WASHINGTON — The United States, moving to counter the spread of ballistic missiles throughout the Arab world, has decided to sell Israel a sophisticated new weapons system capable of detecting and shooting down tactical ballistic missiles, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
The decision involves an emergency transfer of specially designed Patriot air-defense missiles and also the use of intelligence from U.S. early-warning satellites to activate those missiles.
Some U.S. defense analysts said that the role of U.S. satellites in alerting the new anti-ballistic missile system would mark a deepening of the U.S.-Israeli "strategic relationship" initiated during the Reagan Administration.
The transfer also would mark the first time a superpower has introduced such a missile-defense shield to the delicate Middle East military balance.
Pentagon officials said that Washington and Israel expect to finalize the sale--worth more than $200 million--in the coming month. The missiles could be deployed by late 1991. That is almost a decade earlier than Israel now expects to complete work on the Arrow, its home-grown anti-tactical ballistic missile, or ATBM.
Even after the sale, the United States will likely play a crucial role in the system's operations, defense officials said. Gen. John L. Piotrowski, commander in chief of the U.S. Space Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that American early-warning satellites could detect Third-World missile launches and "cue" anti-tactical ballistic missile systems.
"The combination of the two (the Patriot sale and the cueing mechanism) would give them a modicum of defense," Piotrowski said.
During a visit to Israel in January, Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz hammered out some of the final details of the sale with Israel's defense minister, Yitzak Rabin. A defense official said that two Patriot firing units, with an undisclosed number of missiles, would be sold to Israel from the Special Defense Acquisition Fund. The fund has a pool of weapons set aside for emergency transfer to foreign countries that develop sudden and unforeseen needs.
The proposed arms sale would supplement $1.8 billion in U.S. military assistance earmarked for Israel in both 1990 and in 1991. The Pentagon would have to notify Congress of the proposed sale, but lawmakers are not expected to oppose it, say congressional and defense sources.
The forthcoming sale comes against the backdrop of an extraordinary surge of activity throughout the Middle East in developing and procuring tactical ballistic missiles.
In December, Iraq test-launched a ballistic missile, demonstrating an ability to build missiles with ranges long enough to reach Israel. At the same time, it boasted that it had built a missile called Tammuz with a range of 1,250 miles.
For a two-month period in 1988 during the eight-year-long Persian Gulf War, Iran and Iraq bombarded the other's cities with ballistic missiles with non-nuclear warheads; in the so-called "war of the cities" in March and April of that year, Iraq alone lobbed almost 200 ballistic missiles at Iran. That exchange of missiles proved to have devastating psychological and military effects, and the results spurred both countries' efforts to stockpile such weapons.
Israeli officials have since warned that ballistic missiles, for which Arab countries may have developed chemical as well as conventional warheads, could terrorize Israeli cities and paralyze Israeli air bases and military installations.
In the past year, Iraq, working with the assistance of several European firms, has completed construction of a missile production complex that could turn out large numbers of new missiles and the solid-fuel propellant to power them.
According to Seth Carus, a missile proliferation expert at the independent Naval War College Foundation, U.S. and Israeli analysts believe the new facility could begin production of Fahd ballistic missiles in the next two years.
Syria, too, has stockpiled a total of more than 50 Soviet-made Scud, SS-21 and shorter-range Frog 7 missiles, and has won help from North Korea and China in improving their range and accuracy, according to knowledgeable sources. At the same time, Syria, which fired 25 tactical ballistic missiles at Israel during the 1973 Middle East War, is negotiating to buy M-9 missiles, with a range of 375 miles, from China.
Saudi Arabia recently bought Chinese-made missiles, further raising Israel's fears.
While Israel has developed and tested the 930-mile-range Jericho missile, American officials said that Jerusalem has counted on its warplanes to balance opposing forces. If those forces could be grounded with missile-borne chemical weapons and cluster bombs, many U.S. and Israeli officials fear that the military balance could be dramatically shifted in favor of Israel's foes.