(September 18, 2023 / JNS) The Arrow 3 missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles in outer space, is the most powerful and longest-range member of the Arrow Weapon System family.
It was built to defend Israel against the most lethal Iranian ballistic missiles, with the capability to lock on, intercept and destroy incoming missiles while still high above the atmosphere. In addition to minimizing casualties and damage, the Arrow 3’s ultra-high interception altitude results in huge, nearly continent-sized footprints (i.e., defended areas). Those advantages, combined with the interceptor’s relatively small dimensions and modest cost, make it attractive to other countries facing similar threats.
It thus became the first of the Arrow family to be provided for the defense of Europe.
The origins of the Arrow 3
The origins of the Arrow 3 program lie in Israel’s growing fear of Iran’s military nuclear program. This covert program was first publicly revealed in 2002 by a group of Iranian expats, but Israel’s concern became even more acute when the virulently anti-Israeli Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replaced the relatively moderate Mohammad Khatami as Iran’s president. Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric calling for the destruction of Israel, combined with Iran’s overt long-range ballistic missile programs and the covert nuclear weapon program, was cause for grave concern in Israel.
While the recently completed Arrow 2 system could intercept ballistic missiles launched from Iran, Israel’s military experts considered it an insufficient defense against nuclear missiles, since its interception altitudes were inside the Earth’s atmosphere, where the blast and radiation from a nuclear explosion could still cause severe damage on the ground. To address this shortcoming, a new missile, that could destroy nuclear missiles on their way to Israel when they were still exo-atmospheric, was needed.
The problem of how to do it at an acceptable cost was solved by a pair of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) engineers, who conceived a unique, out-of-the-box, counterintuitive yet simple and workable solution. Their invention—promptly patented by IAI—was first introduced to the Israeli Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) in 2005. IMDO, in turn, adapted the solution as the basis for a new interceptor missile, dubbed Arrow 3. IAI teamed with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to apply for the development program’s financial support from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
While recognizing the operational need for such an interceptor, the MDA proposed to adapt either the Lockheed Martin THAAD or the Raytheon Standard Missile 3 for this mission. However, detailed analysis showed that no U.S. interceptors could satisfy the Israeli operational requirements. After describing Arrow 3 to the U.S. Congress as “More advanced than anything we have ever attempted in the U.S.,” MDA’s director approved a joint U.S.–Israeli program. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2010 to launch the full-scale development program.
The longer reach of the new missile required a longer-range early warning and fire-control radar. In response to this requirement, the original Green Pine Radar Systems, developed by Elta Electronics Industries for the Arrow 2 program, was upgraded to achieve enhanced detection and fire-control ranges, the new version being dubbed Great Pine. Arrow 3’s first flight from Israel’s Palmachim test range was achieved successfully in 2013, and the first successful intercept test took place in 2015. The first production missiles were delivered to the Israeli Air Force’s Air Defense Command in January 2017. Arrow 3 achieved full operational capability in the same month, and later that year, its development team was awarded the Israel Defense Prize.
While Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 were jointly financed and developed by the United States and Israel, it was clear from the start that the United States never intended to use them for its own defense. Moreover, Israeli experts felt that the United States would not encourage their export to any other country, to forestall competition with its own sales of missile defense systems.
The Israeli press of the time, while lauding the capabilities of the Arrow 3 to defend Israel against Iranian nuclear missiles, it was largely mute regarding potential sales to other countries. Yet, barely six years after Arrow 3 became operational, it is being exported to Germany in the biggest Israeli defense export deal ever. Two questions beg to be answered in the connection: How did this come about, and why?
Purchasing Arrow 3
The answer to the first question involves the Cold War and the subsequent breakdown of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. During the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, aka West Germany) was the European bulwark of NATO’s defense against a prospective Soviet-led invasion. The FRG was heavily armed, and its ground and air forces confronted Warsaw Pact armies along the East German and Czechoslovakian borders.
The FRG invested heavily in air defenses and acquired no less than 36 Patriot systems from the United States. This powerful array was deployed as a belt along the confrontation lines to protect against the anticipated Soviet air strikes on NATO’s rear. The Soviets, on their side, prepared to punch corridors through the Patriot belt for their aircraft using hundreds of SCUD B ballistic missiles armed with conventional and chemical warheads. At the time, the Patriot was a pure air defense system with no capability against ballistic missiles.
Uzi Rubin is an Israeli defense engineer and analyst. Rubin is considered one of the pre-eminent analysts of missile systems in the Middle East.