High Hopes for Foolproof Missile Defenses Fizzle

So-so record of Patriots during Gulf War shows the challenge: 'hitting a bullet with another bullet'

Inside the control station, the war game heats up.

First one enemy missile blips its way onto the screen, then another. Two Patriot missiles are launched to intercept, then another pair. They streak across the computer battlespace.

A blinking hash mark is all that remains after a kill.

This wartime simulation created for the International Defense Exhibition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, rivals any video game.

But in the Middle East, the spread of ballistic missiles has made such high-tech defense a deadly serious and expensive pursuit.

Ballistic missiles are flying farther, hitting harder, and cluttering this region with their numbers. But the fact that no foolproof defense yet exists is changing the strategic balance in the region. Some experts claim that antimissile missiles will provide an impregnable protective "umbrella." Others argue that no such system can ever be perfect and so is not worth the high cost.

The technical challenge is huge: In 1946 Gen. Dwight Eisenhower compared it to "hitting a bullet with another bullet."

The Patriot was deployed during the Gulf War to shoot down Iraqi Scud missiles over Israel and Saudi Arabia. A myth of Patriot invincibility soon developed.

Then-President George Bush applauded cheering workers on the Patriot assembly line: "Thank God for the Patriot missile: 42 Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted!"

In reality, the record was hardly glowing. Israel was so disappointed that it is developing its own controversial system called the Arrow - for higher-altitude targets - jointly with the United States.

"The only Israeli casualty from the Scud attacks was hit with debris from a Patriot," says Zeev Maoz, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "There is now a big debate about how effective any system can be."

Israel's small size has always made defense a top priority. Until the Gulf War, Israel relied on a superior air force and a strategy of deterrence. But Iraq's Scud attacks revealed a chink in Israel's armor.

And Israel is not alone. Gulf states also live in the shadow of ballistic missiles deployed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. After spending billions on new offensive weapons since the Gulf War, they are now investing in missile defense.

The threat has sparked a costly search for a solution. Israel still deploys improved Patriots, as do Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other American allies. But Israel alone is spending much more to develop its own tailormade system.

The Arrow is to begin deployment next year, and two successful test firings - after five failures - have raised hopes and more cash. Though a fuse failed in March, that test was the first time a missile had been directly intercepted at such altitude - and at eight times the speed of sound.

But the Arrow is mired in controversy. Israel's expensive Arrow plans are a mixture of politics, strategic need, and wishful thinking. One Israeli joke has it that the "only good thing about Arrow is that you Americans pay for it." The US is footing most of the bill for initial missile development, but a final price tag could reach $10 billion, with Israel paying up to 85 percent.

Officially, the Israeli defense establishment claims that Arrow will cost just $1.59 billion, and only one missile in 1,000 will "leak" past the system. But critics charge that those are dreamland figures.

The promise of Arrow, says one missile expert here, is dangerously misleading and a waste of money. Two formal requests for interviews with Ministry of Defense officials to discuss the importance of Arrow to Israel's future were refused.

"There is no defense against ballistic missiles; it's all smoke and mirrors" says Reuven Pedatzur, a missile expert who is one of Arrow's most vocal critics.

He is director of the Galili Center for Strategic and National Security at Tel Aviv University and has taught at MIT. A former pilot in the Israeli air force, Mr. Pedatzur testified to Congress that there was "no evidence" that Patriots hit a single Scud.

The Patriot passed 90 percent of its tests before the Gulf War, he notes, but failed when faced with poorly made Scuds that fell apart in the sky and were unpredictable. Likewise, he says, in Arrow tests, trajectory, timing, and position, "which you don't know in real war," are known. "For Israel, one nuclear missile on Tel Aviv is unacceptable," he says. "Even if we have Arrow, it will not be 100 percent. The only solution to ballistic missiles is deterrence."

Israel's formidable nuclear and missile deterrent worked during the Gulf War, Pedatzur says. Saddam Hussein could have launched chemical weapons at Israel and didn't: "He knew that was a 'red line,' and that Israel would have had to retaliate with nukes," he says.

Others argue that Arrow will be a useful part of Israel's future defense. Gerald Steinberg, an arms-control expert at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, says the system buys "insurance" and "will raise questions in Iranian minds about their ability to do damage or prevent Israel from retaliating."

Some analysts say Arrow is really part of an offensive doctrine: to protect Israel after an Israeli first strike, so that a second strike can be launched. Whether offensive or defensive, the root of the problem is the same one that plagued Patriot during the Gulf War. Officials of the Lexington, Mass.-based Raytheon Co., which developed Patriot with the US Army, claim that the Gulf War success rate was still high: a 40 percent knockout rate over Israel, and 70 percent over Saudi Arabia.

But after the war, an embarrassing series of US Government Accounting Office studies found as few as 9 percent of the engagements resulted in "warhead kills."

The Army has spent $1.5 billion on improvements, Raytheon says. But the Army last year found it "operationally unacceptable" and replaced it with the PAC-3.

A US Army missile expert in the Gulf says it won't be long before the threat will be matched, though the main American antimissile missile project, THAAD, has yet to intercept a single test target.

"When you have a weapon, there will always be a counter," he says. "Throw enough money at the problem, and it will be solved." If it is, says Mr. Maoz of the Jaffee Center, another problem may emerge: Anticipation of real defense could prompt Syria, for example, to conclude it must hit Israel first.

No final decision has yet been made on Israel's Arrow deployment. But for all the expert theories, missile defense comes down to protecting civilians.

"We were in the 1990s, we felt part of the free world, and all of a sudden we were thrown back to another age," recalls Etan, whose Tel Aviv family was traumatized by the Scud attacks during the Gulf War. "It was humiliating."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to High Hopes for Foolproof Missile Defenses Fizzle
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today