Israel Aims to Improve Missile Accuracy

Visiting the United States in 1987, an Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) official didn’t hesitate to answer a question about the accuracy he expected from future Israeli missiles: “A 1,000-kilometer missile should come within 50 meters of its target,” he said. This answer suggests that Israel may be working on “terminal guidance” technology which is similar to that developed for the U.S. Pershing-II missile in the 1970s, says a former U.S. official who was present at the conversation.

The now-mothballed Pershing II was one of the most accurate medium-range missiles in the world, able to fly more than 2,000 kilometers and hit targets with a 45-meter accuracy. Like Israel’s Jericho missile, the Pershing had two stages and ran on solid fuel. “The Pershing is probably more complicated than what the Israelis would go for,” says the former official, “but terminal guidance is a possible goal, using a radar-guided maneuvering re-entry vehicle.”

The U.S. companies that built the Pershing, and others making similar technology, should be aware that Israel may be shopping for technology to improve the Jericho’s guidance system. One industry source says two of the most difficult aspects of engineering terminal guidance are making the gyroscope for the inertial element and inventing software to run the system.

Helpful items for terminal guidance include radar technology, integrated sensors and on-board computer map-reading systems, all of which would require a U.S. export license if destined for the Jericho.

Israel may still lack advanced technology to improve the Jericho’s guidance. A 1992 Defense Department study, the Militarily Critical Technology List, found that Israel lacked a number of specialized devices to make and inspect parts and assemblies for gyroscopes and integrated sensor systems. The study also indicates that Israel lacks critical production equipment for high-precision bearings, useful in inertial guidance and tracking systems.

The recent decontrol of U.S. computers has helped Israel acquire advanced computing ability. Last November, the United States gave permission to an American supercomputer manufacturer to export the largest computer ever sold to Israel. The sale sparked concern in some U.S. agencies that it could be diverted for missile design. Although supercomputers perform many civilian functions, they are a powerful tool for developing both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles because they can simulate the implosive shock waves that detonate a nuclear warhead, or model the forces affecting a missile from launch to impact.

The United States has a history of strong commercial and security relations with Israel, which is not considered a “rogue” or terrorist nation. But missile-related exports to Israel are still controlled because Israel has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and is building nuclear- capable missiles. Nevertheless, U.S. export control officials do not seem well-informed on Israeli missile development, says the former Pentagon official.