The initial operating capability for Arrow 3, the highest-altitude component of the system, is slated for 2016. Judged by many in the U.S. and Israel as today’s best missile defense system, Arrow 3 will offer pathways to at least five other advanced capabilities.
The missile program expects to start using the IR and EO slices of the electromagnetic spectrum to extend missile detection over the horizon. These new sensors need to be mounted in UAVs for around-the-clock coverage, but the design of those platforms is still a work in progress.
“Unmanned aircraft development costs are lower, so Israel can develop them within its own defense budget,” says a senior Israeli air force official. “There is long-range planning for all types of UAV systems. They will get larger, but there is no need right now for fast, jet-powered UAVs. Soon they will be able to stay up for weeks or months.”
A fourth technology eyed for near-term upgrades of the Arrow 3 is an anti-satellite (Asat) capability. Israeli developers seem split on whether Asat is a classified element of the program. But the capability is being considered, according to the chairman of Israel’s space agency, Air Force Maj. Gen. (ret.) Itzik Ben-Israel.
Finally, the Arrow 3 is being considered for installation on Israeli navy surface ships. The idea is to create mini-Aegis, missile defense platforms that can be moved quickly to address threats closer to their launch sites and to avoid attack.
Israel is keeping Arrow systems costs down by adding components as they are needed and through block upgrades. The Arrow 3 is simply the latest element. In fact, Arrow has been in development for 20 years. Its system—which includes the Citron Tree battle management capability—also works with other weapons including the U.S.-made Patriot missile and Aegis families as well as other systems operated by the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.
“The system is tested every year because it is constantly being improved to meet the evolving threats,” says Kaya. “Every block [upgrade] adds more capability [to address faster speeds, maneuvering and smaller warhead signatures]. The main thing is that we get earlier detection, which means better performance and success in intercepting the targets.”
Right now the Defense Support Program constellation of infrared-sensor-equipped satellites is the first warning of a launch. That capability is tested every year during joint U.S.-Israeli exercises. The effort results in interoperability, improved systems integration and enhanced reliability.
“We need to stay a step ahead, so we are upgrading our capability in blocks,” Kaya says. “If they are long-range threats, they are very fast. The small signature is always challenging. Decoys also are important.”
Perhaps what is less obvious is that Israel’s missile defenses are becoming much better at countering salvos of missiles, a capability that has been demonstrated with the lowest-tier “Iron Dome” system against unguided weapons, rockets and short-range missiles.
“For more than one threat—salvos—we have to intercept far away and very high and see the threats coming in real time,” says Kaya. “That’s what led us to the Arrow 3 solution. There’s a large diversity of threats pointing at the center of Israel. We started with the operational need for near-zero leakage rates and low cost. It demanded a low-cost interceptor, high interception rates and the use of fewer missiles to be effective. That produced the multi-layer defense concept.”
Arrow 3 operates outside the atmosphere as the first layer of the nation’s missile defense strategy. Arrow 2 is the intermediate tier and is followed by Patriot (and soon David’s Sling); the final layer is Iron Dome.
“We are taking into account that new [ballistic missile] technology is being imported into the region all the time,” says Kaya. “That’s why we’re talking about Arrow as a flexible and adaptive system. Arrow is now dealing with threats that we didn’t even dream about 20 years ago.”
Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea are all exporters of ballistic weapons technology. Pakistan and North Korea also have sold nuclear weapons know-how.
“I cannot speak about specific threats, but the intelligence guys are doing good work on existing missiles and what’s coming in the next 5-10 years,” says Kaya.
The Arrow 3 capability offers a look-shoot-look formula for its interceptions. Because of its early-detection capabilities, there is more space and time to assess the first shot and launch another missile if needed.
Moreover, Arrow 3 has a “divert” capability in its interceptors. It can be launched into an area of space even before it is known where the target missile is going. Israeli planners call it a “waiting space.” When the target and its course are identified, the Arrow interceptor is redirected using its thrust-vectoring nozzle to close the gap and conduct what officials call a “body-to-body” or “hit-to-kill” intercept.
While the window for intercepting long-range ballistic missiles is still small, it has been expanded by the Arrow’s improved kinematic envelope.
“The maneuvering capability of the Arrow 3 gives you a more robust solution,” says Kaya. “The divert [option] is a big upgrade in the missile’s ability to deal with future threats. If the first target is successfully intercepted, a second [Arrow 3 interceptor assigned as a backup] will be assigned to [pursue] another target.”
There is no need for a fragmentation warhead because an advanced, proportional-navigation system juggles line-of-sight and relative vehicle motion to align the flight paths of the interceptor and the target missile.