In the Holy City, a convergence of faiths can ignite a storm. Jerusalem is all too familiar with the tumult when Passover and Ramadan coincide, as throngs of Jewish and Muslim devotees gather around the Temple Mount. A mere spark at Al-Aqsa Mosque may unleash a barrage of missiles from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria, as witnessed this past Easter weekend. Unsurprisingly, Israel continues to showcase the prowess of its air defenses, honed over decades.
The crowning achievement of Israel’s air defense arsenal is the Arrow system, designed for secure interception of ballistic missiles, even beyond the atmosphere. Developed since the 1980s in partnership with American Boeing (and funded by American taxpayers), Israel currently employs the third iteration. Previously, Israel and the US balked at the notion of selling the $3 billion system to countries like the UK, Turkey, Japan, and India for political or economic reasons. However, Germany may soon acquire the sought-after technology.
During a peculiar visit to Washington in early March, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is said to have obtained President Joe Biden’s approval after months of persistence. The hour-long meeting, devoid of press conferences, meals, or ceremonies, was followed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentionally ambiguous statements in Berlin a fortnight later, expressing Israel’s interest in the sale and an accord with Germany on the path ahead. Yet, no details of potential German reciprocation have been confirmed.
Historically wary of assuming military leadership, Germany faces mounting pressure to revamp its long-neglected defense apparatus. Following Russia’s assault on Kyiv in February, Chancellor Scholz pledged an additional €100 billion towards defense in a remarkable volte-face. Moreover, during a speech in Prague last August, Scholz vowed to spearhead efforts to plug the gaps in Europe’s air defenses. Subsequently, Germany, alongside 14 other nations, including the Netherlands and the UK, inked the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), recently joined by Denmark and Sweden. The eventual goal is to incorporate the initiative’s fruits within NATO’s umbrella.
The mandate of NATO’s ballistic missile defense mission explicitly targets threats emanating from beyond Europe’s confines, with the assurance that it is “not directed against Russia and will not undermine Russian strategic deterrence,” according to NATO. Historically tailored to address Iran’s missile capabilities, the mission has led to the establishment of two American-operated missile defense systems in Romania and Poland.
Although NATO’s formal mission remains unaltered, Russia’s war in Ukraine has shifted the geopolitical landscape. Russian Iskander missiles, positioned in Kaliningrad—over 500 kilometers from Germany—could reach Berlin in mere minutes. Germany, consistently mindful of Russian ire in its support of Ukraine, remains vulnerable in such a scenario. The American Patriot air defense system, acquired by Germany, lacks the capacity to intercept ballistic missiles carrying nuclear, biological, or chemical payloads at early stages. Israel’s Arrow 3 emerges as a potential solution.
Berlin envisions accommodating three radar systems, the Arrow 3’s command center, and multiple launchers. The system is also expected to extend protection to neighboring countries, provided they install a launcher. In a bid to augment the Arrow (range of up to 100 kilometers) and the Patriot (range of up to 70 kilometers), Germany intends to implement the IRIS-T, a new missile interception system with a 40-kilometer range developed by German arms manufacturer Diehl. As an act of solidarity, Germany recently gifted a battery of these systems to Kyiv and plans to expedite the procurement of several more for its Bundeswehr.
While Germany’s plan to incorporate three supplementary missile defense systems appears comprehensive, it falls short of a robust European missile shield. The European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) is merely a letter of intent for coordination and cooperation among 17 nations, potentially streamlining procurement, maintenance, and logistics costs. However, consensus on Germany’s selection of these three anti-aircraft systems among the signatory countries is far from certain.
Notably, Germany’s principal allies, France and Poland, have not embraced the German initiative. Poland prefers to arrange its air defense bilaterally with the US and the UK, while France champions bolstering the European defense industry, expressing reservations about American and Israeli equipment. In collaboration with Italy, France has developed the SAMP/T system, a European alternative to the Patriot, which Germany appears to disregard.
Finland, an ESSI signatory, demonstrated the current state of German leadership last week. A day after joining NATO, Finland announced its unilateral decision to purchase a distinct Israeli air defense system, David’s Sling, considered an alternative to the Patriot. With capabilities to intercept missiles from 40 to 300 kilometers away, the Finns deem the system well-suited for defense against Russian Iskander missiles. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also requested Israel’s assistance in acquiring this effective “sling.”