Mr. Interception

In an extremely rare interview, Arieh Herzog explains how he keeps Israel's missile defense systems one step ahead of the Iranians and the Syrians.

arrow missile 298 88 (photo credit: Brian Hendler [file])
arrow missile 298 88
(photo credit: Brian Hendler [file])
The Green Pine radar system identifies the incoming Iranian Shihab-4 ballistic missile moments after it is launched. With only minutes to spare, sirens wail throughout the country, sending the public into bomb shelters, while the Arrow ballistic missile defense system is automatically activated and an interceptor is launched from Palmahim air force base just north of Ashdod. Reaching speeds of up to Mach 7, the missile intercepts the Shihab outside the stratosphere after less than 60 seconds, thus preventing a nuclear attack. This moment is what Arieh Herzog has been working up to for the past 40 years. As head of the Homa Missile Defense Agency, it is up to Herzog to create the country's defense against enemy missiles. With Iran racing toward nuclear bombs and investing unprecedented amounts of money in missile development, this is not an easy task. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Herzog provides an inside look at the decision-making process behind Israel's missile defense systems, led by the Israeli- and American-developed Arrow missile, one of the few operational ballistic missile defense systems in the world. In the face of Iran's unrelenting race to obtain nuclear power, maintained in defiance of the UN, Herzog's job has never been more vital to the continued existence of the State of Israel. While the IDF Home Front Command recently drilled emergency services in a simulation of the aftermath of an Iranian missile strike, most senior officers are banking on the Arrow as the country's last line of defense. With Military Intelligence predicting that diplomatic efforts to stop Teheran's race for the bomb will ultimately fail, senior defense officials believe that only a military strike will succeed in stopping or maybe even in just stalling the Iranian nuclear program. Some even believe that the strike should take place at the earliest possible opportunity. What is for sure is that if Iran's nuclear installations are bombed - by Israel or the US - Teheran would respond by firing its long-range Shihab missiles at Israel. According to Herzog, 66, the Middle East is in the midst of an extraordinary missile race. Iran and Syria, he says, are investing unprecedented amounts of money in long-range ballistic missile capabilities - with the help of North Korea - and have all but forfeited attempts to build up a modern air force. "The Iranians are continuously increasing the range of their missiles," he says. "They are buying technology and in some cases are even buying complete systems from North Korea and other countries." This is where the recent batch of Arrow tests come in. Last week, the IAF launched a modified version of the interceptor from Palmahim - the 16th test of the Arrow - which Herzog explains is made of components that are significantly cheaper and can reduce production costs by 20 percent, and is also better equipped to intercept incoming missiles. Last month, the IAF conducted its first night test of the Arrow under extreme conditions relating to the altitude of the interception and the type of the target - a missile specially designed to impersonate an Iranian Shihab. This is where Herzog's job comes into play. He not only needs to oversee the continued development and upgrade of the Arrow but also needs to foresee future threats. "Our goal is to always be a step ahead of the developments of the Iranians and the Syrians," he explains. "This is demonstrated by the different blocks of the system that we have developed since we define - years in advance - what is expected to be the future threat, and according to our assessment, we construct our multiyear program." Herzog further reveals that while there might be missile systems in Iranian hands that the Arrow cannot intercept, all of its "currently operational" ballistic missiles can be destroyed by the system. IN 2002, HERZOG sat with Military Intelligence and the IAF and analyzed the status of the Iranian missile and nuclear programs. "The goal was to define," he recalls, "what the character of the Iranian threat would be by the end of the decade." At the time, he and his men worked from weak intelligence but, he claims, succeeded in accurately predicting the Iranian rate of progress on its missile program and developed the Arrow to meet not only current but also future threats. "Our Arrow operational system can without a doubt deal with all of the operational threats in the Middle East, particularly in Iran and Syria," he declares matter-of-factly. A branch of the Defense Ministry's Research and Development Directorate, Homa was established in 1991 and given a mandate to oversee the development, procurement and the integration of missile defense systems, once needed for crude Iraqi Scuds and now for advanced long-range Iranian Shihabs. Herzog has had a long career in the defense establishment and worked for 30 years at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), where he served as head of the MABAT Division which develops space-based systems and technologies, before becoming head of Homa. In addition to overseeing the development and production of the Arrow, he is also in charge of maintaining relations with the US Congress and administration to ensure that Israel's security needs remain on their agenda. Today, 50 percent of financing for the Arrow comes from the US government. While most of the Arrow's components are made by IAI, Boeing supplies 35% of the Arrow's main components and subsystems, including the warhead's electrical system, the radar shell (radome), missile casing and electronic subsystems. Israel's first steps into the field of missile defense were taken in 1985, two years after US president Ronald Reagan launched his Star Wars missile defense initiative. Then, IAI began joint development with the Americans of a missile defense system called Arrow. At the beginning, Herzog says, the Defense Ministry was not directly involved, but in the late 80s everything changed because of the immediate Iraqi ballistic missile threat. Close to 20 years ago, the Arrow project was established to address the threat posed by the relatively crude Scud missiles, like the 39 Iraq fired into Israel during the Gulf War. But as the project developed, the defense establishment was determined not to focus on past wars but to look ahead to future threats including faster rockets launched from further away, possibly with multiple and nuclear warheads. Nearly $3 billion has already been invested in the system, with two-thirds coming from the US Missile Defense Agency. While the Arrow is the country's first line of defense against Iranian missiles, air force Patriot batteries - used during the Gulf War - serve as the backup interception system. In the beginning, the Arrow project encountered some failures during testing. These hurdles were quickly overcome, and in 2000 Herzog reached his first milestone when the IAF declared "initial operational capability" upon delivery of the first Arrow battery. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the system, and the IAF - which already uses the Arrow 2 - is in the midst of developing a third and fourth block of the system. Another project overseen by Homa and currently under development by Rafael - the Armament Development Authority - and the US-based Raytheon is called David's Sling and is a missile defense system that is capable of intercepting the medium-range rockets plentiful among Israel's neighbors. The system, Herzog says, could become operational by the end of the decade. David's Sling provides a solution to the Iranian-made Zelzal and Fajr - both in Hizbullah hands before the Second Lebanon War - as well as the Fatah 110 and 300-mm. and 220-mm. Katyushas. Another system - although not under Herzog's responsibility - is called Iron Dome and is being developed to intercept short-range rockets like the Kassam and the Katyusha. "In the end we need a solution, since these medium-range rockets have the same effect on a family in Haifa as the longer-range missiles do," he says. "They have a range and destructive capabilities close to the Scud, but because of cost effectiveness, the current systems - Patriot and Arrow - are not appropriate and we needed to find something cheaper." ISRAEL FACES a number of immediate threats from missiles in the region. Firstly in Iran, the Islamic Republic has developed a series of long-range ballistic missiles called the Shihab which started as 1 and is now at 3D with an estimated range of 2,200 kilometers. The Shihab 4 and 5 are liquid-propelled missiles that are still in planning stages and are supposed to be Iran's first missiles capable of taking satellites into orbit. They will reportedly have a maximum range of close to 6,000 km. The technology for these missiles comes mostly from North Korea but also from Russia. Last April, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin revealed that Iran had recently obtained North Korean BM-25 surface-to-surface missiles with a range close to 3,000 km and capable of reaching Europe armed with a nuclear warhead. Syria's missile array is made up mostly of Scud-class missiles, led by the D class rocket with a range of 700 km. Syria recently conducted a successful test of the Scud D which western sources say was developed with assistance from North Korea. Syria is also believed to have chemical warheads available for a portion of its Scud missile force. With the missile threat looming and possibly closer than ever to materializing, Israel is interested in beefing up its defense systems. While declaring that the country has no intention of stopping Arrow development or production, Herzog admits that he recently submitted a request to the Pentagon to receive information on two US-made missile defense systems - the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense and Aegis. The idea, he explains, is to be able to prepare the infrastructure for the possibility that they will be purchased by the IDF or be deployed here in time of war. Last month, US Army officers from the European Command were here for the Juniper Cobra exercise held every two years during which the two countries run missile defense simulations. "Our main goal is to determine interoperability between the Arrow and the other systems," Herzog says. "By this, we can guarantee that the systems will be interoperable and that a doctrine on how to use the systems together is in place. The decision of whether to deploy the systems in Israel will need to be made on a diplomatic level between the two governments." He skirts the question of whether the US will deploy its missile defense systems here free of charge, as they did in the first Gulf War, but says that his recommendation is that the IAF buy the new upgraded version of the Patriot, called PAC-3. "This would definitely assist Israel and if there is a budget, it should be purchased," he says, adding that for the time being it does not appear to be at the top of the IAF's list of priorities. Herzog is also in favor of selling the Arrow to allies. Both Turkey and South Korea have expressed interest. At the moment, however, a sale is not on the table and will only be made following a joint decision with the US. Turning to the Second Lebanon War, Herzog says that an operational missile defense system against the short-range Katyusha - close to 4,000 pounded the North - could have changed the outcome. "Active protection can dramatically reduce the number of casualties," he says, adding that as a result the government benefits from better "diplomatic maneuverability." "If someone thinks that a large percentage of his missiles will be intercepted, he will think twice before attacking." Although he, like all Israelis, wishes for peace, he says practically, "As long as there is a threat we will need to protect ourselves."