WASHINGTON — Two Patriot air defense batteries designed to protect Israel against an Iraqi missile attack arrived in the Mideast nation this week, but neither the weapons nor the crews that will operate them will be ready for several months, U.S. sources said Friday.
As the potential for a missile attack on Israel mounts with the growing prospect of war in the Persian Gulf, the sources warned that the U.S.-made weapons will not be fully operational until three months after a war in the region could begin.
The two Patriot batteries, which were rushed out of U.S. stocks in December under an emergency order issued by President Bush, arrived in Israel on Thursday, according to sources. Each battery consists of 16 launchers and missiles used to shoot down aircraft.
But a team of 50 Israeli air force specialists being trained in Texas to man the missile batteries will not complete preliminary instruction before mid-February, the sources said. And it will be at least April before Israel receives the special missiles and software needed to shoot down incoming Iraqi Scud missiles and before the crews are fully trained to use them.
"There's a gigantic timing problem here," said one Pentagon official. "This was being sent to them with all of these potential Mideast crises in mind, and the train is about to leave the station. Now, either other measures are going to be required to solve the problem, or we're going to have to ignore it."
American officials believe that if the United States and its allies try to dislodge Iraqi troops from Kuwait by force, a desperate Saddam Hussein would likely strike at Israel with 350-mile-range Soviet-made Scud missiles tipped with chemical warheads.
Less than two weeks ago, Hussein threatened that if his troops are attacked by U.S. and Arab allied forces, "Tel Aviv would receive the first blow"--even if Israel did not join in the hostilities. The threat followed a series of earlier Iraqi warnings that Israel would be the target of Iraqi missiles armed with deadly nerve agents.
After Hussein threatened last April to "make the fire eat up half of Israel," Israeli leaders asked the United States to accelerate the shipment of the weapons.
American officials and longtime Mideast watchers said that Israel's inability to depend on the Patriot system for protection is certain to make Israel more dependent on U.S. warning of an Iraqi missile attack and on a strategy of preemption by its own air force.
"The Israeli air force still has its offensive option, and that is what their response is going to be postulated on," said one American source with close ties to Jerusalem.
According to Elisa Harris of the Brookings Institution, the absence of an Israeli antimissile system will likely add to pressures on Washington to destroy Iraq's missile launchers before they could be used to fire missiles toward Israel. To assure its ability to do so, the United States would need to initiate an attack if hostilities appear imminent.
"The United States would like to take care of the problem so that the Israelis don't have to," said Harris, an expert on the proliferation of missile technology. "The idea is to keep them out of this war completely." Israel's continuing vulnerability to Iraqi missiles may prompt Washington to delay the start of a war until Israel's Patriots are fully operational, despite threats of much earlier military action. The Bush Administration, citing the U.N. Security Council resolution that set the deadline, has warned that Iraq must withdraw its troops from Kuwait by Jan. 15 or face a U.S.-led offensive.
The Patriot missile system was initially designed to shoot down aircraft. In recent years, however, the U.S. Army has improved the missiles and their software to create what some call a "mini-Star Wars" system capable of picking off tactical ballistic missiles while in flight.
Israel's current antiaircraft defense system is built around the U.S.-made Hawk missile, which is designed to shoot down medium- and low-altitude aircraft but not missiles.
While the Patriot batteries in Israel will be capable of shooting down planes in mid-February, the additional missiles and software needed to convert them to an antimissile system are not expected to arrive before April. At that point, Israeli crews would complete their specialized training on the system, sources said.
The American sources said that the United States has not yet provided Israel the modernized "Pac-2" antimissile missiles because U.S. Patriot units in Saudi Arabia have been given priority to receive the weapons as they come off the production line. The Patriots are in wide use protecting U.S. and allied troops throughout Saudi Arabia.
Times staff writer William Tuohy in Jerusalem contributed to this story.