Anti-missile technology has hit a new milestone. The Israeli Defense Ministry recently reported that on the morning of 22 January, Israel and the United States carried out a successful test of their advanced Arrow-3 missile defense system. According to reports, the test began at 06:45 Israel time when a dummy missile was launched off the Mediterranean coast.
The Arrow was launched from the Palmachim Air Base in central Israel and the trail it left behind was visible from as far away as Jerusalem, owing to the clear morning.
“This successful test provides confidence in Israel’s capability to protect itself from existing threats in the region,” said Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves. “My congratulations to the Israel Missile Defense Organization, the Israeli Air Force, our MDA team, and our industry partners. We are committed to assisting the government of Israel in upgrading its national missile defense capability against emerging threats.”
End of Long Journey
Israel and the U.S. have been working toward the Arrow-3 for quite a while now.
The first stages of the system’s development can be traced to 2008 when the Israeli and United States governments began development of an upper-tier component to the Israeli Air Defense Command. While systems designed to intercept smaller, short-range projectiles had been implemented in the past, there had yet to be produced a platform that could deal with long-range missiles dealing with heavy payloads or non-conventional munitions. The challenge with intercepting such attacks was that the target would need to be eliminated long before it even got close to its destination. This presented a unique difficulty for Israel’s missile defense strategy.
Development of the Arrow-3 began in earnest. Initial tests of prototypes were already taking place in 2011. The following year, Israel signed an agreement with Boeing to provide most of the hardware for the interceptor missiles. Large scale production of Arrow-3 systems kicked off.
The designers of Arrow-3 knew that the new system would have to have some special capacities to accomplish its mission.
The most important capability for Arrow-3 to achieve was to intercept a target outside of the atmosphere. The reason for this is pretty straightforward. When dealing with an incoming non-conventional warhead, even if the missile is neutralized, there’s still the problem of the payload being dispersed into the air—this is a serious problem when dealing with chemical agents or nuclear material. Even if the incoming projectile is armed with conventional explosives, if it’s large enough, it can cause damage on the ground when destroyed in the air.
The second capability was speed and maneuverability. The engines propelling Arrow 3’s missiles would need to be powerful enough to achieve high altitudes very quickly as well as change course mid-flight in order to chase after targets with evasion capacity.
The last and final trick Arrow-3 would need to perform was super-accurate target identification and lock-on. The radar system and C2 (command and control) would need to distinguish between various threats, as well as differentiate between decoys and authentic missiles.
It took years. But over time each one of these capabilities was achieved.
Back in 2013, a fly-out test of the Arrow-3 was conducted, without targeting any live missile for interception. The missile was able to obtain hypersonic speed, and reached an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles), exiting the atmosphere into space. The following year, another successful test was conducted. This time, operators were able to carry out a range of maneuvers —yes, in outer-space— in response to a virtual incoming enemy missile. The test involved the activation of two of the interceptor’s engines, the first of which brought it into space, the second allowing it to carry out the maneuvers. The last important test-launch came at the end of 2015, when Arrow-3 scored its first intercept in a complex test designed to validate how the system can detect, identify, track, and then discriminate real from decoy targets. This was the final achievement defense officials needed. The Arrow-3 was put into full production.
Still Paving Ahead
Although news sources have not confirmed this fact, the most recent test of the Arrow-3 was almost certainly the demonstration of the latest improvement to the system.
The most central technology to the Arrow program has been the Oren Yarok or Green Pine radar platform. The early warning fire-control and missile-guidance system is indeed the bedrock of Arrow-3 and all its predecessors. The earlier versions of Green Pine, going back to the mid 1990s, could detect targets at ranges up to about 500km and track targets up to speeds over 3,000 meters a second—that’s over 38,000 miles an hour. For the past decade, Israeli engineers have been dedicated to improve Green Pine in order to address the developing threats in the region. The most recent versions of Green Pine, dubbed Block-C, are reportedly twice as powerful as the original models, with a targeting range of over 900 km, and possibly much more than that. This would give Israel the capability to detect incoming missiles from some key locations—the entire territory of Syria, for instance, and perhaps even Iran.
The interest U.S. defense has in the Arrow project goes beyond assisting a key ally. It has long been clear that the Israeli anti-missile industry in all its components —from rocket hardware, to radar, to tracking technology— has been speeding ahead for decades. The Pentagon has a keen interest in Israel’s strides in this area, and is already collaborating on the next stages of the Arrow program.