Anti-Missile Tech Keeps Getting Better: Israel’s Arrow System intercepts a Syrian Missile (UPDATED)

As more and more bad actors get intermediate- and long-range missiles, the technology to intercept them becomes more and more important.

The technology is significantly different from that used to intercept short-range missiles, which Israel’s Iron Dome has used successfully many times, protecting civilians living near the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s Arrow Anti-Missile System is designed for these intermediate- and long-range threats. Last Friday, it was used for the first time in combat, against a missile fired from Syria, probably a Russian SA-5 (aka S-200).

BBC report here: “Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system ‘in first hit'”  Times of Israel report here.

What is the Arrow Anti-Missile System?

Here is what Defense Industry Daily says:

The Arrow project is a collaboration between Boeing and IAI [Israel Aerospace Industries] to produce the missile interceptors that accompany the required radars, satellites, command and control systems. . . .

In general, the Israeli Arrow is a more advanced weapon than the Patriot and possesses far more range, undertaking high altitude interceptions and covering a wide area (est. 54 mile range, maximum altitude 30 miles for Arrow 2) as a Theater Missile Defense system. Unlike the USA’s THAAD, PAC-3, or SM-3 which all use “hit to kill” technology, Israel’s Arrow relies on a directed fragmentation warhead to destroy enemy missiles. –Defense Industry Daily

Here’s a clear visual representation:

The Arrow System and Israel’s Tough Neighborhood: Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran

A skilled Israeli observer, Ofer Bavly, offers his concise observations on the Arrow system and its use to protect Israel against regional threats:

On Friday night Israel for the first time launched an Arrow missile under operational circumstances. The event occurred as the Israeli Air Force was launching an attack on a convoy carrying long-range missiles and other advanced weaponry from Syria to the Hezbollah terror organization in Lebanon. While Israeli attacks on Hezbollah convoys are not a new phenomenon, Israel usually does not publicly admit such attacks and sometimes even denies them so as not to force the hand of Syria or Hezbollah in retaliation. This attack was different in that as the jets were making their way back into Israeli territory, Syria launched surface-to-air missiles at them. It is not common for Syria to try and shoot down Israeli jets. The Russian-made missiles that they launched, SA-5, are not modern or very efficient. As such, they did not at any time endanger the Israeli pilots. However, computer models tracking the missiles showed that they would be falling in Israeli territory, so the Air Force decided to intercept them using the Arrow missile. The interception was successful and was the first such operational interception since the Arrows came online. The system is designed to handle more modern and more efficient missiles including those that would exit the atmosphere and would be intercepted in outer space. Debris from the interception fell in two locations inside Jordan. Sounds of the explosions could be heard in Jerusalem and along the Jordan Valley.

Although tested extensively on dummy targets in the past, this is the first time that the Arrow is used against an actual threat.

The event is also significant for the fact that Syria tried to shoot down Israeli jets, a rare move which may signify that the Assad regime, now propped up and supported by Russia and Iran, feels emboldened enough to attack Israeli planes. This may be a step up in the level of Syrian belligerency towards Israel, which may affect future Israeli operations in the north, or it may be an isolated case. In any case, the use of SA-5 missiles which are relatively old and ineffective against modern jet fighters, may show that Syria does not have more advanced anti-aircraft missiles. So while the event revealed an important Israeli card, it also exposed the weakness of the Syrian army.

–Ofer Bavly, private communication (published with his permission)

Beyond the threat from Syria and Hezbollah lies a far bigger threat: Iran, which is working closely with North Korea to develop effective long-range missiles and, many fear, the miniaturized nuclear weapons to fit on them.

UPDATE: Blake Fleisher on Missile Defense in Israel: From Reluctant Acceptance to Full Embrace

Fleisher, a policy analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (Washington), comments:

Arrow was Israel’s first missile defense system and at the time the Israelis were skeptical about the project because it didn’t fit into their offensive doctrine.

They supposedly took it on to benefit from US aid (Reagan’s SDI), but the catalyst was Saddam Hussein firing ballistic missiles in the 80s and 90s.

Ironically, today Israel uses lots of missile defense and you can’t imagine the country without it. –Blake Fleisher, 

For those interested in more detail, Fleisher recommends a study from the US Army War College:

Jean-Loup Samaan, Another Brick in the Wall: The Israeli Experience in Missile Defense (PDF online here)

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Thanks to

  • Ofer Bavly
  • Jay Tcath
  • Blake Fleisher
  • Robert Lieber