A Syrian Scud Threat

Lally Weymouth - The Washington Post - August 18, 1992

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid a triumphant visit to the United States last week, securing at long last a commitment for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees and prompting the Bush administration to terminate its frequently harsh anti-Israel rhetoric. The new prime minister apparently developed a friendly and easy relationship with President Bush during his short stay at Bush's Kennebunkport vacation retreat.

There, Israeli and American officials argued late into the night over the loan guarantees. Rabin has agreed to a temporary freeze on new West Bank Jewish settlements, provoking a major domestic outcry from Israeli right-wingers on the eve of his departure for America. But the prime minister would not pledge permanently to halt settlements, he deems vital to Israel's security.

Eventually, American officials concluded that Israel was not prepared to make further settlement-related concessions and agreed nonetheless to sign off on the loan guarantees.

The Israeli delegation even raised the delicate subject of clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy employee convicted of stealing classified documents and giving them to Israel. Pollard is now serving a life sentence in a federal prison.

Curiously, an issue of enormous concern both to U.S. and Israeli officials received virtually no public attention during the Rabin visit. Americans and Israelis have been fixated for more than a year on what they view as a major common danger - a threat both to Israel's security and to that of U.S. troops stationed on the ground in the Middle East.

The danger? Last year, when Iraq launched Scud missiles at Israel, American and Israeli military planners learned that the Patriot missile wasn't as effective as U.S. planners had hoped. It seems the Scuds tended to break into pieces in flight. And the Patriot - able to hit only one target - didn't "know" which piece carried the devastating warhead.

The problem remains unsolved. Neither the Advanced Patriot nor the Israeli-made Arrow missile will perform against Scuds if the Scuds break up or, early in flight, disperse bomblets carrying, say, nerve gas or the virulent poison anthrax. Indeed, the Patriot will likely hit only a few of the bomblets, allowing the rest to land. The potential consequences for the population of Tel Aviv or any other Israeli city are evident. Obviously, the same danger exists if the bomblets land on U.S. troops stationed in the region.

Syria is acquiring a goodly number of highly accurate Scud C Missiles. Recently, moreover, Damascus tested the Scud C's at a site south of the Syrian capital. Apparently, the Scud C has a 500-mile range, which means it can reach all of Israel and parts of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other key targets. Syria purchased its Scud C's from North Korea. First they were taken to Tehran; then the Scuds were transported to Syria.

After the Gulf War, Israel proposed - and the United States agreed - to work to develop a joint deterrence program. The answer consists in devising a method to stop the missiles during their boost phase. (The Scuds can't disperse the bomblets until the boost phase is over.) The only near-term solution that's been identified rests on deploying a squadron of drones, unmanned vehicles each carrying a miniaturized interceptor - a device that can locate the oncoming missile, steer into it and destroy it by sheer force of impact.

The drones, for example, could fly near the Syrian border, protecting Israel from attack. According to U.S. officials, they might also be used by Japan or South Korea to prevent an attack from North Korea. U.S. planners were concentrating on this critical security problem until very recently. In April, they received what is known as a "stop work directive" relating to the project from a Senate staffer, Peter Lennon, an aide to Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

The Pentagon, however, has continued to pursue the program. But House Democrats have already acted to prohibit the Defense Department from spending additional money on the project during fiscal year 1993. At this juncture, only direct action by the Senate can save this essential program.

Without it, Israeli civilians, Saudis and American troops all face a common threat, death by gassing - a death so horrible civilized nations have banned the use of poison gas.