TEL AVIV, Israel, March 2 (UPI) -- Israel is preparing a ground-breaking test of its advanced Arrow-3 ballistic missile interceptor, designed to shoot down Iran's Shehab-3b and Sejjil-23 weapons, despite reports the program is threatened by major defense budget cuts.
The Globes, an Israeli business daily, reported Thursday that "even as the Ministry of Defense widens its threats to cancel weapons development programs due to a lack of funds," IAI's Arrow Program Director Itzhak Kaya insists the Arrow-3 project isn't at risk.
"The program is on track as one of the defense establishment's more important programs, and it has high priority," Kaya said Thursday at the 52nd Israel Annual Conference on Aerospace Sciences in Tel Aviv.
In February, the Defense News weekly quoted the Israeli military's deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, as telling the Knesset a decision had been made to postpone purchase of Arrow-3 and another missile defense system.
"I'm unaware of any threat to the program's continuance," Globes quoted Kaya as saying.
He said the upcoming test will "confirm the Arrow-3's effectiveness." and stressed the system is "more capable than ever to deal with future threats."
Israel says it needs $3.9 billion to produce several batteries of Arrow-3, as well as other large sums for other components in a planned four-tier missile defense shield.
The United States, which has contributed some $160 million to Arrow-3, has agreed to continue funding the program, although there are doubts this will be so as the Pentagon introduces heavy implements cutbacks of its own.
With Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing government implementing major spending cuts to boost social programs, the Defense Ministry will have some $850 million, about 5 percent of its estimated $16 billion budget, slashed each of the next two years. Military sources say overall the cuts could end up totaling $2.4 billion.
IAI, the flagship of Israel's defense sector, and the Boeing Co. have been developing the Arrow-3, which is intended to destroy ballistic missiles in space as they speed toward the end of their trajectory. That's a major technological breakthrough that officials say will allow Israel to cope with the next generation of ballistic missiles.
The Arrow-2 variant, which was first deployed in Israel in 2000, intercepts the missiles once they've re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Arrow-3's longer reach gives Israeli forces an additional 3-4 minutes to intercept enemy missiles.
IAI officials say the two-stage, solid-fuel Arrow-3 will even allow the air force, which operates air-defense systems, to launch a second interceptor at a target if the first Arrow-3 fails to down it.
At those altitudes, hostile missiles will also come within range of the two Arrow-2 batteries deployed in northern and central Israel.
Another advantage is that 1.3-ton Arrow-3 can be deployed on the Israeli navy's advanced missile boats.
The Israeli media says Arrow-3 can also intercept missiles such as Iran's Fajr, the M-600, a Syrian copy of Iran's Fateh-110 weapon which can carry a warhead containing a half-ton of high explosives, as well as cruise missiles.
In addition to the Shehab-3b and the more advanced, solid-fuel Sejjil 2, Iran is believed to be developing a variant of the BM-25 ballistic missile it reportedly acquired from North Korea in 2005. It has a range of nearly 2,200 miles.
Arrow-3 is also designed to counter Syria's arsenal of Russian-made Scud B and Scud-C ballistic missiles.
Israeli media reports say the Arrow-3 program, jointly funded by Israel and the United States, will cost $700 million-$800 million. Each missile, smaller than the Arrow-2, will cost more than $2 million.
The forthcoming Arrow-3 test is expected to be within the coming weeks.
It's expected to involve the first actual firing of the system at a target simulating the characteristics of an Iranian ballistic weapon and employing the new Great Pine radar system. This is an advanced system evolved from the Green Pine model that's an integral part of Arrow-2.
Arrow program tests are usually carried out at the Palmachim air force base on the Mediterranean coast south of Tel Aviv.
All the tests so far conducted on the Arrow-3 program have involved simulated missile attacks to check out the system's detection and tracking capabilities. There have been no actual interceptions.
In January, IAI reported the Great Pine system successfully tracked a Blue Sparrow 2 air-launched target missile imitating an incoming ballistic missile.