TEL AVIV, Israel, July 27 (UPI) -- The failure of an upgraded Arrow 2 missile interceptor in a test off the Californian coast was seen as a serious setback for Israel's main defense system at a time when Iran is accelerating its long-range ballistic missile program.
The Arrow test scheduled for July 22 was aborted on three occasions because of technical malfunctions, including communications glitches between the missile and its Israel-developed Green Pine radar, according to Israel and U.S. accounts.
The failure was seen as a morale booster for Iran. Three days after the test failure, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran's Islamic revolutionary Guard Corps, declared that Tehran was capable of hitting Israel's nuclear facilities and would do so if attacked.
"Our rockets have the precision capabilities to target all the Israeli nuclear sites," he said on July 25.
The Arrow 2 system is the long-range element in a multilayered Israeli defense shield to protect the country from missile bombardment. It is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles up to 700 miles from the Jewish state.
The failure of the California tests thus leaves the entire Arrow system unproven.
Both the United States and Israel hope that the upgraded Arrow system would serve as a deterrent to any attack on Israel. At the same time, the Americans hope that having a proven defensive system would also persuade Israel not to launch any pre-emptive strikes against Iran.
Israel currently has two batteries of Arrow 1 missiles operational and is reported to have 100 missiles available. It is upgrading this variant, but is also in the preliminary stages of developing a more advanced version, Arrow-3, with U.S. help.
Israeli officials played down the problems that plagued the California test, saying that these were to be expected in such a complex project. But the failure of the Arrow system over several days, with at least three delays, was a critical setback.
It was to have been the first test of Arrow's ability to intercept missiles at extreme range over the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The Israelis cannot conduct such tests at home because the geography of the Middle East limits the range of such operations.
According to U.S. officials, six months are required to prepare the complex system for testing, but neither the Israeli Defense Ministry nor the Pentagon has indicated a date for a new test.
In the test at the U.S. Navy's Naval Air Warfare Center/Weapons Division Sea Range at Point Mugu in central California, a Block4 M5 Arrow, co-produced with the Boeing Co. of Chicago, was intended to intercept a dummy Iranian Shehab-3 missile dropped from a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster 700 miles out over the Pacific.
The Shehab-3 has a range of 1,250 miles, capable of hitting Israel. Iran is believed to have as many as 100 Shehab-3s operational.
Iran says it has also recently test-fired a more advanced weapon, the Sejjil-2. This carries solid fuel, which means it can be launched swiftly and without any telltale pre-launch activity.
The Shehab, by comparison, uses liquid fuel and takes up to an hour to prepare for launch, which makes it vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. Thus, the Sejjil could, in theory, get much closer to Israel before Arrow interceptors could be launched than the Shehab.
For the Israelis, Iran's missiles and its nuclear program, with the potential to produce nuclear warheads, are its biggest security threat. Israel has made it clear it is prepared to mount military strikes against Iran to neutralize that threat.
Israel's concerns were compounded by the disclosure by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the United States would extend a "defense umbrella" over its Arab allies in the Gulf to prevent Iran from dominating the strategic, oil-rich region "once they have a nuclear weapon."
The Israelis saw that as an indication that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was resigned to living with a nuclear Iran, something the Israelis are not prepared to do.