A Tale of Two Missile Defense Systems


While much has been made of the U. S. fledgling missile defense system, it is often forgotten that another country already has deployed a layered national missile defense system. Israel’s Arrow Weapon System has been fielded in two batteries and provides one tier of its hoped-for defense against tactical ballistic missiles (an older version of the Patriot missile defense system provides the second tier).

While the Arrow’s effectiveness against missile threats is uncertain — it has never been tested against a Scud — its program designers had entirely different mindsets and objectives from their American counterparts that merit further examination.

The Arrow was co-developed with the United States, but responsibilities were cleanly and firmly split between the two countries. The United States was charged with developing the interceptor, the Arrow 2 , and its launcher, while the Israelis designed the rest. They created the Green Pine Fire Control Radar, which was based on the technology they had at the time; the Citron Tree Fire Control Center, which they built in a man-in-the-loop precaution to prevent friendly fire; and the Hazel Nut Tree Launcher Center. Two batteries have been fielded thus far.

Compare this to the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Missile Defense (GMD) system, which is designed to provide the United States with a defense against ICBM attacks. Its configuration includes six ground-based interceptors that are still in the very early stages of development and have only begun their initial fielding; a sea-based, X-band radar program that is suffering developmental delays; the Space Tracking and Surveillance System for midcourse target tracking, which is no t expected to have its test launch until 2007; and a command and control system that requires 20,000 miles of fiber optic cable and has yet to firmly establish a firing chain of command.

Granted, the U.S. homeland is a vastly larger area to defend, but what is striking when compared to the Israeli system is how many more gaps there are in the needed architecture for the U.S. system.

When the Israeli government first began considering the Arrow in 1987, it was a controversial topic, as the military fought it tooth and nail as being “unnecessary and unaffordable,” according to Uzi Rubin, the Arrow’s founder. In the next year, it was grudgingly allowed to begin development as an experiment; but it wasn’t until the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq threatened the Israeli homeland with volleys of missiles that it spun up into a full-scale program.

While there have been a few naysayers about missile defense in the Pentagon who were concerned that the services would suffer from missile defense spending, overall the massive sum spent on the program across the board — an estimated $92.5 billion since 1983 — has done much to quell a lot of the military’s qualms about it. As of this writing, the United States has only engaged in ballistic missile defense during operations overseas, and there are serious doubts about any missile threat that the U.S. homeland might face.

In the process of designing the Arrow, it was decided that the Israeli Air Force would be in charge of the operational requirements documents, while the Israeli Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) would be responsible for the budget and the technology requirements documents.

There is no similar division of labor within the U.S. missile defense programs. To begin, operational requirements are no longer demanded of the various missile defense systems, as the Pentagon claims that they are too restrictive for their development. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency does release annual budget requests, but no official estimate of overall missile defense costs has been made public, nor are there any apparent technological milestones required for the system.

The way in which the Israelis took on their technical challenges is very different from how the United States has handled things. The Israelis used existing or low-risk technologies to develop their system, figuring that they could live with it being “good enough” (according to Rubin).

Simulation was used extensively at all levels. Likewise, all components of the system were integrated into the overall architecture from the very beginning. Perhaps most important were the flight tests. They were treated not as program milestones but technical ones, with special efforts taken to de-politicize them (to the point where the attendance of VIPs was strongly discouraged).

Not to criticize Rubin, but just try to imagine an American program manager proclaiming in public that their efforts were merely adequate to the task.

Simulation has been used in the U.S. missile defense system, but there are some problems which only come out in flight tests: see the last two flight test failures of the GMD system where the interceptor never left the launch pad. It is hard to integrate the overall U.S. missile defense system when so many major components are missing. And the GMD flight tests have long been criticized for being scheduled to meet political considerations, not programmatic needs. The independent review team assembled by the Missile Defense Agency to examine its testing program disparaged the agency’s tendency to rush through ground testing in an effort to meet a predetermined flight test schedule.

Israel’s missile defense team gave cost the same amount of importance that they gave schedule and performance. There weren’t any fixed price contracts, but programs that ran over budget were stopped short and reorganized before any major harm was done. The IMDO directly contracted major subsystems. Compare this to the independent review team’s worries that cost is being given up in order to meet schedule and/or performance requirements. And quality assurance, budgetary control and subcontractor responsibility are all elements that could stand improvement in the U.S. missile defense system.

Finally, the Israeli developers worked hard to give their program a lean appearance so that it wouldn’t look like money was being wasted. Their media was given relatively open access to the program; and if access was denied, a reasonable explanation was given.

Supporters of the U.S. missile defense system have largely kept their promotion for the system to the so-called need for it. Certainly missile defense, currently the single most expensive weapon system in this year’s budget request, can hardly be called a lean program. And the U.S. media has been often stymied in information requests: most of the information regarding GMD’s capabilities against countermeasures, one of the most potent arguments about its fallibility, has been classified.

The point of this analysis is not to say that the Israeli way of developing missile defense is perfect while the U.S. method is irrevocably flawed. Merely, it is to illustrate that there are other ways in which to develop a working missile defense system.

The United States, if it is indeed serious about getting a system operational that is more than what is optimistically called a “thin line defense,” should examine its actions to date and decide if any are hindering the cause more than helping it.

Victoria Samson is a research analyst at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.