If recent reports are accurate, Israel’s Arrow anti-missile program will shortly receive the financial support President Clinton promised it almost four years ago. According to Inside the Army, the Clinton Administration plans next year to give the Arrow effort $250 million of the Pentagon’s $1 billion missile-defense supplemental. Should that funding reach Israel, it will at last satisfy the President’s 1996 commitment of $200 million for Arrow. Until then, Israel will be forced to continue developing Arrow — and its companion system, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) –with American moral and technical support but with very little U.S. money, despite President Clinton’s 1996 funding pledge.
In April of that year, President Clinton told an American Israel Public Affairs Committee audience:
“Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable. It will stay that way because Israel must have the means to defend itself by itself. In a time of shrinking resources, we have maintained our economic assistance. We have sought to enhance Israel’s security, to lessen the risks it has taken and still takes every day for peace….As part of this effort, we are proceeding with the third phase of the deployment of the Arrow missile program. The United States is committing $200 million to this effort so that the children who lived through the Scud attacks of the Gulf War will never again face that fear.”
But despite the President’s rhetorical support for Israeli defenses, the Clinton Administration requested little funding for such programs in its 1997, 1998 and 1999 budgets; in each of those budgets, the White House asked for only $10 million for Arrow, while at the same time choosing not to request any funding for THEL.
It is only because of congressional intervention that Israel has received necessary U.S. funding for Arrow and THEL. For three consecutive years, the Clinton Administration left it to congressional missile-defense advocates such as Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and Representative Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania) to add significant amounts of money to both Arrow and THEL: between $40 million and $50 million for Arrow each year, and about $25 million annually for THEL.
As a result, Israel will soon make Arrow operational. This is good news for the Jewish state, for despite the supposed relaxation of tensions in the post-Cold War era, Israel remains surrounded by hostile nations. Israel’s enemies continue to improve the ballistic-missile technology they have received from Russia, China or North Korea. Iran, for example, last summer launched its first Shahab-3 missile, which is capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Closer still, Syria is suspected of developing with North Korea’s help its own ballistic-missile manufacturing capability while at the same time working toward arming those missiles with nerve gas. Iran and Iraq are presumed to have ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel with chemical or biological warheads.
Meanwhile, work continues in both Israel and the U.S. to develop THEL, a shorter-ranged weapon designed to intercept Katyusha artillery rockets — simple but terrifying weapons frequently fired from Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon into northern Israel.
Israel’s missile-defense programs have been successful not only because of American support, but also because the Israeli government has driven its scientists and engineers to succeed. That drive comes from the memory of Saddam Hussein’s 1991 Scud missile attacks against the Jewish state, when for several weeks Israel’s citizens lived in fear of Iraq’s terror weapons. To its credit, Israel has been far quicker to learn from that experience than the United States, despite the fact that U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia were also killed by Scud missiles during Operation Desert Storm. Eight years later, U.S. soldiers and American citizens remain vulnerable to ballistic-missile attacks.
Fortunately, the White House at last appears willing to recognize the ballistic-missile threat America faces, and is prepared to make U.S. missile defense a high priority within the Pentagon’s budget after years of abstract and unfocused debate. In contrast, Israel’s military has not been hampered by leaders unwilling to embrace missile defense.
As a result, Arrow is more mature than any of the American anti-missile programs. Development of the U.S. Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), for example, would probably be farther along if political leaders had a greater sense of urgency about fielding an operational defense system.
History shows that some of the Pentagon’s most successful weapons started out with less-than-exemplary testing records. The Polaris fleet ballistic missile, for example, had 66 failures during its first 123 flights before eventually becoming a potent portion of America’s nuclear triad. Even the Army’s much vaunted Stinger anti-aircraft missile, a revolutionary weapon credited with almost single-handedly turning the tide against the Soviets in Afghanistan, was almost canceled in favor of another, less-capable system when problems occurred during the early days of Stinger testing.
The challenges imposed by testing problems allowed these weapons to become better than their original designs, because test failures gave the weapon designers the incentive to innovate. Without the risk of failure, there can be no innovation. Like THAAD, Israel’s Arrow has also had its share of technical challenges. The difference is that the Israelis have understood those challenges for what they were: the price of success rather than evidence of a flawed missile design or lack of appropriate technology.
It has been almost 30 years since the United States landed men on the Moon and safely returned them to Earth. That achievement was perhaps the greatest that technology has ever produced. Intercepting a few ballistic missiles with today’s technology and 50 years worth of missile experience should be far easier to achieve in the next decade than flying to the Moon was three decades ago. American citizens can eventually have effective anti-missile systems, but only if U.S. policymakers retain the emerging sense of urgency for missile defense that has been manifest throughout the course of Israel’s missile defense programs. Greg Alan Caires is a Senior Fellow specializing in aerospace and geopolitical issues at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
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