Security and Defense: Channeling chutzpah

Iran sent 2 warships through the Suez Canal this week. Does Israel’s test of the Arrow 2 on the same day send a sufficient message of deterrence?

Iranian frigate (warship) 'IS Alvand' in Suez AP 311 (photo credit: AP)
Iranian frigate (warship) 'IS Alvand' in Suez AP 311
(photo credit: AP)
On Tuesday, Israel and Iran went to war – not a real war but one of messages and signals.
As two Iranian warships – the Khark, which has 250 crew members and can carry three helicopters, and the Alvand, which is armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles – entered the southern end of the Suez Canal en route to Syria, the Defense Ministry announced another successful test of the Arrow 2 ballistic missile defense system.
The timing, of course, was coincidental. Israel had reserved the US’s Point Mugu missile test field on the California coast months earlier, and the Iranians had initially planned to traverse the canal – for the first time in more than 30 years – on Sunday. But the two events are intimately connected.
The decision to send two warships through the canal to Syria is an attempt to show the world that, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Iran is still a major regional player.
While the ships do not pose a direct threat, it is possible they are carrying explosives, missiles and other assorted weaponry for Hezbollah. Using warships to transport weaponry would be a smart move by Iran, which was caught in 2009 using the cargo ship Francop to transport hundreds of tons of weaponry to the Lebanese guerrilla organization.
By sending warships through the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the ayatollahs are showing they can attack Israel from the sea.
The crossing was also likely aimed at flexing a muscle directly in Egypt’s face. Under Hosni Mubarak, ties between the two countries hit an unprecedented low.
By sending the ships through the canal, the Iranians get to laugh at Mubarak and show the Egyptians which of the two is still standing.
THE TEST of the upgraded Arrow 2 was a clear message to Iran that if war ever erupts, the IDF has the ability to shoot down its long-range Shihab-3 missiles. The test could not have come at a better time. As the Middle East undergoes a historic upheaval, Israel can only gain from giving its neighbors a taste of its military might.
This war of signals has yet to turn into a real war, and it is questionable if it ever will, but it is an indication of the current trend in the region and how Iran’s standing is on the rise and the US’s is dropping.
As the US moves forward with its planned withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and after losing Mubarak as its primary ally in the Arab world, other countries in the region are beginning to consider with whom to align themselves.
Qatar, home to the headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, has already decided to side with Iran, and other countries in the Persian Gulf are believed to be wavering.
That is why missile defense is a key component in any future security reality Israel could face. In recent years, its adversaries – primarily Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran – have made significant investments in various types of rockets and missiles that are capable of overcoming Israel’s otherwise superior military capabilities.
AT THE moment, Israel has two operational systems – the Arrow 2, and the Iron Dome (for short-range rockets) – which underwent a final round of tests by the IAF two weeks ago.
The systems are similar in a number of aspects.
Development of the Arrow began in the late 1980s as Arab states began acquiring long-range ballistic missiles.
The failure of the Patriot to shoot down Iraqi Scuds during the First Gulf War gave further impetus to its development.
Recognizing the rocket threat from Lebanon, Israel began in the late 1990s to invest in the Nautilus chemical laser canon. After investing around $100 million, Israel decided to abandon it and invest instead in Rafael’s Iron Dome, development of which was speeded up after Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets into the country in the summer of 2006.
The common denominator between the two is that while Israel tends to recognize the evolution of a new threat with some foresight, only after a painful lesson – like a war – does it begin to put up the money and place its development at the top of the priority list.
The difference between the two is that the Arrow is not just a tactical weapon, but is also meant to create a deterrent against countries like Iran, which will have to think twice before launching a ballistic missile knowing that there is a chance it will be shot down, and that there is the prospect of a counterattack.
The Iron Dome does not carry the same clout when it comes to deterrence, even though Defense Minister Ehud Barak believes that if it is successful, it will cause Hamas and Hezbollah to reevaluate their investment in short-range rockets like Kassams and Katyushas.
Since taking office in 2007, Barak has pushed forward plans for a multilayered missile defense system with the Iron Dome on the bottom, the Arrow on the top and a new system, called David’s Sling, still under development for the medium-range missiles in Syrian and Hezbollah hands.
ISRAEL IS, without a doubt, a world leader in the development of missile defense systems, but it has yet to make the financial commitment of purchasing the necessary systems it requires to properly defend its borders.
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee recently issued a report claiming 13 systems are required to create an effective defense along the southern and northern borders. Rafael, developer of the Iron Dome, speaks about several dozen systems.
Either way, the IDF is not rushing to buy too many for now. The IAF has only two batteries and instead of putting up additional money for new ones, the Defense Ministry has been waiting several months for the $205 million pledged by the Obama administration for the project, which is being held up due to the failure to pass the budget on Capitol Hill.
The government could decide to independently allocate the funds, but if it does so, it would likely lose assistance from the US. In the meantime, it prefers to wait, partially because now every spare dollar will count as the IDF begins to prepare for a possible restructuring after the regime change in Egypt.