* Kamikaze interceptor warhead said to manoeuvre in space
* US sees integrated shield as damper to Mideast escalation
* Hezbollah builds up missile arsenal amid Syrian civil war
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Jan 3 Israel successfully tested its
upgraded Arrow missile interceptor for the second time on
Friday, pushing forward work on a U.S.-backed defence against
ballistic threats it sees from Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas as
well as from Iran and Syria.
One of several elements of an integrated Israeli aerial
shield, Arrow III is designed to deploy kamikaze satellites -
known as "kill vehicles" - that track and slam into ballistic
missiles above the earth's atmosphere, high enough to safely
disintegrate any chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.
Iran and Syria have long had such missiles, and Israel
believes some are now also possessed by their ally Hezbollah,
whose growing arsenal in Lebanon, stocked in part by Damascus,
preoccupies the Israelis as their most pressing menace.
Friday's launch of an Arrow III interceptor missile over the
Mediterranean was the second flight of the system, but did not
involve the interception of any target, officials said.
Israel deployed the previous version, Arrow II, more than a
decade ago, rating its success in live trials at 90 percent.
"The Arrow III interceptor successfully launched and flew an
exo-atmospheric trajectory through space," Israel's Defence
Ministry said in a statement.
Yair Ramati, head of the ministry's Israel Missile Defence
Organisation, told reporters that as part of the test, which was
attended by U.S. officials, the interceptor jettisoned its
booster and "the kill vehicle continued to fly in space (and)
conducted various manoeuvres ... for a couple of minutes".
Israel predicts Arrow III could be deployed by next year.
The Pentagon and Boeing are partners in the project run
by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
Arrow is the long-range segment in Israel's three-tier
missile shield. This also includes the successfully deployed
"Iron Dome", which targets short-range rockets and mortar bombs
favoured by Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza, and the mid-range
"David's Sling", which is still under development. They can be
deployed alongside U.S. counterpart systems like the Aegis.
In a Facebook posting, U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro called
Friday's trial "another step forward in US-Israel cooperation in
ballistic missile defence and ensuring Israel's security".
The United States and Israel have been jointly working on
Arrow since 1988. Washington says helping Israel build up the
capability to shoot down missiles staves off escalatory wars -
or preemptive Israeli strikes - in the Middle East.
Israel also sees it as a means of weathering enemy missile
salvoes while it brings its offensive capabilities to bear.
"Developing such systems will let Israel maintain routine
life despite the threats facing us, and will assist the IDF
(Israeli military) in prevailing in combat quickly and
efficiently, if required," Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on
Israel is assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal,
as well as delivery systems including long-range missiles, and
has been bolstering defences as potential threats proliferate.
It worries about Iranian ballistic missiles, whose number it
estimates at around 400 - especially given the possibility
Tehran could eventually produce nuclear warheads for them. Iran,
which denies seeking the bomb, is negotiating with world powers
about curbing its disputed nuclear programme.
The civil war in Syria has raised questions about President
Bashar al-Assad's control over his own ballistic Scud missiles.
Israel says Damascus has used around half of these against
Syrian rebels. Separately, Assad is decommissioning chemical
weapons with which Syria's missiles might have been armed.
Hezbollah is helping Assad battle the insurgency. Fearing
the guerrillas might get advanced Syrian weaponry, Israel
carried out at least three military strikes on suspected
Lebanon-bound convoys last year, security sources said.
Such efforts may have had limited efficacy, however.
Briefing Reuters, a senior Israeli official estimated that
Hezbollah now has between 60,000 and 70,000 rockets and missiles
deployed throughout Lebanon, including a few dozen
Syrian-supplied Scud Ds with ranges of 700 km (440 miles).
Hezbollah may also have hundreds of Fateh-110 missiles with
ranges of 250-300 km (160-190 miles), the official said. Among
the targets of the Israeli strikes on Syria last year, security
sources said, was a shipment of Fateh-110s meant for Hezbollah.
"It's the most significant threat facing Israel today," the
official said of the Hezbollah missiles.
"We believe more than half the rockets and missiles are
operational. They are on launchers, ready for launch. It's just
a matter of a decision."
Hezbollah confirms building up its arsenal since its 2006
border war with Israel. It does not give details of the arms.
The Israeli official, who declined to be identified by name
given the sensitivity of the issue, was circumspect on how
Israel's three-tier shield would function in a major missile
exchange, which single-interception trials do not simulate.
"You need to pass this test - of a few dozen of them
landing, in real time - to be able to speak about it with more
certainty," the official said.