In early May, the Clinton administration denied a request from Israel to sell its “Shavit” space launcher to the U.S. Air Force, which wanted to use the Shavit to launch small military satellites from U.S. soil. If the approval had been granted, it would have marked the first import into the United States of a foreign-made space rocket developed as a ballistic missile. The request went all the way up to President Bill Clinton because U.S. space policy requires a presidential waiver before a foreign rocket can launch U.S. government satellites.
The proposal sparked controversy among federal agencies, with the opponents of the deal arguing that it would undermine U.S. efforts to halt missile proliferation and subsidize Israel’s effort to build rocket motors capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
The Shavit, which is built by Israel’s leading aerospace company, Israel Aircraft Industries, launched Israel’s first spy satellite, the Ofek-3, in April of 1995. The Shavit’s two large rocket motors were developed in the 1980s to power Israel’s “Jericho-II” ballistic missile. “The Jericho-II is a Shavit minus the upper stage, which is replaced by a warhead,” a U.S. official told the Risk Report last year (Vol. 1, No. 5, June 1995). In 1987, the Jericho-II was tested over the Mediterranean to a range of more than 800 kilometers, and tested again in 1988 and in 1989, when it flew nearly 1,300 kilometers. The Jericho-II is mounted on a mobile launcher to enhance its military effectiveness; the Shavit launcher operates the same way.
A U.S. government analyst has estimated that as a missile, the Shavit could fly up to 4,500 kilometers carrying a nuclear-sized payload. In the 1970s, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) cited Israel’s Jericho missile program 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.”