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Arrow 3, Germany and the missile shield over Europe

How Israel’s premier defense missile system developed and eventually became the system being used to defend Europe.

An Arrow-3 missile interceptor. Credit: Israeli Ministry of Defense Spokesperson’s Office.
An Arrow-3 missile interceptor. Credit: Israeli Ministry of Defense Spokesperson’s Office.
Uzi Rubin
Uzi Rubin

The Arrow 3 missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles in outer space, is the most powerful and longest-range member of the Arrow Weapon System family. It was built to defend Israel against the most lethal Iranian ballistic missiles, with the capability to lock on, intercept and destroy incoming missiles while still high above the atmosphere. In addition to minimizing casualties and damage, the Arrow 3’s ultra-high interception altitude results in huge, nearly continent-sized footprints (i.e., defended areas). Those advantages, combined with the interceptor’s relatively small dimensions and modest cost, make it attractive to other countries facing similar threats. It thus became the first of the Arrow family to be provided for the defense of Europe.

The origins of the Arrow 3

The origins of the Arrow 3 program lie in Israel’s growing fear of Iran’s military nuclear program. This covert program was first publicly revealed in 2002 by a group of Iranian expats, but Israel’s concern became even more acute when the virulently anti-Israeli Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replaced the relatively moderate Mohammad Khatami as Iran’s president. Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric calling for the destruction of Israel, combined with Iran’s overt long-range ballistic missile programs and the covert nuclear weapon program, was cause for grave concern in Israel.

While the recently completed Arrow 2 system could intercept ballistic missiles launched from Iran, Israel’s military experts considered it an insufficient defense against nuclear missiles, since its interception altitudes were inside the Earth’s atmosphere, where the blast and radiation from a nuclear explosion could still cause severe damage on the ground. To address this shortcoming, a new missile, that could destroy nuclear missiles on their way to Israel when they were still exo-atmospheric, was needed.

The problem of how to do it at an acceptable cost was solved by a pair of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) engineers, who conceived a unique, out-of-the-box, counterintuitive yet simple and workable solution. Their invention—promptly patented by IAI—was first introduced to the Israeli Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) in 2005. IMDO, in turn, adapted the solution as the basis for a new interceptor missile, dubbed Arrow 3. IAI teamed with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to apply for the development program’s financial support from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

While recognizing the operational need for such an interceptor, the MDA proposed to adapt either the Lockheed Martin THAAD or the Raytheon Standard Missile 3 for this mission. However, detailed analysis showed that no U.S. interceptors could satisfy the Israeli operational requirements. After describing Arrow 3 to the U.S. Congress as “More advanced than anything we have ever attempted in the U.S.,” MDA’s director approved a joint U.S.–Israeli program. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2010 to launch the full-scale development program.

The longer reach of the new missile required a longer-range early warning and fire-control radar. In response to this requirement, the original Green Pine Radar Systems, developed by Elta Electronics Industries for the Arrow 2 program, was upgraded to achieve enhanced detection and fire-control ranges, the new version being dubbed Great Pine. Arrow 3’s first flight from Israel’s Palmachim test range was achieved successfully in 2013, and the first successful intercept test took place in 2015. The first production missiles were delivered to the Israeli Air Force’s Air Defense Command in January 2017. Arrow 3 achieved full operational capability in the same month, and later that year, its development team was awarded the Israel Defense Prize.

While Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 were jointly financed and developed by the United States and Israel, it was clear from the start that the United States never intended to use them for its own defense. Moreover, Israeli experts felt that the United States would not encourage their export to any other country, to forestall competition with its own sales of missile defense systems. The Israeli press of the time, while lauding the capabilities of the Arrow 3 to defend Israel against Iranian nuclear missiles, it was largely mute regarding potential sales to other countries. Yet, barely six years after Arrow 3 became operational, it is being exported to Germany in the biggest Israeli defense export deal ever. Two questions beg to be answered in the connection: How did this come about, and why?

Purchasing Arrow 3

The answer to the first question involves the Cold War and the subsequent breakdown of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. During the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, aka West Germany) was the European bulwark of NATO’s defense against a prospective Soviet-led invasion. The FRG was heavily armed, and its ground and air forces confronted Warsaw Pact armies along the East German and Czechoslovakian borders. The FRG invested heavily in air defenses and acquired no less than 36 Patriot systems from the United States. This powerful array was deployed as a belt along the confrontation lines to protect against the anticipated Soviet air strikes on NATO’s rear. The Soviets, on their side, prepared to punch corridors through the Patriot belt for their aircraft using hundreds of SCUD B ballistic missiles armed with conventional and chemical warheads. At the time, the Patriot was a pure air defense system with no capability against ballistic missiles.

This compelled the U.S. Army to embark upon the Patriot PAC 2 upgrade, enabling the system to intercept SCUD B missiles. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that West Germany, unlike other U.S. allies and NATO members such as France, joined President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, alias Star Wars) in 1985, despite some serious reservations among its political and military leadership.

When Israel, too, joined SDI in 1987, the two countries established a working group of military personnel and technical experts to discuss the missile threats and technologies to defeat them, leading to some small-scale joint research and development programs. When Saddam’s Iraq attacked Israel with upgraded SCUDs during the 1991 Gulf War, Germany’s chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, offered assistance in defending Israel against ballistic missiles. However, Israeli hopes for German financial aid for its recently launched Arrow program were disappointed, and the promised assistance was fulfilled by deploying a German Patriot battery to Israel.

Nevertheless, the two countries continued to exchange views and information about missile defense programs. Germany’s military attaches were regularly briefed on the progress of the Arrow 2 program. It stands to reason that they were periodically briefed on the ensuing David’s Sling and Arrow 3 programs. According to Israeli media reports, Germany’s military was first introduced to the Arrow 3 concept 15 years ago, in 2008—two years before the formal launch of the full-scale joint U.S.-Israel program. The Arrow 3’s huge footprint seems to have impressed the German military as an optimal missile defense system for a country of Germany’s size. The outlines of a potential sale were defined in 2020. Yet two stumbling blocks remained to closing an Arrow 3 deal with Germany.

The first was acquiring U.S. permission to sell Arrow 3 to a third country. Like all other co-financed U.S.-Israeli programs, such as Arrow 2 and David’s Sling, the two countries jointly owned the program information and hardware. Neither were allowed to disclose their information, sell or transfer it to third parties without the other partner’s consent. U.S. permission to negotiate the Arrow 3 sale with Germany could not be taken for granted. If anything, the opposite was true. U.S. government policy at the time seemed to discourage competition against its own defense industries. For example, when Poland applied for the purchase of David’s Sling in 2014, it was rebuffed by the U.S. government. Instead, the U.S. sold Poland advanced versions of its own Patriot air and missile defense systems. As one unnamed Israeli official said: “The involvement of U.S. technologies gives Washington an effective veto over the export of the system… we cannot sell everything we want to.”

It stands to reason that all exchange of information vis-à-vis Arrow 3 between Israeli governmental agencies and Germany’s military had to be approved by the U.S. government ahead of time. While such approvals were obtained, this did not guarantee that the U.S. would ultimately approve the sale of complete Arrow 3 systems, since its own defense industries might have applied considerable pressure to veto it.

The second and even more formidable obstacle was the question of German financial means. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the SCUD threat against Germany’s air defense belt evaporated. The subsequent unification of Germany created a financial burden that required a major diversion of funds from defense to the absorption of East Germany. Germany reduced its defense budgets from a peak of nearly 5% of GDP at the height of the Cold War (1963) and 2.5% on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall (1990) to 1.1% on the eve of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea (2014). That rose slightly to 1.3% on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Germany became practically disarmed. The number of operational Patriot batteries dropped from 36 to 11. In 2018, four years after Russian President Vladimir Putin realized the first step of his vision of a reconstituted Russian Empire by annexing Crimea, only 39 of the German Luftwaffe Eurofighters out of a fleet of 128 were combat-ready. It seems that Germany’s national defense policy was based on the assumption that the end of the Cold War was indeed the “End of History,” and that Russia would henceforth acquiesce to its smaller and humbler role in the post-Cold War global arena. That optimistic assumption ignored Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, where he first elucidated his resentment of the United States, NATO and the post-Cold War world order. Simply put, Germany by 2022—as far as defense acquisitions were concerned—was practically broke.

Germany’s largely complacent worldview was shattered by Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Three days later, Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholtz (who, as finance minister from 2018 to 2021, oversaw a policy of military austerity) delivered his historic “Zeitwende” speech to the German Bundestag, in which he promulgated a veritable U-turn regarding German national security policy. Putin’s Russia was to be resisted rather than coddled like before, Germany’s dependence on Russian-supplied gas would end, Germany’s defense budget would increase to 2% of GDP and an immediate allocation of 100 billion euros would be made for urgent defense acquisitions. This, in turn, eliminated the second obstacle to the Arrow 3 deal: financial resources became available.

It now seems that missile defense was high on Germany’s rearmament priority list, and that Germany selected Arrow 3 over the U.S.-made Lockheed Martin THAAD. The German chancellor conveyed this to Israel’s then-prime minister, Yair Lapid, during Lapid’s visit to Berlin in September 2022. Reportedly, Chancellor Olaf Scholz solicited in person U.S. approval of the sale in his May 3 meeting with President Joe Biden. The German Bundestag approved a down payment of 560 million euros in July, and the United States approved the deal in August. Final contract negotiations between the Israeli and German governments are scheduled for November. The preliminary operational capability of Germany’s Arrow 3 array is scheduled for 2025.

Israel’s gains from the sale of Arrow 3 to Germany are obvious, as elucidated by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: Not only the considerable income and profit to the Israeli defense industry, but also the international prestige that follows from being a supplier of cutting-edge technologies to one of the most industrialized countries in the world. Beyond that, Gallant expressed a sense of historical justice in that the Jewish state now provides for the defense of Germany, turning the tables, so to speak, on the dark chapters in German–Jewish relations.

The German rationale

For Germany, the acquisition of Arrow 3 is just one building block in a wider plan to revamp its own and its European allies’ air and missile defense as a response to the perception of a growing threat from Russia. The devastation wrought on Ukraine’s population centers and infrastructure by Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles prompted Scholz in July 2022 to announce the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI)—an ambitious program to create a European air and missile defense system through the common acquisition of air defense equipment and missiles by European nations.

The systems will consist of three layers. The lower one will be based on the German-made Iris T short-range air and missile defense system. The middle layer will be based on U.S.-supplied Patriot systems, with Israeli-supplied Arrow 3 systems providing the upper layer. The emphasis is on early implementation, hence the reliance on already existing systems rather than on the time-consuming process of developing and certifying new systems.

The rationale behind this initiative derives from three major considerations. First, the invasion of Ukraine proves that Putin’s Russia will not shy from using overwhelming force and risking a European war to advance what it sees as its strategic goals. That makes the prospect of a Russian–NATO war not as remote as it was believed to be barely two years ago. Second, the modernization of Russia’s armed forces after the recovery from the demise of the Soviet Union gave priority to precision long-range stand-off weapons. Consequently, Russia now possesses air-, sea- and ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with various ranges, capable of causing critical damage throughout Europe without resorting to nuclear weapons. Third, the Ukraine war shows that ground-based air and missile defense (GBAD) is a decisive factor in modern wars, as opposed to the subservient role it played after the end of the Cold War. 

Ukraine’s aging yet extensive GBAD has largely survived Russia’s effort to suppress it via precision stand-off strikes. Its continued effectiveness has been holding back Russia’s air power from wiping out Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructures and, with it, Ukraine’s power to resist. Simply put, as long as Ukraine’s GBAD stands, Ukraine stands. It is reasonable to assume that this lesson was one of the motivations for the ESSI.

The ESSI is not intended to build a missile shield over Germany, but rather to build a German missile shield over Europe. While conceived by Germany, the ESSI will be a NATO asset. Nineteen European nations had joined the initiative by July, including the United Kingdom, the Nordic and Baltic countries, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Surprisingly, it has also been joined by two non-NATO countries—Switzerland and Austria.

France, however, voiced its objection to the ESSI. Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron presented a French vision of “Safe Skies” to a 20-nation conference he convened in Paris on June 19. Some analysts see the French objection to the ESSI as stemming from commercial interests: in its present architecture, the ESSI does not include France’s own air and missile defense product, the SAMP/T (equivalent more or less to the German IRIS T). According to the same analysis, Macron believes that the risk of a Russian military attack against a NATO ally is low, and hence that time is not of the essence. Accordingly, Europe has the leisure to develop its own technologies and wait for their ripening, with no need to rush into non-European ready-made systems. How the European nations will resolve this controversy remains to be seen, but it is a safe bet that some compromise will eventually be worked out.

It should be noted that the issue of Europe’s missile defense has been a matter of controversy for several decades. President Bill Clinton’s National Missile Defense program in the 1990s initially aimed to defend the continental United States against limited ballistic missile strikes. It was, therefore, deployed only within the United States, at two sites, one in Alaska and one in California. Using “U.S. only” basing was sharply criticized by some European NATO allies, who argued that it abrogated the principle of common defense of all alliance nations. In response, and to extend the missile shield to Europe, President George Bush authorized a third NMD site in Poland, with a radar deployed in the Czech Republic. To the utter surprise of the United States and the other NATO allies, Putin was enraged. In his 2007 Munich speech, he equated establishing the NMD third site in Europe to the “rekindling of the Cold War.”

The policy of Barack Obama, the next U.S. president, was to “reset” the souring relations with Russia and to enhance the U.S.-European alliance. To that end, he canceled Bush’s third site and instead promulgated the policy of Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), a euphemism for downgrading the capabilities of the U.S. missile defense assets deployed to Europe to a level that might hopefully be acceptable to Russia. The new plan called for deploying existing tactical naval missile defense systems in two European sites, one in Poland and one in Romania. These sites would defend Europe against putative Iranian ballistic missiles. The PAA was received enthusiastically in Europe and endorsed at the 2010 NATO Lisbon summit.

Unsurprisingly, it did not mollify Putin, whose entourage called it “worse than the third site.” Nevertheless, the PAA was pushed forward by Obama and by his successors in office. The Romanian site achieved operational status in 2016, and the Polish site is scheduled to become operational later this year.

The PAA—a European missile shield contributed by the United States and manned by American troops—remains a bone of contention between the Western alliance and Russia to this day. On the eve of invading Ukraine, Russia issued a list of demands from the West to assuage the crisis, including a demand for the dismantling of the PAA sites in Europe. Be that as it may, the two existing PAA sites are NATO assets. Whether and how they will be integrated into or harmonized with Germany’s new ESSI remains to be seen.

In marked contrast to its violent condemnation of the U.S. PAA plan, Russia did not voice objections to Germany’s ESSI. That proves—if ever proof was needed—that what troubled Putin had nothing to do with the deployment of missile defense in Europe, but everything to do with the deployment of U.S. military personnel in territories once dominated by the Soviet Union.

What are the threats the ESSI is designed to defend against? Germany remains somewhat vague on this question. The referenced threats seem to be the vast array of air-, sea- and ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with various ranges now devastating Ukraine. Arrow 3—capable of intercepting ballistic missiles well beyond the Earth’s atmosphere—is particularly apt for countering Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. The air-launched Kinzhal is a ballistic missile that performs hypersonic maneuvering only when it is back in the Earth’s atmosphere. Arrow 3 can hit it while it is still in outer space and before it can start its hypersonic maneuvering. That provides a better chance of a kill than trying to shoot it down during its violent atmospheric maneuvers.

It stands to reason that the German planners also had in mind a prospective Russian nuclear threat when they decided to cap their shield with Arrow 3. The Russian targeting strategy vis-à-vis NATO consists of three stages. In the first stage, Russia’s massive array of precision stand-off weapons, armed with conventional warheads, will target key military installations within NATO, such as air-based and command centers, to reduce NATO’s abilities to carry out sustained strikes against Russia. The second stage will focus on military–economic targets and critical infrastructure. If both fail, the third stage involves transitioning from conventional capabilities to nuclear weapons. It stands to reason that one of the main weapons to be used in this stage would be nuclear-tipped Kinzhals. Later, new Russian ground-launched nuclear ballistic missiles with ranges of 2,400 miles or more could complement them. 

As discussed above, Arrow 3 was designed to destroy nuclear warheads while still in outer space, where their explosion would minimize physical damage on the ground. That makes it eminently suitable for a sky shield built to defend NATO now and in the future.

Conclusion

The bold concept of the ESSI is an expression of a more assertive Germany, assuming its natural leading role in safeguarding Europe’s freedom, its liberal values and its way of life. Israel is privileged to contribute its share to this noble endeavor. Arrow 3 was designed to protect Israel. That it was selected to defend Europe as well is a source of satisfaction and benefit to all involved.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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