Barack Obama’s decision to scrap the plan to position a missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic could ultimately prove a boost to Israel’s defences.
The change in American plans was motivated by President Obama’s desire to placate the Russian leadership but there also remains a need to mount a defence against nuclear missiles that may be launched in future from Iran and other rogue nations in the east.
The geopolitical problems inherent in stationing the radar systems and missile launchers in central Europe are not going away either. Russia, for reasons of prestige and maintaining at least a semblance of influence along its borders, will always make things difficult.
Even countries outside Russia’s orbit are risky. Today’s pro-US government, which welcomes American missile bases, can be replaced tomorrow by a populist “anti-imperialist” administration that will order installations, that cost billions to build, off its soil.
The obvious answer for the American defence establishment is to continue developing its mobile and especially ship-borne anti-ballistic systems. The Americans already have the THAAD missile system than can be quickly deployed in tension areas, as a battery was two months ago in Hawaii, along with a sea-based radar to counter a possible missile threat from North Korea.
The ship-borne Aegis system can fire SM-3 missiles to a range of over 500 km. Another project, still at the experimental stage, is airborne laser interceptor systems on specially adapted Jumbo Jets. They could also be part of a global defence network.
More systems such as these, with improved range and tracking capabilities, could be swiftly deployed around the world to defend both the United States and its allies.
The fifth biannual Juniper Cobra exercise, due to take place next month, is a prime example of such a strategy in practice. This joint exercise of American and Israeli anti-missile systems is aimed at increasing interoperability and creating a joint defence doctrine against a missile attack on Israel. It could create a pattern of cooperation that the Americans could recreate around the world.
Israel is already in the advanced stages of developing and deploying its own multi-layered missile defence. But much of the cutting-edge technology is untested. None of the three missile systems involved have ever been tried in battle and their ability to confront a multiple attack will remain unknown until the moment of truth. A combination of defence systems using different interception techniques would greatly minimise the chance of one missile getting through with catastrophic results.
Despite the diplomatic tension between the two governments, this year’s Juniper Cobra will be the largest joint military exercise ever between them.
The military establishments of both countries realise that missile defence is virgin territory that necessitates cooperation and versatility.
While the decision to give up on a fixed system in central Europe might be for reasons of American diplomatic weakness, the possible result, a greater presence of ship-borne defence missiles on the high seas, will be a welcome development for America’s allies around the world — chief among them Israel.