How Far Can Israel’s Missiles Fly?

On April 5, Israel launched its first spy satellite, the Ofek-3, giving Israel the ability to photograph and gather intelligence data on its neighbors. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin applauded the event as “another great technological achievement for the State of Israel.” Israel is now one of only eight nations able to build and launch satellites.

Critics, however, are concerned about Israel’s military intentions. Configured as a missile, the powerful “Shavit” rocket that launches Israel’s satellites could hit every Arab capital as well as cities in Europe, Russia and China. “The Ofek project is not just about cameras in space; it’s about building missiles that project Israel’s military power outside the Middle East,” says Dr. Meir Steiglitz, an Israeli strategic analyst.

U.S. officials concur: “There is no real difference between large ballistic missiles and satellite launchers,” says one government analyst, who estimates that as a missile the Shavit could fly up to 4,500 kilometers carrying a one-ton payload. Israel’s missile warhead is believed to weigh closer to 350 kilograms, about one-third as much, which would enable the missile to reach targets even farther away.

Asked about the current missile ranges or military potential of the Shavit rocket, Israeli officials are silent. “The Shavit only flies vertically; it’s not a missile,” says one Israeli defense analyst. But current and former U.S. officials tell the Risk Report that the first two stages of the Shavit consist of Israel’s two-stage Jericho-II nuclear missile. “The Jericho-II is a Shavit minus the upper stage, which is replaced by a warhead,” one official says. Other officials confirm this, and add that the Jericho missile and the Shavit launcher use the same family of rocket motors.

The interdependency of the Shavit launcher and the Jericho missile reflects the blurry line between civilian and military development in Israel. The same high-tech companies that conduct civilian space research also work on sensitive military projects, including nuclear and missile development. Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), the main contractor for the Shavit space rocket, also builds offensive and defensive missiles. One clue the Shavit is derived from military rather than civilian technologies is the Shavit’s launching pad. The rocket is launched from a transporter-erector-launcher, or TEL, a platform more often used for mobile missiles than for satellite launches.

Israel’s quest for nuclear-capable missiles started in the early 1960s when it ordered a surface-to-surface missile from Marcel Dassault, the French arms-maker. The missile was reported to fly 500 kilometers carrying a payload big enough for a nuclear warhead. France is thought to have shipped about 14 of these missiles, which the West called the “Jericho,” before France imposed an arms embargo in the late 1960s. After the embargo, Israel began producing the missile on its own.

The story of Israel’s missile development is a tale of “a tentative, opportunistic program driven by fragile alliances and coincidences,” says a U.S. analyst familiar with the Israeli program. Progress was achieved by linking military and civilian objectives in an alliance of interests behind “spy satellites, civilian space, generic technological development, prestige, and finally … improved missile ranges.” Although the missile program received enough money to stay afloat, the analyst says, it “received nothing like the steady, well-funded, support that the nuclear weapon program did.”

Yet, Israel’s missile and nuclear efforts have always been linked. During the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, Israel reportedly readied Jericho missiles with nuclear warheads. And in 1974, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) cited the Jericho as evidence that Israel had made nuclear weapons the CIA said the Jericho made little sense as a conventional missile and was “designed to accommodate nuclear warheads.”

In the 1970s, Israel began work on a longer-range missile, the Jericho-II. By 1985, it was reported to be deployed on railway cars in bedrock caves in the Negev, and on trucks concealed in the Golan Heights. The yield of the missile’s warhead can be assumed to be in the hundreds of kilotons, a blast big enough to erase any Arab capital. The Jericho-II’s inertial guidance system was apparently developed with the help of components smuggled out of the United States, as were elements of the solid fuel propellant and the shell of the missile itself.

In May 1987, Israel tested an improved version of the Jericho-II that flew more than 800 kilometers. The missile’s second test was in September 1988 and its third in September 1989, when it flew nearly 1,300 kilometers, far enough to reach the southern border of Russia and targets in Iran. The same year, the Soviets told Israel that its Jericho missile was “a threat to…the oil fields in Baku,” and said the missile could bring Israel “consequences that it could not possibly handle.” Israel replied that it “had no intention of taking any action toward the Soviet Union.”

In October 1989, NBC News reported that South Africa had tested a Jericho-II the previous July. U.S. officials quickly confirmed that Israel was working with South Africa on development and testing of a missile that resembled Israel’s Jericho-II. They cited as evidence the similarity of the rocket plume of the missile tested in South Africa to that of the Jericho, as well as the similarity of the South African testing equipment and launch site to those the Israelis had used. NBC reported that a CIA document said the South African missile flew 1,450 kilometers southeast toward the Prince Edward Islands.

“It’s safe to assume the missile hasn’t been tested to full range,” says a former Pentagon official familiar with Israel’s program. One constraint has been Israel’s desire to avoid flying over enemy territory. But if the Jericho-II engines are powerful enough to launch satellites aboard the Shavit launcher, as U.S. analysts say, then the Jericho itself should be able to fly much farther than the 1,500-kilometer tests indicate. Judging from the power of the Shavit, a Jericho-II consisting of the Shavit’s first two stages should be able to fly 4,500 kilometers with a one-ton payload.

The question is whether Israel needs or will deploy such a long-range nuclear-strike force. “We are not aware they have any intentions of deploying such capability, or what the application would be even if they did,” says a U.S. official. “They already have the missile capability to strike any target of interest to them in the region.”

Israel’s Jericho missiles can already reach Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh and Teheran. To reach Tripoli, Israel has U.S.-supplied F-15 fighter aircraft which can make the roundtrip over the Mediterranean. If it wanted to, Israel could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile within ten years. Israel is now working on an improvement of the Shavit called the “NEXT” launcher. With each improved launcher, Israel will increase the potential range of its missiles.