Center for Strategic Decision Research


The Israeli Perception of Missile Defense

Brigadier General Michael Herzog
Head of Strategic Planning, Israeli Defense Forces

Israel’s perception of missile defense stems from our special situation and experience in the turbulent and troublesome area of the Middle East. This perception—and the lessons we have learned—are, I believe, of relevance to and could be utilized by others, including those Europeans who still suffer from the after-effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and who are currently reshaping their collective defense concept.

When I fought as a young soldier in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, hardly anyone contemplated a ballistic missile threat. Today, it is “the name of the game,” with a plethora of participants.

Our own special interest in missile defense developed considerably following the 1980s. First, we watched as various regional players around us strove to acquire missile capabilities. We repeatedly warned against Saddam Hussein and his capabilities. Then, we saw the Iraq-Iran War deteriorate into “a war of cities,” namely, a missile war in which major cities on both sides were targeted. Following that, in 1991, during the second Gulf War, the Iraqis fired some 40 missiles at Israel and others at Saudi territory. Post-war discoveries revealed that the Iraqis had developed chemical and biological warheads and that they were only one to two years away from possessing a nuclear device.

From all of this we learned lessons and drew conclusions. Quickly we realized that we were facing a new strategic threat. We realized that in our situation we should think not merely in terms of TMD—Theater Missile Defense—but rather in terms of NMD—National Missile Defense, and this is due to the fact that all of our territory as well as our entire population are threatened.


As we look around us now, we see a growing effort by regional players to acquire missile and non-conventional capabilities and to merge them. Behind this phenomenon lies a unique combination of motivation, technological basis, and opportunity. Interested parties can find ready suppliers of systems, know-how, and technology, including the North Koreans, Russians, and others, all of whom will, for “hard cash,” sell with little compunction.

Let me elaborate on the element of motivation. In general, there are diverse motivations driving regional proliferation: the wish to dramatically improve overall strategic posture and thus be able to engage in power projection and enhance one’s domestic and external image; the wish to expand the range of military options, to offset conventional inferiority and to counterbalance opponents’ strategic weapons; and the wish to deter and be able to respond to strategic threats before and during war. Regional proliferation is also motivated by impressions people have of other parties’ developments and by the use of their capabilities. For example, many regional players were impressed by Iraq’s missile launchings during the Gulf War. However, we should recall that Iraq was eventually defeated, and there may also have been a spill-over from other regions such as the Indian sub-continent.

If you add to these strong motivations considerations of cost-effectiveness and availability, you will understand why this phenomenon is developing so rapidly and widely in our area. Here weapon systems are relatively cheap, simple, reliable, available, and strategic in nature.

Israel was not necessarily the first and foremost cause of the proliferation of missiles and non-conventional capabilities in the Middle East, but it is part of the motivation. Iraq and Iran went into the race to acquire missile capabilities primarily against each other, but once the capabilities were developed, Iraq took the opportunity to fire missiles against Israel, seeking regional support; Iran is presently extending its missile range to 1,300 km. to put Israeli territory within reach.


In this context, one can identify specific motivations and rationale vis-à-vis Israel. Beyond the inherent hostility still aimed towards Israel by certain regional parties, it seems that such parties are striving for “strategic balance” with Israel, perceived by them as a strong regional power. Such capabilities would enable them to counterbalance Israeli air superiority (traditionally perceived as a given) and to reach its “soft underbelly” with large quantities of missiles over a sustained period of time. In so doing, the parties aim to achieve strategic and operational leverage at the expense of Israel’s freedom of decision and action, shifting the military conflict to a field in which they have a relative advantage.

Presently, Israel lies within range of over 1,000 SSMs in our region, mostly of the Scud type and its derivatives; over 100 launchers; and a number of non-conventional—mainly chemical—warheads. We face several sources of threat, especially from Iran, Syria, and Iraq (with its sustained ambitions, residual capabilities, and technical know-how).

To the best of our judgment, missile proliferation in the Middle East is likely to get worse, not better. This is due to a combination of strong sustained motivation, a growing indigenous base as well as foreign assistance, and the obvious limitations of and challenges to AC, NP, and CP efforts. Regional alliances, including the strategic alliance between Iran and Syria, make the picture all the more complex, plus new players, for example, Iraq or Libya, may join once the burden of sanctions and inspections is partially or fully removed. Not so long ago, we must remember, it was Qadhafi who threatened to use his missiles against the southern flank of NATO.

We can clearly see the seeds of new dangerous capabilities. We expect to see larger quantities of missiles, mainly due to indigenous production, as well as substantial qualitative upgrades and improvements, mainly in range, accuracy, warheads (amount of explosives, cluster, fuse, etc.), and survivability of launchers and missiles, as well as the introduction of solid propellants that make missiles faster and quicker to prepare for firing. We also foresee continuing development of non-conventional warheads.


Iran is currently engaged in the development of a “family” of missiles. The Shihab-3, with a range of 1,300 km., is expected to become operational very soon, possibly within months, and will enable Iran, for the first time, to fire at Israel directly from its own territory. In the pipeline are the Shihab-4, with a range of some 2,000-2,500 km., and a future missile, with a range of 4,000-6,000 km. These longer-range missiles, expected to appear within the next decade, could reach deep into the heart of Europe. One must ask: Why do the Iranians want missiles with such ranges?

One cannot and should not underestimate the seriousness of this challenge and its implications. We are facing a very dangerous combination of regimes, motivations, attitudes, policies, capabilities, and opportunities, and we must judge the threat in light of the combination of components, not merely in reference to one component, such as capabilities. The threat we are facing is growing quantitatively and qualitatively, carrying with it strategic and operational implications.

We strongly believe that this threat not only undermines the stability of the Middle East but could also undermine the stability of other regions, including Europe. Let us not forget that the antagonism of these radical regimes is directed not only against Israel and other moderate states in the Middle East but also against Western values and culture in general. Let us not forget that these countries, as they search for power projection and play a destabilizing role in the Middle East, pose a potential threat to Western interests, energy sources, and supply routes (as was demonstrated in the second Gulf War of 1991). Let us also not forget that as countries such as Iran search for power projection, their search is not expressly confined to their immediate surroundings but includes a desire to provide what they call a “strategic umbrella” to Muslim communities elsewhere.

If and when a country such as Iran realizes its ongoing project to achieve a regional military nuclear capability (given its current pace, this may happen in the second half of the next decade), then Israel will find itself facing an existential threat, and the international community will have to deal with a Middle East that is home to a much more dangerous balance of power. This is not to be taken lightly.


What is to be done? First, we strongly advocate a series of active political steps designed to make our environment a safer one. These steps include political accommodation (with a stress on the peace process); arms control initiatives; politically fostered nonproliferation efforts with an emphasis on prevention; and efforts towards moderating radical countries. We greatly appreciate the steps taken so far in these directions and the leading role the U.S. has played in them. But, important as they are, they appear to be neither viable nor able to supply and guarantee a comprehensive and effective solution, given the nature of our region and the basic political orientation of some of its players. Comprehensiveness is key here because regional security that is not comprehensive will be rendered ineffective.

The inherent difficulties in establishing and enforcing a new international supplier’s and a regional buyer’s regime are obvious to any observer. In this context, we believe that progress in the Middle East peace process, which is very important to us, could definitely contribute to mitigating the threats, but it will neither remove them altogether nor decrease the motivation to acquire NBC weapons and ballistic missiles. This is because Middle East proliferation is not primarily driven by Arab-Israeli rivalry, and because not all Middle Eastern countries are party to the peace process.


Israel has found it necessary to place a heavier burden on counter-proliferation efforts, in both deterrence and defense. Our response is based on:

  • Deterrence
  • Early warning
  • Active defense
  • Passive defense
  • Counter-force and
  • International support and cooperation.

In our view, all of these pillars are necessary and complement each other, although they do not all bear the same weight. Let me now say a few words about each of these components.

First comes deterrence. Deterrence aims to affect the opponent’s intentions and decisions. Essentially, in order to be credible, deterrence must incorporate capabilities and affect the opponent’s image of one’s capabilities and resolve, both in the fields of denial and response/punishment. That is to say, we want to be able and ready, and we want our opponent to believe that we are both able and ready, to deny his capability to cause damage and that we will punish him if he uses it. While the effectiveness of deterrence stems from all the pillars I mentioned earlier, it also carries a weight of its own. At this stage I would like to stress that we have come to the conclusion that in the face of growing strategic threats, deterrence will have to assume a growing role in preventing the use or threat of the use of those terrible capabilities. We also conclude that it is becoming more difficult for a lone player to carry the full burden of deterrence on his own shoulders. In order to counter the possibility that countries like Iran and Iraq will threaten us with their strategic capabilities, we need credible international, extended deterrence to complement and augment our own deterrent posture.

If deterrence fails, and it may, we will need early warning. We have learned from the Gulf War that the availability of early warning, coupled with enhanced passive defense, renders incoming missiles less lethal, reduces the danger of political and military escalation, and serves as a stabilizing factor in crisis management. To date, we have a good SEW system within the U.S. and we are in the process of adding to it our own Arrow missile’s radar capabilities (“The Green Pine”).

Active defense is an essential element of our response. This type of defense means having the ability to intercept missiles fired at us. Most of our efforts in active defense in recent years have been invested in developing, for the first time, a defensive missile with credible capabilities. Our Arrow system, developed by us with the assistance of the U.S., should reach initial operational capability between September and December 1999, and full capability within a few years. This system is tailored to our own specific national missile defense needs, providing a wide-area defense. Together with the Patriot missiles (which supply extended point defense) and BMC3s, these systems will provide us with a relatively effective solution. However, this solution is not foolproof, since we will still face difficult quantitative and technological challenges that make it impossible to guarantee a 100% kill rate for incoming missiles. There is still the major challenge of being able to distinguish real-time between a conventional and a non-conventional missile. Because of that, we are now contemplating adding another layer to our active defense—the IBIS—with the aim of intercepting ballistic missiles at boost phase and/or targeting launchers at immediate post-launch.

During the Gulf War we were not adequately prepared and we were too exposed in our passive defense. In order to address this, we established a Home Front Command charged with overall responsibility for passive defense. Currently we have reached the point where we can supply a comprehensive defense package for the entire population, including masks (one for each citizen, from infants to the elderly), sealed rooms, protective gear and installations, detection and identification capabilities (still limited in real-time), hazard prediction and assessment, automatic warning, medical assistance and evaluation, and limited decontamination capabilities. Apart from the practical value of this package, I cannot overstate its psychological value for the population. Moreover, it contributes to the credibility of our deterrence.

However, there is no full response without counter-force capabilities. In our case, the task of developing these has been placed predominantly on the air force, our principal strategic arm. The air force has been charged with suppressing launches and limiting damage, degrading strategic capabilities, punishing aggression, dissuading escalation, and forcing a cease-fire. But as threats develop from longer ranges—perhaps 1,000-2,000 km.—we are becoming even more mindful of operational difficulties in such ranges, in inclement weather conditions and against countries not contiguous with Israel.


Last but not least I would like to address international and regional cooperation in the face of this threat. First, I would like to take the opportunity to recognize the vital role America has played in supporting the build-up of our response and in stabilizing our region and other areas. Second, we believe that true identification of the danger of missile proliferation must eventually lead to greater international and regional TMD cooperation. We would be glad to see regional TMD cooperation, at least for early warning, since all moderate countries in the region are threatened and since such cooperation could support defense and deterrence and promote confidence and regional security. We would also be glad to develop the ability to interoperate with friendly forces, as we are doing with our American allies, since such interoperability creates a synergistic effect in mission execution and, as a result, better use of missiles and an increased PK.


Let me conclude by saying that, to the best of our knowledge, there is still a worrisome gap between the current, developing threat and the response. It is said that there are three types of people: those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what has happened. In this case, we want to make things happen, lest we find ourselves later wondering what happened. And what we want to make happen is to close the gap from both ends. Given the nature and scope of the problem, and the fact that it could negatively affect so many parties in the Middle East and beyond, the need for international cooperation in the R &D and interoperability areas is growing. As we approach the 21st century, there is a need for and a role to be played by additional partners—and the sooner the better to make the Middle East and other areas much more safe.


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