Israel conducted a mysterious "rocket propulsion system" test earlier today from a base in the central part of the country. The few details that are available have prompted speculation that this launch is related to the development of a new member of the country's top-secret Jericho family of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
The launch occurred at Palmachim Air Base, which is situated south of the major Israeli city of Tel Aviv, on Dec. 6, 2019. Video and pictures subsequently emerged on social media showing a single long contrail rising from the base. Plane watchers using online tracking software had also seen flights headed for Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv move to different routes and clear a path in the Mediterranean Sea extending beyond the Greek island of Crete ahead of the test.
"The defense establishment conducted a launch test a few minutes ago of a rocket propulsion system from a base in the center of the country," Israel's Ministry of Defense said in a subsequent statement that did not even name Palmachim directly. "The test was scheduled in advance and was carried out as planned."
Avi Scharf, the editor of the English edition of Israel's Haaretz newspaper posted on Twitter that a plane belonging to Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) that is specially configured to record rocket and missile telemetry data was airborne at the time. He added that two of the Israeli Air Force's specially configured Gulfstream G550s, which the service operates in the Eitam airborne early warning and control and Shavit intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance configurations, also appeared to take part in the test, along with a number of C-130 Hercules aircraft.
It's hard to discern much from the available pictures and video and virtually impossible to estimate the rocket motor's range capabilities without knowing how the test article was configured and how high it flew before apparently plunging into the Mediterranean. However, how tight-lipped Israel is being about the launch, combined with Palmachim being the launch sites, does seem to point to a test related to the country's Jericho ballistic missile family.
Very little is known about these weapons, the first of which Israel developed initially with French and later American assistance in the 1960s. This was followed by the Jericho II, which IAI reportedly developed between the 1970s and the 1980s with American assistance.
Jericho II is reportedly a two-stage intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), meaning that it has a range of somewhere between 1,864 and 3,418 miles. Experts believe that Jericho II served as the basis for the publicly acknowledged Shavit series of space launch vehicles, which IAI produces and not to be confused with the aforementioned modified Gulfstream G550 intelligence-gathering aircraft.
Work on the Shavit family, in turn, reportedly contributed to the development of Jericho III, which may have two or three stages and is described as an intercontinental ballistic missile, meaning it has a range of more than 3,418 miles. There are reports that Jericho III first entered service in 2011, but it is unknown how many may be operational. All of the Jericho missiles are understood to be at least nuclear-capable, part of Israel's unacknowledged, but widely known strategic nuclear arsenal.
As of 2008, the Federation of American Scientists estimated that Israel also had some 50 Jericho IIs, though the 2016 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' The Military Balance, said only approximately 24 were in inventory. There are also reports that Israel may be in the process of developing a new Jericho missile, referred to variously as the IIIA or IV.
Beyond that, Palmachim is widely understood to be the center of Jericho testing, with the base also having publicly served as the site of a number of Shavit launches. It is an otherwise highly sensitive location, which Israel has sought to conceal on publicly available satellite imagery in the past, which also sits adjacent to the Israel Atomic Energy Commission's (IAEC) Soreq Nuclear Research Center. Similar to many American nuclear research laboratories, Soreq is involved in a variety of non-nuclear research and development, as well.
There are reports of at least two Jericho III test launches from the base, one in 2008 and another in 2011. Another "rocket propulsion system" test took place there in 2017, which may also have been tied to Israel's ballistic missile programs.
It is also possible that the latest test may be related to the development of Israel's upper-tier ballistic missile defense systems, such as the Arrow 3. The Israeli Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) tested an Arrow 3 interceptor at Palmachim in January 2019.
However, Israel is much more open about the development and testing of its missile defense systems, which it conducts in cooperation with the U.S. government and American defense contractors. It seems less likely that if the latest launch from Palmachim was related to work on a missile defense system, even a still classified one, that Israeli authorities would not have simply said so. It seems similarly unlikely that this level of secrecy would have applied to a propulsion system test related to the Shavit series or another space launch vehicle.
Whatever the case, the launch comes amid a flurry of reports about the increased potential of Iranian threats toward U.S. interests in the Middle East and those of its allies and partners, including Israel. Just this week, it emerged that the U.S. Navy recently captured another new tranche of Iranian guided missiles and related parts, including components that appeared to be for Noor anti-ship missiles, that were likely bound for Houthi rebels in Yemen. There have also been reports that Iran has been quietly moving short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq, where Iranian-backed militias could potentially launch them at American forces. Other media outlets have indicated that Iranian forces and their proxies have been increasingly using drones to surveil U.S. positions in unspecified Middle Eastern countries and otherwise making potentially worrisome moves within the region.
This week, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom also sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, which subsequently became public, raising concerns that Iran has been developing a nuclear-capable variant of the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile, which reportedly has a range of up to 1,200 miles, which is "equipped with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle." These three European countries, sometimes now referred to as the E3, said that this weapon would appear to be in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that prohibit Iran from developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Iran's position remains that since it denies it is developing nuclear weapons, none of its ballistic missiles are nuclear-capable.
However, Iran has been increasing its nuclear activities, especially with regards to uranium enrichment, in recent months, in contravention of the terms of an international agreement commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The United States withdrew from this agreement in 2018, leaving the remaining parties, primarily the E3, to try to salvage it. Amid increasingly harsh U.S. sanctions in recent years, Iran has stepped up the pressure in the deal's European members to make additional concessions.
It's very likely given the work that goes into planning missile tests that the timing of this latest launch from Palmachim was a coincidence. True or not, it has clearly sent a signal to Iran, nonetheless.
"Israel today tested a nuke-missile, aimed at Iran," Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter later on Dec. 6, 2019. "E3 & US never complain about the only nuclear arsenal in West Asia—armed with missiles actually DESIGNED to be capable of carrying nukes—but has fits of apoplexy over our conventional & defensive ones."
If nothing else, from the available evidence, there certainly are strong indications that Israel is working on new advances in its secretive ICBM arsenal.
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