U.S. Missile Defense Is Problematic for Israel's Vulnerable Skies

Rumors are flying around the Middle East as reporters anticipate an imminent strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by a U.S.-led coalition or by Israeli forces going it alone.

Several factors have led the way towards this media frenzy, including a recent shift in U.S. and Israeli foreign policy.  Israeli Corporal Gilad Shilat is free from captivity, to the relief of young soldiers who do mandatory service in the IDF and who will be expected to fight in Israel's next war.  Shalit's freedom in the controversial October 2011 prisoner exchange with Hamas has cleared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's desk so he can give more attention to the threat of Iran. 

Concentration on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now in international hands, led by the Quartet (U.S., U.N., EU, and Russia) rather than solely by U.S. interlocutors.  With no advancement in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, diplomacy is at a stalemate, leading to a focus on military matters.  Continued instability in the Middle East dominates the agendas of international leaders as the Arab Spring enters into a cold and radical Islamic winter.

U.S. President Barack Obama is withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq in just a few weeks, which frees up American forces in the region.  It allows the Pentagon to consider using its resources in an effort to stop Iran from going nuclear.  The administration in Washington has already been placing new troops, advanced naval vessels, and missile defense systems into the Middle East, and continues to look for more opportunities for a greater American presence in the Gulf region.

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report is expected to reveal recent Iranian advances in uranium enrichment, as well as proof of Iran's determination to create nuclear weapons for possible military purposes.  Western nations are already calling for stiffer and deeper sanctions against Iran, but China and Russia are resisting.  The threat of regional war could pressure these two countries into accepting a diplomatic solution rather than facing a military one.

Fueling the fire of the current media fever are the recent offensive and defensive military exercises conducted in Israel and Italy.  Air-raid drills in major Israeli cities, along with the successful test firing of a missile off the Mediterranean coast which can carry a nuclear warhead, have contributed to an increase in anxiety within the general public.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has not squelched the rumors, but instead has offered praise for Israel's successful strategic military capabilities.

While defense officials in Israel, Britain, and the U.S. are reportedly coordinating their efforts toward a possible strike on Iran, there's a debate within Israel's security cabinet, as well as within the military echelon itself, as to whether the IDF should take the risk and attack Iran.  The fact that such an attack could spark a much wider regional conflict has resulted in a lack of unity within the Israeli establishment as to how to proceed.  In the past, this division gave way to a diplomatic approach of encouraging greater U.N. sanctions on Iran, but the sanctions aren't stopping Iran's nuclear pursuit.  The Iranian issue now seems to be at the top of the national agenda in Israel.

Gabriel Scheinmann is a visiting fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) in Washington.  He says that after December 31, the U.S. will no longer control Iraqi air space.  This provides a short window of opportunity for Israel to use that air space to reach Iran.  According to Scheinmann, theoretically, if the U.S. didn't want a tactical strike on Iran, it could have shot down planes over Iraq.  "But, without the U.S. there, Iraqi air space is free."

Scheinmann also noted that Israel has already deployed the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system on its southern border.  Other missile defense plans are underway to protect Israel's northern border.  According to a recent JINSA report, the Iron Dome has had an 85% success rate in defending Israel's southern communities.  But Israeli skies are still vulnerable.  There have been death, injury, and destruction reported in recent rocket attacks launched from Gaza by Islamic Jihad and other terrorist factions against Israelis living in Ashkelon, Ashdod, and towns in the Negev.

The United States has been working closely with Israel on missile defense, providing the finances and equipment to help Israel defend its borders.  Under the Obama administration, missile defense is being coordinated within one single European and Middle East Network called the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). 

In September 2011, America engaged Turkey in missile defense by providing Ankara with the same type of X-Band radar system that Israel was given in September 2008 by former U.S. President George W. Bush.  The deployment of that radar system into Turkey, later this year, will be located in the eastern part of the country, close to the Iranian border. 

These radar systems are designed to alert technicians of incoming enemy missiles.  The U.S. Joint Tactical Ground Station (JTAGS) in Europe is to be the data hub for all U.S. supported European and Middle Eastern radar systems, including those in Romania, and in a U.S. Aegis ship in the Mediterranean.

However, the current U.S. agreement with Turkey has become problematic, according to Scheinmann.  "The Turks are saying that what they get from the radar site in their country will not be shared with Israel.  This is supposed to be a European-wide missile defense system, but, they have maintained their strong objection to anything Israeli.  If there were an Iranian missile launched towards Israel, they would not allow the sharing of information from their radar to help Israel." 

What this means, Scheinmann explained, is that an incoming Iranian missile that would target Israel would probably go over Syria, south of the Turkish radar site.  It would be easier for technicians to track the precise location of the missile in milliseconds because they would be seeing the side view of it from Turkey, rather than a frontal view from Israel.  But Turkey is now planning to hinder such cooperation.  This inhibits protection for Israel from Iran's ballistic missile arsenal. 

Furthermore, Turkey has said it will not identify Iran as the primary target of its missile shield, nor will Turkey provide Israel with real-time information gleaned from its radar.  In the event that one of Iran's missiles is launched against Israel, Turkey could share radar data with Iran.  This would allow Iran to fine-tune its target. 

Earlier this year, as the relationship between Israel and Turkey deteriorated both diplomatically and militarily, Israeli officials voiced concerns about sensitive military information that Turkey may have already shared with Israel's enemies.  Turkey's refusal, now, to participate with Israel on missile defense, and the possibility that Iran will take advantage of this, has Jerusalem leaders even more worried. 

Efraim Inbar is a professor in political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the director of its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.  Inbar recently spoke to this writer and offered his advice for Israeli leaders.

"Don't trust the Turks with anything now," he declared.  "We want cooperation with the U.S., but the Americans want to continue with Turkey, and we will try to convince them to limit this cooperation that concerns Israel ... I think that the Americans are closing their eyes.  Some of them do understand the problematic stance of Turkey.  And, others simply ignore it.  Like an ostrich they put their head in the sand."  Inbar believes that eventually Washington will listen to Jerusalem and limit ties with the current Turkish government.

Mr. Scheinmann offered his assessment on the American-Turkish relationship in regard to missile defense.  "The U.S. ought to be concerned about what is going on in Turkey and how it affects American policy ... The behavior of the Turkish government is antithetical to American policies in the region.  Why did the U.S. pick Turkey?  The system is a long way from being operational.  Maybe, the Turkish government will look differently in five years' time."  Scheinmann added that the U.S. didn't have a lot of options in the region in terms of where to place its missile defense system.

In the meantime, Iran is expected to continue to work at developing ballistic missiles that will, eventually, have the capability of adding a nuclear, chemical, or biological warhead.  Iran already has the ability to reach Israel, European shores, and U.S. troops stationed in the Gulf region with its long-range missile arsenal.  It is just a matter of time before WMDs will function as payloads aboard these missiles.

International cooperation on missile defense has become a key priority for the White House, and the Obama administration is spending much time and money focusing on countering the Iranian threat.  Yet experts on missile defense admit that time is growing short.  Iran seems intent on advancing at a quicker rate than the West's ability to work with its allies and defend the region's vulnerable skies -- especially those skies over Israel.

C. Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.