Before dawn on Friday, what should have been a fairly routine Israeli Air Force bombing run to allegedly take out a Hezbollah target in Syria, became instead a landmark in the Jewish state’s missile defense program: the first reported use of the Arrow anti-missile battery.
The first version of the Arrow became operational in 2000. The joint Israeli-American project was meant to confront the threat of long-range ballistic missiles, following the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the First Gulf War.
But Friday’s first reported use of the Arrow system was not against a ballistic missile, according to the Israel Defense Forces, but against a surface-to-air missile, or SAM.
This is a fairly odd development, and raises questions of why the system was used at all.
According to the IDF, Israeli Air Force jets carried out airstrikes against several targets in Syria shortly after 2:30 a.m. — in itself a rare, if not unprecedented, admission by the military.
Arab media reported that the target of the Israeli strikes was advanced Hezbollah weapons. Israel has repeatedly said it sees the transfer of such weaponry to Hezbollah as a “red line” that it will take action against. Over the years, dozens of these airstrikes have been reported by foreign media.
The Syrian military acknowledged the strike, saying that four Israeli planes targeted military posts in the area of Palmyra, in central Syria.
The Syrian military launched several anti-aircraft missiles at the IAF jets from an aerial defense battery in eastern Syria, sending the projectiles over Jordan towards Israel’s Jordan Valley.
Two of these missiles landed in Israeli territory, causing neither injury nor damage. But the third was intercepted by the Arrow system — specifically the Arrow 2, a more advanced form of the battery, according to some Hebrew media reports.
According to most reports, the Syrian missiles were SA-5s, also known as S-200s, a somewhat outmoded missile defense system, which Israel’s advanced aircraft should not — and, indeed, did not — have too much difficulty avoiding (despite Syria’s ridiculous claims to have downed one Israeli plane and hit another).
It wasn’t the first time that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military launched SAMs at Israeli jets. In September, two such missiles were launched at IAF aircraft after a bombing run in response to mortar shells that struck Israeli territory. The military was content with using regular countermeasures in that case.
Taking these facts into account, it is not clear why the Arrow system was employed at all on Friday.
Generally speaking, surface-to-air missiles do not present much of a threat to people on the ground, as they are designed to detonate at high altitudes in order to take out aircraft.
A military official told the Times of Israel that the threat posed by these SAMs was, in fact, to the ground, not the jets. This apparently dispels any notion that the system was used to protect the pilots.
Assuming the military is forthright with its explanation, this effectively leaves two options:
One, that the SA-5 missile, despite not being designed specifically for surface attacks, was indeed heading for a populated area and posed a legitimate threat to the people on the ground.
Two, that the Arrow system’s radar array misidentified the incoming SA-5, which is fairly large, as a ballistic missile.
It is thus difficult to gauge the success of the Arrow’s first reported operational interception. Did it save lives? Or was an expensive Arrow 2 missile — estimated to cost nearly NIS 10 million ($2.7 million) — wasted on a false alarm?