The growing nuclear threat from North Korea has rekindled American interest in looking for backup missile defense options, but several obstacles hinder the adoption of Israel’s US-funded, battle-tested system by the Pentagon.
Over the past decade, the United States has invested more than a half-billion dollars into the Arrow 3 high-altitude anti-ballistic missile system as part of a 32-year-old agreement to jointly develop an indigenous Israeli anti-missile capability. Arrow 3 interceptors were delivered in January 2017, and the US and Israeli missile defense agencies successfully tested the system in central Israel last week.
In a press statement, the US Missile Defense Agency called the success of the test a “major milestone in the operational capabilities of the State of Israel and its ability to defend itself against current and future threats in the region.” It wasn’t the system’s first flight, however: An Arrow defense battery was credited with shooting down a Syrian anti-aircraft missile targeting Israeli fighter jets in March 2017.
That record has not escaped the attention of US defense hawks. Some experts have notably urged the United States to adopt the Israeli technology as a backup or complement to the US Army’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, whose lack of real-world experience have raised concerns.
“The US has spent tens of billions on missile defense systems that don’t seem to measure up to the scope of the threat,” Stephen Bryen, a former US Defense Department official and ex-head of the pro-Israel Jewish Institute for National Security of America, wrote in August 2017. One solution: “Consider an alternative to the GMD such as cooperation on Arrow 3 with Israel. This could make a big difference if the Israeli system turns out as good as it so far appears.”
US lawmakers have also periodically highlighted the promise of Israeli technology.
“Missile defense cooperation between the United States and Israel is tremendously beneficial to both countries,” House Republican Israel Caucus co-chairman Peter Roskam, R-Ill., wrote in an April 2017 press statement highlighting his support for more funding for the program. “This partnership enhances Israel’s ability to defend its citizens and gives our own armed forces access to the latest battle-proven technology.”
The George W. Bush administration helped create Arrow 3 in 2008 over the objections of the Pentagon, which wanted to sell Israel an American-made alternative. The Defense Department’s interest in adopting the Israeli technology has been lukewarm at best ever since. Experts point to US domestic industry concerns and military inflexibility as key hang-ups.
“Arrow 3 is more capable than THAAD,” Uzi Rubin, the former head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, told Al-Monitor. “No chance that the US industries, Congress or [the Donald Trump] administration will allow US armed forces to buy Arrow instead of buying American.”
Rubin also pointed out that the Arrow 3 system is not as mobile as THAAD, which the United States has deployed to protect 35,000 American troops in South Korea.
“The US did not procure Arrow and will never do so because it is designed for homeland defense rather than for overseas deployment,” Rubin said. “Hence it is not air mobile, a key requirement for US air and missile defense systems. This is not just a snag, this is a show stopper.”
Nevertheless, Israeli missile defense systems are increasingly integrated with the US military. Since 2001, for example, the two countries have jointly participated in the Juniper Cobra exercise aimed at combining weapons and radar capabilities. The Pentagon announced today that more than 2,500 US personnel will participate in the biennial exercise next month.
Arrow 3 and THAAD even employ similarly advanced warheads. More US support for Arrow could impact American weapons manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin that have co-produced the projectiles alongside Israeli firms.
Despite the similarities with American systems — half of the Arrow parts are designed in the United States — the US Missile Defense Agency may have trouble managing another addition to its layered missile defense system. This already includes the Patriot system, THAAD, GMD and the ship-launched Aegis BMD.
“There are perhaps two issues that have deterred the US from procuring Arrow,” Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in an email to Al-Monitor. “One is interoperability. Getting Patriot PAC-3, THAAD and Aegis to link and transfer data seamlessly has been a great challenge. Adding another system would further complicate the situation.”
While THAAD units are already deployed to the Korean peninsula, becoming operational in May over the objections of Beijing and Pyongyang, Arrow 3 is still going through early-stage problems. In December, Israeli defense officials canceled a scheduled test when they couldn’t get an Arrow 3 missile to conform to safety requirements.
In addition, Elleman said, the US military may prefer the technical capabilities of THAAD to the Israeli system.
“The Pentagon probably prefers THAAD over Arrow, primarily because THAAD’s TPY-2 radar is far superior to Arrow’s Green Pine radar,” Elleman added.
During the experiences of the 1991 Gulf War and the 2006 Hezbollah war, Israel felt defenseless against the threat of short- and medium-range missiles and rockets. Unlike the long-range threat from North Korea, the multilayered Israeli system is specifically designed to ward off much closer threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“The US wasn’t interested for a couple of reasons,” Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser on Israel’s National Security Council from 2000 to 2005, told Al-Monitor. “These were Israeli needs and not American needs. It doesn’t help the American mainland, but it might be appropriate for [deployed] American forces.”
Even if the United States doesn’t adopt Israeli technology, the co-development experiment itself is helpful, experts say. For instance, the Army's new multi-mission launcher was tested using an Iron Dome Tamir interceptor. And David's Sling's interceptor, the Stunner, is compatible with Patriot launchers and could be used as a cheaper supplement to the Patriot's loadout. The Pentagon has only dedicated an official agency to deal with missile defense since 1983, making it a relatively new discipline.
“The US is probably learning from the experience of what missile defense is all about,” said Freilich. “The US didn’t do missile defense until now. I’m sure there was thinking, but it was at more of a strategic level.”