Arrow vs. Shihab 1:0

As long as the Iranian program to achieve nuclear weapon capability continues, the competition between the Israeli Arrow ballistic missile interceptor and the Iranian Shihab ballistic missile continues.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 31,2004.)

One person who must have been pleased to learn that in the second test off the California coast the Arrow anti-missile missile had failed to intercept a target simulating an incoming Iranian Shihab missile was Ali Shamkhani, the Iranian defense minister. Only a few weeks earlier he had boasted that the Iranian missile development program would keep ahead  of the Arrow development program (Haaretz, August 12, 2004).

It was the first public indication that the Iranians were taking the Arrow seriously and investing resources in an attempt to neutralize the Arrow’s ability to intercept their missiles. They were obviously not paying much attention to those Israeli armchair strategists who had been claiming that the Arrow was simply not relevant against an incoming missile tipped with a nuclear warhead.

That simple-minded analysis neglected the consideration that is bound to be uppermost in the mind of the potential aggressor before reaching a decision to launch a missile against Israel – the possibility that the missile would be intercepted, his intentions exposed and the punishment sure to follow. To Ali Shamkhani the Arrow threatens the validity of the Iranian nuclear program and is therefore most relevant. It is backed by the punishment that is sure to follow an attempted Iranian nuclear strike.

Iran of the ayatollahs is a deadly enemy of Israel. The Hezbollah in Lebanon is funded, armed and trained by Iran. Hundreds of Iranian medium-range rockets have been deployed in Lebanon with many of Israel’s cities as their targets. Iran was involved in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the bombing of the Jewish community center there. Recently the Hezbollah has been spreading its tentacles into the Palestinian terror organizations, funding and organizing Palestinian acts of terror against Israel.

Although the Iranian program to acquire nuclear weapon capability and in parallel to develop, with the help of the North Koreans, a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, fits into the overall Iranian strategy to achieve dominance in the region and to counter U.S. and European deterrence, it is first and foremost directed against Israel. If not checked, it can represent a mortal danger to Israel.

Since George W. Bush entered the White House, the U.S. has demonstrated full cognizance of the danger that nuclear capability in the hands of Iran would represent to the world. Even the European Union has, somewhat more timidly, followed suit. Israel is not the only one to be concerned any more. Significant diplomatic pressure has been applied to Iran in the last few years, and possibly their nuclear program has been slowed down at least temporarily.

The aim of those concerned over the possibility of Iranian nuclear capability is not being able to achieve victory in a nuclear exchange with the Iranians, but rather to avoid such an exchange. Whereas in conventional warfare the aim is victory over the enemy, victory is not sought between enemies that have nuclear capability. It would be far too costly even for the victor. The aim here is to check the other side, rather than to defeat him.

These are the rules of engagement in the nuclear age, as was demonstrated so convincingly during the Cold War. There, after many years of a nuclear stand-off between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it was President Reagan’s announced intention to develop missile interceptor capability, the Strategic Defense Initiative, that brought the Soviet Union to its knees and put an end to the specter of a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers.

It is to be hoped that diplomatic pressure and the threat of sanctions will still put an end to the Iranian program to achieve nuclear weapon capability. Or, possibly, a regime change there will lead to the abandonment of the program. But as long as the program continues, the competition between the Israeli Arrow ballistic missile interceptor and the Iranian Shihab ballistic missile continues. Don’t be fooled by the failure of the latest Arrow development test. It seems to have been due to a component reliability failure rather than a system failure. In Tehran they seem to realize that the score is 1:0 in favor of the Arrow.

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