An Expensive Bet: Making Sense of Germany’s Acquisition of Arrow 3

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Background of the deal

In response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Germany is bolstering its air defense capabilities. This commitment is exemplified through the establishment of the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) in collaboration with partner nations, complemented by the procurement of multiple air defense systems. Central to this strategic shift is the aspiration to deploy long-range missile defense systems within the Luftwaffe’s arsenal.

In response to this new requirement, the German Ministry of Defense is currently closing in on a final contract signature with the Israeli government and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the procurement of the Arrow 3 missile defense system. As a result, there has been an ongoing dialogue surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of this potential acquisition. This article seeks to offer a thorough examination of the Arrow 3’s capabilities, its potential applications, and the associated benefits and drawbacks linked to this proposed agreement.

Plans for fielding Arrow 3

After the recent U.S. approval German planners are now eyeing a contract signature by November 2023, with an initial payment of €560 Million to fund immediate production. The final acquisition price is estimated to approach four billion Euros, with funding provided by the €100bn special fund of the Bundeswehr. The cost will cover the delivery of 3 batteries with radar units, command and control, four launchers each, interceptors and necessary infrastructure. With an immediate production start and infrastructure work commencing on time, the Luftwaffe expects to receive it’s first battery by the end of 2025. The other two batteries are expected to join the service by 2030, with missile deliveries concluding the same year. The first unit will be stationed on the airbase at Holzdorf in the state of Brandenburg. The two other locations for stationing have not been decided yet, but planners intend on placing one battery in Bavaria and the final unit in Schleswig-Holstein, which would provide coverage for most of central and eastern Europe.

The system in question

The Arrow 3, jointly developed by the United States and Israel, is a missile defense system developed to neutralize medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. The system has been declared operational in 2017. Within the larger Arrow Weapon System, it is the interceptor with the greatest operational range, complementing the Arrow 2 system that has been developed to engage targets in the upper atmosphere, while the Arrow 3 missile functions as an exo-atmospheric interceptor. The development of the missile for Israel had started around 2008, when the U.S. proposal of a sale of the THAAD system was rejected in favor of developing a new solution. Since the very beginning of the development the U.S. government was heavily involved with both funding and development work. From 2008 to 2019, the United States has provided approximately $1.2bn for development and nearly $3.8bn towards the Arrow Weapons System in total. After a nearly decade-long development and testing phase with various missile launch campaigns, the two partner nations signed an agreement for full scale production of the system in 2019. The production work is shared between IAI in Israel and Boeing in the United States.

The main sensor for Arrow 3 is IAI’s EL/M-2080S Green Pine Block C long range radar system. The Green Pine system has went through multiple iterations, the current standard is represented by the Block C variant which has been fielded in 2018. The system is a fully digital Active Electronically Steered Array (AESA) radar operating in the L-Band frequency range. The antenna houses around 2500 Transmit-Receive (T/R) modules. This large architecture and the associated cooling contributes to the approximately 60 000kg of weight for the entire installation on a flatbed trailer. Therefore the radar can only be installed in prepared locations and is considered to be transportable, but not mobile. According to the manufacturer, the deployment of the radar can be realized in less than 24 hours. The radar can detect and track dozens of targets at distances over 1000km. Due to the specific challenges for a ballistic missile defense (BMD) radar, the system is capable of detection, tracking and discrimination of Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) and determining their respective impact locations. Additionially the radar is advertised to be capable of creating a situational awareness picture of satellites with accurate tracks. Green Pine also serves the simultaneous purpose of a fire control radar (FCR), as the Arrow 3 interceptor receives midcourse guidance to correct its trajectory toward the anticipated threat.

The Fire Control Center (FCC) serves as the centre for data processing, threat assessment, communication and mission control. The battle management system provides early warning, launch point estimation, and prediction of precise impact point. The system features manual and fully automatic battle management modes, controlled with several consoles inside a transportable container. Arrow 3 has also demonstrated the ability to plug into other air defense networks and several outside sensors such as the U.S. made AN/TPY-2 for testing.

The FCC and the launchers are connected by the Launcher Control Center (LCC). The compact truck-mounted container provides an interface between other system components and allows for launcher connection and system diagnostics.

Arrow 3 missile launchers are installed on flatbed trailers. Each battery has four launchers. The trailers house six sealed launch tubes holding one interceptor missile each. The hot launch procedure occurs in a vertical position to ensure a full 360° engagement envelope. The trailers are semi-mobile, however a dispersal is restricted by the required proximity to the LCC for a fibre-optic cable connection and the launch sites capacity support the hydraulic stabilized launcher.

The Arrow 3 missile is comprised of a dual-stage, solid-fueled propulsion system with an initial booster section and a dual-pulse second stage. Both stages make use of Thrust Vector Control (TVC) for improved maneuverability. The propulsion sections are paired with a separating kinetic kill vehicle (KV). The missile is stated to possess a flyout range of up to 2,400 km, however, its actual slant coverage might be somewhere between THAAD and SM-3 Block IA. The missile’s engagement envelope with regards to altitude is likely above 100 km. Guidance is handled via an Inertial Navigation System (INS) and midcourse guidance from the FCR or a linked outside sensor.

Unlike other KV designs such as the one used on the american SM-3 interceptor, the Arrow 3 KV has a rather distinctive approach. Instead of using several smaller thrusters for control, the kill vehicle achieves control authority with a single larger thruster with the ability to pivot. This reduces the complexity of the system. In order to keep track of the target an electro-optical seeker is placed in the front of the KV. Off-boresight tracking is realized with a gimbal installation of the seekerhead. Upon approach of the target, the vehicle uses the hit-to-kill interception method.

Threat spectrum

Having established the technical characteristics of Arrow 3, the possible interception targets can be examined. The initial set of threats shaping the operational requirements for the Israeli government consisted mainly of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) fielded by Israels‘ main adversary Iran. Among these are the Sejjil and Shabab-3 and its variants. Some of the MRBM developed by Iran are capable of delivering various payloads including MIRV, chemical or even nuclear warheads. Existing air defense solutions such as the Patriot or Arrow 2 have BMD capability, but only with a small point defense footprint and against ballistic missiles with limited range. Arrow 3 introduces the capability of intercepting the mentioned targets at long ranges high exo-atmospheric altitudes.

In the context of Germany, Russia can be seen as the main potential adversary. This is what causes controversy amongst observers who point out that Russia currently does not field any such missiles. The assessed main risk from missile strikes carried out by Russian Forces stems from types like the roadmobile 9K720 Iskander or its air-launched variant Kh-47M2 Kinzhal which have seen extensive use in Ukraine. The Arrow 3 system cannot intercept such targets, as the method of interception with it’s kill vehicle is only suitable for exo-atmospheric interceptions, which occur at altitudes that missiles such as the Iskander or Kinzhal do not reach throughout their approach. Since the defacto abandonment of the INF Treaty and considering the background of previous Russian/Soviet developments such as the RS-26 Rubezh or the RSD-10 missiles it cannot be ruled out that such systems may be re-entering the Russian arsenals.

However with current threats in mind the capacity to deter Russia with Arrow 3 remains very limited. The potential applications for the German Arrow 3 system at present would primarily revolve around its utilization in expeditionary roles within the Middle East or Asia, where longer ranged ballistic missiles are significantly more proliferated. In their home bases in Germany their purpose would be mainly relegated to use of the system’s radars as airspace surveillance, early warning and BMD sensors. The future use of Arrow 3 largely depends on outside developments. The system’s characteristics make it technically suitable to intercept most types of potential spaceborne targets. These range from satellites, spaceplanes used for reconnaissance or strike missions, delivery platforms for hypersonic weapons to future ballistic missiles.

Final remarks

By acquiring the Arrow 3, the German government undertakes substantial expenditure for a highly specialized capability. Whether the deployment of this system will yield positive results or not is yet to be determined, but the cost incurred will be significant regardless. As financial obligations are in place and U.S. approval has been secured, the consideration of allocating funds towards alternative air defense equipment like the Patriot system is becoming increasingly retrospective. The lack of transparency in the communication related to the selection of Arrow 3 further contributes to apprehensions about the utility of Arrow 3 for the Luftwaffe. Reaching a final and conclusive judgment might only be possible well into the operational lifespan of the system.

Former defense industry employee, currently serving in the German Armed Forces. Based in Bavaria, Germany.