The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

How Israel’s premier defense missile system developed and eventually became the system being used to defend Europe.

The Arrow 3 missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles while still in outer space, is the most powerful and longest-range member of the Arrow Weapon System family. It is built to defend Israel against the most lethal Iranian ballistic missiles, with the capability to lock on, intercept, and destroy incoming missiles while still deep in outer space. That gives it the unique capability to destroy nuclear warheads with the fewest casualties and property damages on the ground. [1] Moreover, its ultra-high interception altitude results in huge, nearly continent-sized footprints (i.e., defended area). Those advantages, combined with the relatively small dimensions and relatively modest cost of the interceptor, make it attractive to other countries facing similar threats. It thus became the first of the Arrow family to be provided for the defense of Europe.

The Origins of the Arrow 3

The origins of the Arrow 3 program lie in Israel’s growing fear of Iran’s military nuclear program. This covert program was first publicly revealed in 2002 by a group of Iranian expats. But Israel’s concern became even more acute when the virulently anti-Israeli Mahmud Ahmadinejad replaced the relatively moderate Mohamed Hatami as Iran’s president. Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric calling for the destruction of Israel, combined with the overt long-range ballistic missile programs and the covert nuclear weapon program, was the cause of grave concerns in Israel’s government and the general public.

While the recently completed Arrow 2 system could intercept ballistic missiles fired from Iran, Israel’s military experts considered it insufficient against nuclear missiles since its interception altitudes were inside the Earth’s atmosphere, where the blast and radiation from a nuclear explosion could still cause severe damage on the ground. To address this shortcoming, a new missile that could destroy nuclear missiles on their way to Israel when they were still in outer space was needed. How to do it at an acceptable cost was solved by a pair of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) engineers, who conceived a unique, out-of-the-box, counterintuitive yet simple and workable solution. [2] Their invention – promptly patented by IAI – was first muted to the Israeli Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) in 2005. IMDO, in turn, adapted this solution as the basis for a new interceptor missile dubbed Arrow 3. IAI teamed with Boeing to apply for the development program’s financial support from the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA). While recognizing the operational need for such an interceptor, the MDA proposed to adapt either the Lockheed Martin THAAD or the Raytheon Standard Missile 3 for this mission. Detailed analysis showed that no US interceptors could satisfy the Israeli operational requirement. After describing Arrow 3 to the US Congress as “More advanced than anything we have ever attempted in the US,” MDA’s director approved a joint US–Israeli program. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2010 to launch the full-scale development program.

The longer reach of the new missile required a longer-range early warning and fire control radar. In response to this requirement, the original Green Pine Radar Systems, developed by Elta Electronics Industries for the Arrow 2 program, was upgraded to achieve enhanced detection and fire control ranges, the new version being dubbed Great Pine. Arrow 3’s first flight from Israel’s Palmachim test range was achieved successfully in 2013, and the first successful intercept test took place in 2015. The first production missiles were delivered to the Israel Air Force’s Air Defense Command in January 2017. Arrow 3 achieved full operational capability in the same month, and later that year, its development team was awarded the Israel Defense Prize. [3]

While Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 were jointly financed and developed by the US and Israel, it was clear from the start that the US never intended to use them for its own defense. Moreover, Israeli experts felt that the US would not encourage their export to any other country to forestall competition with its own sales of missile defense systems. The Israeli press of the time, while lauding the capabilities of the Arrow 3 to defend Israel against its most severe threat of putative Iranian nuclear missiles, was largely mute about potential sales to other countries. Yet, barely six years after Arrow 3 became operational, it is being exported to Germany in the biggest Israeli defense export deal ever. Two questions beg to be answered in the connection: How did it come about, and why?

Purchasing Arrow 3

The reply to the first question needs to refer to the Cold War and the subsequent breakdown of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. During the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, aka West Germany) was the European bulwark of NATO’s defense against a prospective Soviet-led invasion. The FRG was heavily armed, and its ground and air forces confronted Warsaw Pact armies along the East German and Czechoslovakia borders. The FRG invested heavily in air defenses and acquired no less than 36 Patriot systems from the US. This powerful array was deployed as a belt along the confrontation lines to protect against the anticipated Soviet air strikes on NATO’s rear areas. The Soviets, on their side, prepared to punch corridors for their combat aviation through the Patriot belt using hundreds of SCUD B ballistic missiles armed with conventional and chemical warheads. At the time, the Patriot was a pure air defense system with no capability against ballistic missiles. That compelled the US Army to embark upon the Patriot PAC 2 upgrade, enabling the system to intercept SCUD B missiles. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why West Germany, unlike other US allies and NATO members such as France, did join President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, alias Star Wars) in 1985, despite some serious reservations by its political and military leadership. [4]

When Israel too joined SDI in 1987, the two countries established a working group of military personnel and technical experts to discuss the missile threats and the technologies to defeat them, leading to some small-scale joint research and development programs. When Saddam’s Iraq attacked Israel with upgraded SCUDs during the 1991 Gulf War, Germany’s chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, offered assistance in defending Israel against ballistic missiles. However, Israeli hopes for German financial aid for its recently launched Arrow program were disappointed, and the promised assistance was fulfilled by deploying a German Patriot battery to Israel.

Nevertheless, the two countries continued to exchange views and information about missile defense programs. Germany’s military attaches were regularly briefed on the progress of the Arrow 2 program. It stands to reason that they were periodically briefed on the ensuing David Sling and Arrow 3 programs. According to Israeli media reports, Germany’s military was first introduced to the Arrow 3 concept 15 years ago, in 2008 – two years before the formal launch of the full-scale joint US-Israel program. Arrow 3’s huge footprint seems to have impressed the German military as an optimal missile defense system for a country of Germany’s size. [5] The outlines of a potential sale were defined in 2020. Yet two stumbling blocks remained to implement an the Arrow 3 deal with Germany.

The first was US permission to sell Arrow 3 to a third country. Like all other co-financed US-Israeli programs, such as Arrow 2 and David Sling, the two counties jointly owned the program information and hardware. They were neither allowed to disclose their information nor sell or transfer it to third parties without the other partner’s consent. [6] US permission to negotiate the Arrow 3 sale with Germany could not be taken for granted. If anything, the opposite was true. The US government policy at the time seemed to discourage competition against its own defense industries. For example, when Poland applied for the purchase of David Sling in 2014, it was rebuffed by the US government. Instead, the US sold Poland advanced versions of its own Patriot air and missile defense systems. As one unnamed Israeli official said: “The involvement of US technologies gives Washington an effective veto over the export of the system… we cannot sell everything we want to.” [7] It stands to reason that all exchange of information vis-à-vis Arrow 3 between Israeli governmental agencies and Germany’s military had to be approved by the US government ahead of time. While such approvals were obtained, this did not guarantee that the US would ultimately approve the sale of complete Arrow 3 systems since its own defense industries might have applied considerable pressure to veto it.

The second and even more formidable obstacle was the question of German financial means. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the Scud threat on Germany’s air defense belt evaporated. The subsequent unification of Germany created a financial burden that required a major diversion of funds from defense to the absorption of East Germany. Germany reduced its defense budgets from a peak of nearly 5% of GDP at the height of the Cold War (1963) and 2.5% on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall (1990) to 1.1% on the eve of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea (2014). That rose slightly to 1.3% on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. [8] Germany became practically disarmed. The number of operational Patriot batteries dropped from 36 to 11. [9] In 2018, four years after Russian President Vladimir Putin realized the first step of his vision of a reconstituted Russian Empire by annexing Crimea, only 39 of the German Luftwaffe Eurofighters out of a fleet of 128 were combat-ready. [10] It seems that Germany’s national defense policy was based on the assumption that the end of the Cold War was indeed the “End of History,” and that Russia would henceforth acquiesce to its smaller and humbler role in the post cold war global arena. That optimistic assumption ignored Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, where he first elucidated his resentment of the US, NATO, and the post-Cold War world order. [11] Simply put, Germany by 2022 – as far as defense acquisitions were concerned – was practically broke.

Germany’s largely complacent worldview was shattered in one blow by Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Three days later, Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholtz (who, as finance minister from 2018 to 2021, oversaw the policy of military austerity), delivered his historic Zeitwende speech to the German Bundestag, where he promulgated a veritable U-turn in German national security policy. Putin’s Russia was to be resisted rather than coddled like before, Germany’s dependence on Russian-supplied gas would end, Germany’s defense budget would increase to 2% of GDP, and an immediate allocation of 100 billion Euros would be made for urgent defense acquisitions. [12] This, in turn, eliminated the second obstacle to the Arrow 3 deal: financial resources became promptly available. It now seems that missile defense was high on Germany’s rearmament priority list, and that Germany selected Arrow 3 over the US-made Lockheed Martin THAAD. The German chancellor conveyed that to Israel’s then-prime minister, Yair Lapid, during his visit to Berlin in September 2022. [13] Reportedly, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in person, solicited US approval of the sale in his May 3 meeting with President Joe Biden. [14] The German Bundestag approved a down payment of 560 million Euros in July, and the US approved the deal in August. Final contract negotiations between Israel’s and Germany’s governments are scheduled for November. The preliminary operational capability of Germany’s Arrow 3 array is scheduled for 2025.

Israel’s gains from the sale of Arrow 3 to Germany are obvious, as elucidated by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: not only the considerable income and profit to the Israeli defense industry, but also the international prestige that follows from being a supplier of cutting-edge technologies to one of the most industrialized countries in the world. Beyond that, Gallant expressed a sense of historical justice in that the Jewish State now provides for the defense of Germany, turning the tables, so to speak, on the dark chapters in German–Jewish relations.

The German Rationale of the Arrow 3 Purchase

For Germany, the acquisition of Arrow 3 is just one building block of the plan to revamp its own and its European allies’ air and missile defense as a response to the perception of the growing threat from Russia. The devastation wrought on Ukraine’s population centers and infrastructure by Russia’s ballistic and cruise missiles prompted Scholz in July 2022 to announce the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) – an ambitious program to create a European air and missile defense system through the common acquisition of air defense equipment and missiles by European nations.

The systems will consist of three layers. The lower one will be based on the German-made Iris T short-range air and missile defense system. The middle layer will be based on US-supplied Patriot systems, with Israeli-supplied Arrow 3 systems providing the upper layer. The emphasis is on early implementation, hence the reliance on already existing systems rather than on the time-consuming process of developing and certifying new systems.

The rationale behind this initiative is derived from three major considerations. First, the invasion of Ukraine proves that Putin’s Russia will not shy from using overwhelming force and risking a European war to advance what it sees as its strategic goals. That makes the prospect of a Russian–NATO war not as remote as it was seen barely two years ago. Second, the modernization of Russia’s armed forces after the recovery from the demise of the Soviet Union gave priority to precision long-range stand-off weapons. Consequently, Russia now possesses air-, sea-, and ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with various ranges that can cause critical damage throughout Europe without resorting to nuclear weapons. Third, the Ukraine war shows that ground-based air and missile defense (GBAD) is a decisive factor in modern wars, rather than the subservient role it played after the end of the Cold War. [15] Ukraine’s aging yet extensive GBAD has largely survived Russia’s effort to suppress it by precision stand-off strikes. Its continued effectiveness has been holding back Russia’s air power from wiping out Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructures and, with it, Ukraine’s power to resist. Simply put, as long as Ukraine’s GBAD stands, Ukraine stands. It is reasonable to assume that this lesson was one of the motivations for the ESSI.

The ESSI is not intended to build a missile shield over Germany but rather to build a German missile shield over Europe. While conceived by Germany, the ESSI will be a NATO asset. Nineteen European nations joined the initiative by July, including the UK, the Nordic and Baltic countries, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Surprisingly, it has also been joined by two non-NATO countries – Switzerland and Austria. [16]

France, however, voiced its objection to the ESSI. Instead, President Emmanuel Macron presented a French vision of “Safe Skies” to a 20-nation conference he convened in Paris on June 19. Some analysts see the French objection to the ESSI stemming from commercial interests: in its present architecture, the ESSI does not include France’s own air and missile defense product, the SAMP/T (equivalent more or less to the German IRIS T). According to the same analysis, Macron believes that the risk of a Russian military attack against a NATO ally is low; hence, time is not of the essence. Accordingly, Europe has the leisure to develop its own technologies and wait for their ripening, with no need to rush in non-European ready-made systems. [17] How the European nations will resolve this controversy remains to be seen, but it is a safe bet that some compromise will eventually be worked out.

It should be noted that the issue of Europe’s missile defense has been a matter of controversy for several decades. President Bill Clinton’s National Missile Defense (NMD) program in the 1990s initially aimed to defend the continental US territory against limited ballistic missile strikes. It was, therefore, deployed only within the US at two sites, one in Alaska and one in California. Using “US Only” basing was sharply criticized by some European NATO allies for abrogating the principle of common defense of all the alliance nations. In response, and to extend the missile shield to Europe, President George Bush authorized a third NMD site in Poland, with a radar deployed in the Czech Republic. To the utter surprise of the US and the other NATO allies, Putin was enraged. In his 2007 Munich speech, he equated establishing the NMD third site in Europe to the “Rekindling of the Cold War.”

The policy of Barak Obama, the next US president, was to “Reset” the souring relations with Russia and to enhance the US-European alliance. To that end, he canceled Bush’s third site and instead promulgated the policy of the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), a euphemism for downgrading the capabilities of the US missile defense assets deployed to Europe to a level that might hopefully be acceptable to Russia. [18] The new plan called for deploying existing tactical naval missile defense systems in two European sites, one in Poland and one in Romania. These sites would defend Europe against putative Iranian ballistic missiles. The PAA was received enthusiastically in Europe and endorsed at the 2010 NATO Lisbon summit.

Unsurprisingly, it did not mollify Putin, whose entourage called it “worse than the third site.” Nevertheless, the PAA was pushed forward by Obama and by his successors in office. The Rumanian site achieved operational status in 2016, and the Polish site is scheduled to become operational later this year. [19]

The PAA – a European missile shield contributed by the US and manned by American troops – remains a bone of contention between the Western alliance and Russia to this day. On the eve of invading Ukraine, Russia issued a list of demands from the West to assuage the crisis, including a demand for dismantling the PAA sites in Europe. [20] Be that as it may, the two existing PAA sites are NATO assets. Whether and how they will be integrated into or harmonized with Germany’s new ESSI remains to be seen.

In marked contrast to its violent condemnation of the US PAA plan, Russia did not voice objections to Germany’s ESSI. That proves – if ever proof was needed – that what troubled Putin had nothing to do with the deployment of missile defense in Europe, but everything to do with the deployment of US military personnel in territories once dominated by the Soviet Union.

What are the threats the ESSI is designed to defend against? Germany remains somewhat vague about it. The referenced threats seem to be the vast array of air-, sea-, and ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with various ranges now devastating Ukraine. Arrow 3 –  capable of intercepting ballistic missiles well beyond the Earth’s atmosphere – is particularly apt for countering Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. The air-launched Kinzhal is a ballistic missile that performs hypersonic maneuvering only when it is back in the Earth’s atmosphere. Arrow 3 can hit it while it is still in outer space and before it can start its hypersonic maneuvering. That provides a better chance of a kill than trying to shoot it down during its violent atmospheric maneuvers.

It stands to reason that the German planners also had in mind a prospective Russian nuclear threat when they decided to cap their shield with Arrow 3. The Russian targeting strategy vis-à-vis NATO consists of three stages. In the first stage, Russia’s massive array of precision stand-off weapons, armed with conventional warheads, will target key military installations within NATO, such as air-based and command centers, to reduce NATO’s abilities to carry out sustained strikes against Russia. The second stage will focus on military–economic targets and critical infrastructures. If both fail, the third stage involves transitioning from conventional capabilities to nuclear weapons. [21] It stands to reason that one of the main weapons to be used in this stage would be nuclear-tipped Kinzhals. Later, new Russian ground-launched nuclear ballistic missiles of 4,000 km. range or more could complement them. [22]

As discussed above, Arrow 3 had been designed to destroy nuclear warheads while still in outer space, where their explosion would minimize physical damage on the ground. That makes it eminently suitable for a sky shield built to defend NATO now and in the future.


The bold concept of the ESSI is an expression of a more assertive Germany, assuming its natural leading role in safeguarding Europe’s freedom, its liberal values, and its way of life. Israel is privileged to contribute its share to this noble endeavor. Arrow 3 was designed to protect Israel. That it was selected to defend Europe as well is a source of satisfaction and benefit to all involved.

[1] Some electromagnetic damage, though, can be expected.

[2] For a description of Arrow 3 unique features, see for example

[3] This description of the evolvement of Arrow 3 is based on Rubin, U., From Star Wars to Iron Dome: The Controversy Over Israel’s Missile Defense, Efi Meltzer Publishing House, 2019, pp. 173-175 (In Hebrew)

[4] For the controversy in Germany over SDI and the decision to join it, see Bluth, C., “SDI: The Challenge for West Germany,” International Affairs, vol. 62, No. 2, pp. 247-264, April 1, 1986.

[5]Almet, D.S. 14 Billion Shekel From The Germans: Behind the Scene Of The Mega Deal To Sell Arrow 3, Globes August 26, 2023 (In Hebrew)

[6] This is why the US is barred from transferring to Ukraine the two Iron Dome batteries it purchased in 2019. See Magid, J., “Senators say Israel blocking transfer of US-owned Iron Dome batteries to Ukraine,” The Times of Israel, June 27, 2023,,could%20fall%20into%20enemy%20hands.

[7] Williams, D and Shalal, A. “Exclusive: Israel’s David’s Sling Will Not Win Polish Missile Tender – Official,” Reuters May 15, 2014

[8] Military Expenditures (% of GDP)- Germany, The World Bank Data,

[9] Reuters, “Germany to end Patriot Air Defense Systems Deployment in Poland, Slovakia This Year,” April 23, 2023,

[10] Kirshbaum, E., “Broken Fighter Jets, Grounded Helicopters and Idled Tanks: Germany Military Are Ailing,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1918,

[11] Ignatius, D., “Putin Warned the West 15 Years Ago. Now In Ukraine, He’s Poised To Wage War,” Washington Post, February 20, 2022,

[12] “Time – Turn Speech,” see Policy Statement by Olaf Scholz, chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and member of the German Bundestag, February 27, 2022 in Berlin, German Government Website

[13] Assaf, U., “Germany to Buy Arrow 3 Missile Defense System – Report,” Globes, September 12, 2022.

[14] Uni, A. “US Reportedly Approves German Procurement of Arrow 3,” Globes, March 8, 2023.

[15] For a fuller discussion of the ESSI rationale, see Wachs, L., “Russian Missiles And The Sky Shield Initiative,” SWP comment No. 45, August 2023,

[16] Foulkes, I., “Neutral Swiss and Austria Join Europe’s Sky Shield Defense, BBC News July 2, 2023

[17] Gotkowska, J. and Maslanka, L., “France Against Germany’s European Sky Shield Initiative,” Center for Eastern Studies, June 22, 3023,system%20in%20cooperation%20with%20Italy.

[18] Bush’s planned 3td site deployed the same huge Ground-Based Interceptors already deployed in Alaska and California. Obama’s PAA planned to deploy the much smaller US Navy Aegis system with its Standard Missile 3 interceptor. Since the naval system is integrated into the structure of its host ship, the plan was to manufacture only those ship sections containing the radar, missile launchers, and control center and deploy them on land. This system, dubbed Aegis Ashore, is operated by US Naval personnel, even on dry land.

[19] For a more detailed history of US endeavors to build a European missile shield, see Rubin, U., The Missile Defense Program: Tensions Between the US and Russia, Israel Institute for Security Studies (INSS) memorandum no 107 March 2011

[20] Do Not Give Up Aegis Ashore in Poland, MDAA website February 18, 2022,

[21] See endnote 14

[22] During the Cold War, the Soviet Union deployed the land mobile 4000 Km range SS 20 multiple warhead nuclear missiles against NATO targets in Europe. The 1988 INF treaty eliminated this missile system. However, the Russians are currently developing the RS 26 “Rubezh” road-mobile nuclear missile with a range of slightly more than 5,000 km. Although formally categorized as an ICBM, it cannot reach the US from Russia, and its only conceivable target is Europe. That, in all probability, will be the SS 20 replacement.

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Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua