PALMACHIM, Israel – Sending a message to both Saddam Hussein and its own people, Israel conducted an ambitious test of its anti-missile system on Sunday with the simulated firing of several interceptor missiles at once at incoming rockets.
Israelis have shown growing concern that Saddam would retaliate against them if the United States attacks Iraq as he did during the 1991 Gulf War, and a successful test of the Arrow system might help allay those fears.
The Iraqi capability of hitting Israel is limited, but Israel must be "prepared for surprises, things we didn't think about," air force commander Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz told Army Radio before the test.
During the test, a single missile contrail rose from the Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, over the Mediterranean Sea. Israel TV's military correspondent said only one actual Arrow missile was launched, and then three dummy missiles were fired to test their launchers.
Israel Radio reported that the test was successful, but Army Radio said the test results were still being evaluated.
Israel believes Iraq may try to attack the Jewish state with Scud missiles in response to an anticipated U.S. military campaign against Saddam. During the Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles with conventional explosive warheads at Israel, causing damage but few casualties.
The Arrow is the most advanced missile defense system of its kind in the world, and such a test has never been performed before, said Yitzhak Ben-Israel, who used to oversee the Arrow project at Israel's Defense Ministry.
"We want to test the ability of the system to fire many missiles at once against a barrage of Scud missiles," Ben-Israel told Israel Army Radio on Sunday. However, no actual target missiles were fired Sunday.
The Arrow is a significant improvement, Israel says, over the U.S.-made Patriot missile, which intercepts missiles at a lower altitude. The Patriots used in Israel in 1991 were largely unsuccessful, but a more advanced version has been developed in recent years.
In response to the Gulf War, Israel and the United States invested $2 billion in the Arrow project. The Arrow is designed to shoot down projectiles about 31 miles above ground.
In the coming days, Israel and the United States are to test Israel's entire missile defense system. As part of the drill, dozens of American soldiers will be manning several batteries of the U.S.-made Patriot missiles that have been deployed in recent months, Army Radio said.
The United States hopes that in strengthening Israel's defense, it will lower the probability of Israeli retaliation to a possible Iraqi attack. Israeli officials have said its response will depend on the casualties and damage caused by an Iraqi strike. An Israeli attack on Iraq could anger the Arab world and provoke widespread opposition to a U.S. offensive in Iraq.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Sunday that the United States is committed to targeting missile launching sites in western Iraq early in the campaign in an effort to stop Saddam from striking Israel.
"I say that everything is ready and in terms of the way in which the Americans are going to operate ... western Iraq as the threatening area is secured," Ben-Eliezer said. "If something abnormal happens, we still have our missile system."
Israeli officials have said they hope that any technical problems discovered in the test could be fixed before any Iraqi attack. Two Arrow batteries have already been deployed at different places in Israel.