By Dan Williams
PALMACHIM AIR BASE, Israel (Reuters) – Israelâ€™s upgraded Arrow air defense system, designed to blow up ballistic missiles in space, could be rushed into deployment before its 2014-15 target date, a senior officer said Thursday.
Partly funded by the United States, Arrow III is envisaged as the future Israeli bulwark against Iran and Syria, with shorter-range interceptors providing protection against rockets favored by neighboring Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas.
Political turmoil in the Middle East has focused Israelâ€™s crisis planning and a senior military officer, speaking during a rare media tour of Arrowâ€™s command center on a base down the coast from Tel Aviv, predicted a tighter production timeline.
â€œWeâ€™ve already shown how we can get systems out ahead of schedule when thereâ€™s a need,â€ he said, referring to Israelâ€™s Iron Dome interceptor, which shot down several Katyushas fired from Gaza last month during what was billed as an accelerated field trial.
Arrowâ€™s manufacturers had slated the new version for 2014 or 2015. But the officer, who could not be identified under military guidelines, said: â€œDonâ€™t be surprised if itâ€™s sooner.â€
The Arrow command center, dubbed â€œDefensive Sword,â€ is one of the few Israeli military units to offer a public glimpse of preparations at a time of often dizzying regional instability.
Watching citizen revolts buffet Arab states, a few of them heretofore friendly, Israelis have preferred to fret quietly on the sidelines rather than risk been perceived as meddling.
But with the future of the stable, decades-old standoff with Syria in doubt, and arch-enemy Iran forging ahead with controversial nuclear and missile projects, Israelâ€™s air defense corps has been promoted as a strategic deterrent.
While its officers insist they can protect the Jewish state alone, the corps has practiced meshing Arrow with mobile U.S. counterparts like the seaborne Aegis ballistic interceptor.
Ensconced amid a pentagon of ochre structures in Palmachim base, protected by bunker-like steel portals and passages, the Arrow command center is staffed around the clock by a dozen officers.
Though the lieutenant-colonel in charge Thursday was careful not to answer questions about current geopolitics, the exercise playing out on his computer screen seemed topical: a Scud missile launch by Syria and its Lebanese Hezbollah allies.
The unit trains regularly, under conditions meant to simulate the stress of a real war. The commanderâ€™s F2 button sets off the firing sequence for the Arrow interceptor missiles.
A battery of Arrow II — the systemâ€™s current configuration — could shield most of Israel, a major in the unit said. But Israel has deployed several batteries and drilled using them against salvoes involving â€œdozensâ€ of incoming missiles.
Defense sources report an interception rate of 80 to 90 percent. Back-up Arrow batteries, or lower-altitude interceptors like Patriot and the yet-to-be-deployed Davidâ€™s Sling, would be expected to take on missiles missed by the first volley.
As with Iron Dome, Arrow has an in-built thrift in its ability to ignore missiles determined to be on a â€œsafeâ€ trajectory away from residential areas.
Could such protection be extended to Palestinian cities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, should they, along with Jewish settlers nearby, find themselves facing an incoming missile?
â€œIâ€™m in the business of protecting populaces, whether or not they pay us taxes,â€ the lieutenant-colonel said.