A top Israeli Air Force officer provided operational context to the unusual Arrow intercept this past weekend of a Syrian SA-5 surface-to-air missile. The Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, jointly developed by the U.S. and Israel, was designed to fight Scuds, but not anti-aircraft missiles.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, the officer explained that the Syrian SAM launched against Israeli fighter aircraft “behaved like a ballistic threat [with] an altitude, range and ballistic trajectory” that mimicked the Scud-class targets that the Arrow 2 interceptor was designed to kill.
Defensenews.com reported that experts had wondered why Israel would launch Arrow against a missile headed for distant aircraft and ostensibly posing no threat to the homeland. They noted that the SA-5 is designed to either hit enemy aircraft or self-explode after a few seconds of engine burn.
However, it was later surmised that the Syrian-launched SA-5 could have been very old, and therefore did not self-destruct as designed. Since it remained in one piece, "all the weight was in the front and it represented a stable body, large wings and a tail … all the characteristics of a ballistic missile trajectory,” Uzi Rubin, a former director of Israel Missile Defense Organization, told Defensenews. It therefore looked like a Scud – and so the Arrow downed it.
“It wasn’t a Scud-class ballistic threat," the IAF officer acknowledged. "But from our perspective, it doesn’t matter if it was a SAM. Once it behaved like a ballistic missile weighing tons and with a warhead of hundreds of kilograms, we couldn’t allow it to threaten our cities and towns.”
Former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak leveled criticism of the usage of the Arrow system, indicating that Israel should have preserved its longstanding policy of ambiguity regarding periodic strike operations in Syria. However, the senior IAF officer waved off Barak's remarks, saying that Israeli air defenders didn’t think twice about acting against the approaching threat.
“No doubt about it, our mission is to detect and engage this threat," the officer said, "and that’s exactly what we did Friday morning. The mission of our air defense forces, under my responsibility, is to defend the people of Israel. And that was the case last week when Syria launched a missile that was seen as a ballistic threat to Israel.”
"Apparently the software of the Arrow system is flexible enough to cope with unexpected situations," he added. “It’s an impressive achievement for which we all should be very proud" – and thankful, it might be added.