Germany Choosing Arrow 3 Missile Defense System Would Be A Big Deal
Germany is poised to become the first export operator of Israel’s Arrow 3 ballistic missile defense system as it overhauls its military.
There has been a flurry of reports indicating that Germany has chosen the Israeli-made Arrow 3 missile defense system as part of a major overhaul of its armed forces, something that has been driven to a considerable degree by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year. Such a deal, should it go through, would provide a unique kind of anti-ballistic missile capability in Western Europe, marking the first export sale of the Arrow 3 and further cementing military relations between Germany and Israel.
Earlier this week, during a visit to Berlin, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid confirmed that Germany was in talks to buy the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Arrow 3, but there was no mention made of how many systems might be acquired or the costs involved. However, media reports have described a potential price tag of around $2 billion.
“Israel ... will play a part in building Germany’s new defense force, mainly in the field of air defense,” Lapid said, during a joint press conference with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Lapid added that Israel has a “total commitment to the safety of Germany, to the safety of Europe, [and] to the ability of liberal democracies to defend themselves.”
For his part, Scholz said that Germany was looking to bolster its ground-based air defenses in the future and is “very keen to work with Israel on that.” The German leader described the Arrow 3 as a “very effective product.”
Separately, an unnamed German government source told the Reuters agency that “there is the plan to buy Arrow 3, but nothing is signed.” Lapid also noted that any such sale to Germany would be a “future possible deal.” Bloomberg also reported that Berlin had made a “preliminary decision to buy” the Israeli system.
In fact, back in 2019, Israeli officials were talking up the export potential of the Arrow 3, although at that time no particular countries were named. “There is an interest regarding possible exports of the Arrow 3 system overseas,” an official from the Israel Missile Defense Organization told reporters. Clearly, the security environment in Europe has changed significantly since then, however.
IAI, together with Boeing, has been developing Arrow 3 since 2008 with considerable financial and other support from the U.S. government. That support has also extended to ongoing development and test work, including live-fire trials in Alaska. The Arrow 3 entered operational service with Israeli in January 2017 and the system shot down a Syrian surface-to-air missile some three months later.
The War Zone has examined in the past how the Arrow 3 system works, and you can read more about its capabilities here. In summary, the system was developed as the uppermost tier of Israel’s ballistic missile defense and general air defense shield. As such, its interceptor component is designed to carry a kinetic kill vehicle outside of the earth’s atmosphere (exo-atmospheric), where it physically slams into the target, destroying it in its mid-course flight phase.
The primary intended targets of the Arrow 3 are all kinds of ballistic missiles, including the most destructive intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, flying at very high altitudes and at extremely high speeds. Targeting ballistic missiles outside of the atmosphere provides an additional degree of safety, especially when it comes to weapons that may well be carrying nuclear warheads, or even biological or chemical payloads.
In Israeli service, the Arrow 3 primary role is providing a defense against nuclear-armed ballistic missile threats emanating from Iran. The overall system also includes Elta’s L-band Green Pine family of active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars used for target acquisition. While unclear if Green Pine would be part of a German Arrow 3 deal, the system can also be used in conjunction with other sensor systems, like the U.S. AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar and even space-based early warning satellites as part of a wider missile defense network.
From a German perspective, the Arrow 3 would form a defensive umbrella against primarily Russian ballistic missile attacks. The Kremlin is continuing to invest heavily in its strategic missile arsenal, including a new generation of ICBMs. These include the Sarmat heavy ICBM that’s intended to replace Cold War-era SS-18 Satan and which is expected to carry up to 10 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Other recent additions to the Russian ICBM force include the mobile and silo-based RS-24 Yars, also with multiple warheads. Shorter range systems are also of great concern, which Arrow 3's capabilities bleed into.
As well as representing a huge upgrade to the German ground-based air defense system, currently spearheaded by the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air missile, which has a more limited missile defense role as well, the Arrow 3 would have wider significance in terms of cooperative European and NATO air defense.
Speaking last month, Scholz said that he was not only committed to upgrading its own air defenses but that Germany would “from the very start, design that future air defense in such a way that our European neighbors can be involved if desired.” In that same speech, Scholz mentioned allies including Poland, the Baltic states, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Nordic countries.
An idea of the collaborative air defense vision that Scholz put forward was also provided by the former boss of the German Luftwaffe, Lt. Gen. Karl Müllner, speaking to Breaking Defense. As well as confirming German plans to buy the Arrow 3, Müllner said that ballistic missile defense, in general, would be the cornerstone of any wider European air defense initiative. However, exactly how that project would pan out is less clear, with Müllner suggesting that different European nations would have to decide to what degree they wanted to participate and whether that would involve investing in air defense hardware, providing funding, or being involved in decision-making.
Exactly how neighboring countries might join the German Arrow 3 program remains, for now, “an interesting question,” German defense journalist and commentator Thomas Wiegold told The War Zone.
By introducing Arrow 3 as a component of a pan-European air defense system, it could offer coverage over allied countries in the region. It could also perhaps be partly funded by other countries in a collaborative arrangement. This is something that is becoming increasingly popular with the German Armed Forces, which are involved in current joint programs with other European NATO countries that operate A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. Looking further ahead, Germany is also deeply involved in the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a next-generation air combat program pursued by France, Germany, and Spain.
These, and other projects, are partly being driven by an increase in German defense spending that’s come as part of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Scholz’s coalition administration allocated around $100 billion to help modernize its armed forces, after many years in which there had been criticism that Berlin wasn’t taking defense spending seriously, including threats from then President Trump if the country didn’t increase its defense budget.
At the same time, Germany buying Arrow 3 could be bad news for Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that had been in the running for the missile defense requirement. However, THAAD's capabilities are not the same as Arrow 3, with the system being focused on terminal defense against short-to-intermediate-range ballistic missiles. So, it could still play into a layered missile defense concept, but purchasing two systems seems fairly unlikely.
Earlier this year, Germany did decide to buy Lockheed Martin’s F-35A stealth fighters to rearm the Luftwaffe with a new, nuclear-capable warplane. On the other hand, Lockheed has missed out on the chance to provide Germany with its new heavy-lift helicopter. In June, the government selected Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook for the requirement, rejecting the rival CH-53K King Stallion from Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary.
Reportedly, there is concern among Israeli officials that the U.S. government could still block a Germany Arrow 3 purchase.
Since Arrow 3 has been developed with significant U.S. funding input, Washington is able to veto an export sale. On the other hand, according to anonymous sources cited by Breaking Defense, the United States “has given its tacit approval for a sale to Germany if Berlin and Jerusalem can come to terms.”
Should the German and Israeli governments successfully complete negotiations on a deal, the next step would be to submit it to the budget committee of the German federal parliament, which has to approve every procurement worth more than €25 million (roughly $25 million at the current rate of exchange). Regardless of how long this process might take, the fact is that the $100 billion top-up is a one-off, and this additional funding is set to run out by about 2025.
With continued tensions in Europe on the back of an increasingly aggressive and expansionist Russian posture, it’s hardly surprising that the Kremlin’s ongoing ballistic missile developments are a growing cause for concern across the continent. After all, for a good decade or so, ballistic missile defense was not such a big issue in Europe, with few expecting that a conflict could be fought in the near future against a peer enemy. At the very latest, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February helped to change that thinking, although there were earlier warning signs, such as the Russian deployment of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, allowing them to reach targets across much of Europe.
With that in mind, Germany’s efforts to enhance its missile defense may well just be the first of similar initiatives in the region. With the high cost of fielding systems like the Arrow 3, collaborative ventures such as that which Scholz seems to be pitching could also be the order of the day.
However, the protracted nature of defense procurement, especially in Germany, means it will likely be some time before it’s confirmed whether or not Berlin actually becomes the first export customer for the Arrow 3.
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