Missiles Bring War Home
Advances in range and power put everywhere on the front lines
TEL AVIV — Etan and his young family will never forget the first time the air-raid sirens pierced the chill night above Tel Aviv.
Israel's largest city was shaken awake, and with hearts pounding, the family raced for their basement bomb shelter.
Terrified by the sight of his parents in gas masks, Etan's four-year-old son at first refused to wear his mask. The child was sealed into a protective tent that soon ran short of oxygen. He could only be comforted through rubber gloves affixed to the side.
It was the peak of the Gulf War in 1991, when an American-led military coalition was poised to push Iraq's invading Army out of Kuwait.
Looking for a way of striking back, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein broke an unwritten rule that had stood in the Middle East for nearly 20 years: He fired a ballistic missile at Israel. Risking overwhelming retaliation from Israel's nuclear arsenal, he fired another Scud missile, and then another.
Huddled in their bomb shelter, Etan's family could hear the explosive impacts. Before dawn they had fled Tel Aviv, part of an exodus of thousands. "We are not war heroes," Etan says. "We were very scared that night, with the helpless feeling of knowing that we were not protected."
For two decades the threat was always there: Israel had missiles that could target its adjoining Arab enemies; and they could target most of Israel in return. So both sides tacitly agreed never to fire.
Changing the rules
Then Iraq upset the balance. For Israelis, the 39 missiles that rained down brought a terror they had never known. Strong pressure from the United States at that time kept Israel from hitting back, so that the anti-Iraq alliance would not break apart. But across the Mideast, the message was unmistakable: Israel was vulnerable.
"There is a balance of terror now, because of what Saddam Hussein has done," says Reuven Pedatzur, an Israeli missile expert who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There are no taboos anymore. The whole Arab world saw that we didn't retaliate, saw the weak spot, and think they can try it."
The lesson was clear in Baghdad. "Iraqi missiles have awakened the spirit of resistance and defiance among Arabs and Muslims," proclaimed the official Al-Jumhouriya newspaper. They had "buried forever the theory of Israeli security."
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself noted that one of the "primary threats to Israel in coming years is the massive arming of the Arab armies and Iran in surface-to-surface missiles...." During the Gulf War, Mr. Netanyahu was caught during a live CNN television interview by an air-raid siren, and dramatically put on a gas mask.
There is still no foolproof defense against the ever-improving ballistic missile. Though missiles were widely used during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s - in the "war of the cities" between Tehran and Baghdad - their dominance in the region has grown.
Now they are causing an upheaval of the region's strategic assumptions. As these long-range missiles inevitably improve, so does the killing power of the chemical and biological warheads they carry.
A new vulnerability
Today these can be as lethal as some nuclear weapons, though secret nuclear programs are also under way. Missiles are the most effective means of delivering such weapons of mass destruction. For Israel's foes, missiles are the only chance to defeat a far superior Israeli Air Force.
Israel's small size also has meant using conquered land as a buffer to create "strategic depth" to shield the Jewish state. But "as we approach the 21st century, 'strategic depth' has little meaning," says Shimon Peres, an architect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and former prime minister of Israel. "Long-range ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction have turned the home front into the front line."
President Bush made the same point to Congress in 1991, after the Gulf War. "We have learned in the modern age, geography cannot guarantee security," he said.
Israeli sources estimate that by 2010, there will be more than 3,000 ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Today's chief threat comes from technology developed a half-century ago: The Scud design is based on Germany's World War II V-2 rockets.
Still, today's improving technologies add up to a revolution. Finding lasting peace will be the greatest challenge, even as vast and growing arsenals and old animosities point toward more war.
Israel's quest for security
The ups and downs of the American-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process are a useful starting point, since Israel has long been the focus of violence. Though based on a US formula of exchanging Israeli-occupied Arab land for peace, the process has faltered lately under Netanyahu's right-wing government.
Since the 1940s, Arab states have refused to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser famously declared in 1956, "The Arab national aim is the elimination of Israel."
Five major wars have been fought to wipe out the fledgling Jewish state - or for Israel to add more land to its "strategic depth."
"The Israeli map extending from the Suez Canal to the Golan was seen by many of our citizens as a guarantee of security and stability," wrote Abba Eban, a former foreign minister, in the Jerusalem Post recently. "[But] Israel has never known less security than during the period of the 'Big Map.' "
Israel's formidable arsenal
To ensure its survival, Israel has created a formidable arsenal. Its Army - with more combat-ready heavy divisions than NATO can deploy in Europe, according to one analysis - is among the most efficient in the world.
Israel also has chemical and biological weapons, a nuclear "deterrent" believed to number as many as 200 warheads, and an official American commitment that Israel's war machine will always have a "qualitative edge" over its Arab foes. But Israel's increasing vulnerability to missiles will make that edge tough to maintain.
There are also geographic disadvantages: At one point Israel is little more than a strip of beach along the Mediterranean Sea, just nine miles wide.
"More missiles and possible nuclear weapons are incentives for peace deals," says Zeev Maoz, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "But the military must think of the worst-case scenario and assume that at some point peace will again be violated."
Cause for concern
Critics charge that Israel is obsessed with its own security, living with a siege mentality that does not respect the legitimate security needs of other countries. "Israel makes so much fuss about missiles and Scuds, but a lot of it is made-up propaganda," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
But considering that Iraq's missile threat was also dismissed before the Gulf War, many say that Israel - and the Middle East - has reasons to worry:
* Syria: Taking its cue from the Gulf War, and to counter Israel's nuclear arsenal, Syria has doubled the number of its missile launchers and tripled the capability of its warheads. It can target all of Israel with chemical and biological weapons. Its vast conventional forces, by contrast, are largely obsolete.
* Iran: Growing evidence suggests that Iran - the Islamic state that Washington considers the top supporter of global terrorism - is secretly improving its missile arsenal with purchases from Russia, North Korea, China, and Germany. One source, The Iran Brief, based in Kensington, Md., claims that Iran is also developing a "Zelzal-3" missile with more than triple the range.
* Egypt: A leaked CIA report last year expressed alarm about illegal Egyptian imports of advanced Scud C missile parts from North Korea. The Scud C would enable Cairo to hit targets throughout Israel. Egyptian officials say this was a "phony crisis" created by Israel to bolster its own arguments for top-of-the-line American hardware.
* Iraq: Despite a six-year United Nations effort to destroy Iraq's ballistic missiles - along with its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs - Iraq could resume production within a month,recent reports claim . Iraqi tactics have included hiding missile-guidance gyroscopes in the mud at the bottom of a Tigris River canal in Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia: Largely unnoticed, Saudi Arabia has the missile with the longest range of all in the region, the Chinese CSS-2, which could reach Rome. China is taking its own CSS-2s out of active service, however, and the aging Saudi version is expected to be obsolete in a few years. Though Saudi Arabia is a strong US ally, two bomb attacks against US military personnel there have left 26 people dead and raised questions about Saudi Arabia's long-term political direction.
Lebanon: Israel's Army chief has claimed that Iran-backed Hizbullah guerrillas fighting Israeli troops in southern Lebanon have acquired long-range Katyusha rockets that pose a "significant threat." Syria also backs Hizbullah, but Western military sources in Lebanon discount the claim.
Libya: Though rarely deemed a missile threat because of its disorganized programs, Libya was named in a secret NATO report published by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo last November as possibly having ballistic missiles with a range of 600 to 1,800 miles by 2006.
Israel: The Jewish state itself has the most sophisticated missile arsenal in the region. It can fit any of its long-range Jericho 2 missiles with enhanced nuclear and chemical warheads, an escalation that prompted Moscow, at the peak of the cold war in 1987, to ominously declare it a "direct challenge to the Soviet Union."
Israel's Shavit II rocket - designed for launching satellites into space - can also be "modified for military purposes and converted into a powerful ballistic missile," according to the London-based monthly newsletter Jane's Sentinel.
Israel has also shown that it can carry out air strikes across the region virtually unimpeded. Its jet fighters destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, and struck Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis - 1,550 miles away - in 1985.
Added to its state-of-the-art weapons of mass destruction, this capability poses both a threat and a deterrent to Israel's neighbors. But Israel still has no effective missile defense. "You have to shoot a lot of missiles into Israel before you can walk over and take it. But [the possibility] will change the balance of power with a new threat," says one US Army missile expert in the Persian Gulf.
"Ballistic missiles have become an instrument of terror, a publicity piece. Israel has to consider that they are the weapon of the future."