analysts have uniformly dismissed as unfounded such assessments as that of an unnamed Pentagon official, quoted by an Israeli television channel Friday as having said that with one shot, "Israel has changed the strategic balance in the Middle East."

Nonetheless, the test was not without significance. In a region where smoke and mirrors are boundlessly potent elements of the decision-making arsenal, deterrence, no less than politics itself, is perception.

In the eyes of Israeli defense experts, the Arrow-Scud match-up proved that the Israeli system was capable of tracking and striking a missile even smaller than the Scud, notes Haaretz defense commentator Ze'ev Schiff.

A signal boosts Israel's deterrent capability
From a strictly practical standpoint, that fact alone cannot give Israelis cause for calm. Enhancements in the speed and range of Iranian and other versions of the Scud - itself a Russian re-invention of the Nazi V-2 rackets that thundered into Britain during the World War II blitz - mean that further development will be needed to effectively counter current regional threats.

At the same time, Schiff says, the test sent "a very significant signal, saying that the United States and Israel are standing together on an issue of great importance."

The signal is of paramount importance from the standpoint of deterrence, Schiff continues.

"The fact of the technology was known, in large part, by both sides. However, if the Americans invite the Israel Air Force and take the entire system, including an Israeli, not American radar system, this rare step signifies that the U.S. is working with Israel on a key issue, and this strengthens Israel's deterrent capability."

Deterrence, never far from the minds of Israeli leaders, was a central talking point of a speech by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delivered just hours before the Arrow test.

Edging closer than ever to discussing Israel's much-rumored, never-acknowledged nuclear weapons program, Sharon said, "America recognizes Israel's right to defend itself using its own means, anywhere, and to preserve its deterrent capability against all threats."

Sharon conceded that, "The current international atmosphere is against countries having deterrent weapons" adding that "possibly someday, when we achieve peace and all countries disarm, we will also be willing to consider taking a similar step."

That day was clearly not in sight, however. "We have been given clear support from the United States, and it has been made clear that Israel's deterrent capability must not be harmed," he declared.

'A bullet hitting another bullet'
Although the Arrow may not be ready for the challenges of state-of-the-art ballistic missiles, the test represented a formidable technical achievement, one once likened by former U.S. president and general Dwight Eisenhower as "hitting a bullet with another bullet."

"In particular, the Arrow test was a signal in particular to nations like Syria, which has many Scuds, and also to Iran, at a time when Iran is developing a weapon larger than the Scud, with greater range, different angles of flight, a different rate of speed, all of these presenting different problems for the Arrow," Schiff says.

"But when an Iranian reads of the test, he understands that Israel is not alone in this. When a Syrian reads of it, he understands that America is aiding Israel to defend itself against a missile system."

Syrians also privately worry about another element, Schiff adds. "If Israel can intercept a Scud at this range, a Syrian missile with a chemical warhead could explode over the heads of the Syrians themselves."

In Schiff's view, the central importance of the Arrow exercise remains this: "A small state and a superpower, on a sensitive subject on which the small state is vulnerable, are sending a message to Syria and Iran, precisely when Iran is threatening and may be embarking on new [weaponry] developments."