Israel seeks cruise missiles — sources

TEL AVIV (Reuters) — Israel has speeded up efforts to develop long-range cruise missiles of a type that could be used should the Jewish state try to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, security sources said on Tuesday.

Israel sent warplanes to destroy Iraq’s main atomic reactor at Osiraq in 1981 and has not ruled out similar action to prevent its arch-foe from getting the bomb should US-led diplomatic pressure on Tehran fail. The greater ranges to Iran’s nuclear facilities might make cruise missiles more practical than planes, but the United States has rebuffed past Israeli requests to buy them.

Cruise missiles are programmed to seek out and hit distant targets, flying low to avoid radar. But only the United States and Russia are known to have mastered all aspects of production.

“A top priority has been put on developing this technology, in light of the Iran situation, as well as improving the arrow,” an Israeli security source said, referring to the anti-missile defence system designed by state-run Israel Aircraft Industries. Jane’s Defence Weekly said in 2004 that Israel Military Industries had fielded the country’s first cruise missile, but its range was only around 300km.

There have also been media reports that goverment arms manufacturer Rafael created at least a prototype cruise missile by attaching a jet booster to its medium-range Popeye missile.

Israel asked Washington to sell it Tomahawk cruise missiles in 2000, during peace talks with Syria. Israel argued that it would need Tomahawks to make up for the loss of “strategic depth” were it to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

The request went unmet. Defence experts saw US reluctance to stir up jitters among Israel’s rivals in the Middle East.

“The United States would not want to export such a capable weapon at such sensitive times,” said Jane’s analyst Robert Hewson, noting that Tomahawks can carry nuclear warheads. Israel is believed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal.

Washington talks

Iran is high on the agenda for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on his current first visit to Washington. An Olmert confidant predicted that after a White House summit on Tuesday, Israel would renew its request for Tomahawks.

Israel might also argue that Olmert’s plan to give up parts of the occupied West Bank, with or without a peace deal with the Palestinians, would cost Israel strategic depth that would need to be balanced with better weapons.

“It (Tomahawk) was requested in the past. I believe it will be requested again, especially in light of the kind of threats Israel is facing in the future,” the Olmert confidant said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says his country seeks nuclear energy only, but has raised worries in the West by calling for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map.”

Some Israeli missile specialists, however, voiced scepticism about the usefulness of Tomahawks against Iranian nuclear facilities that are much better fortified than Osiraq was.

Israeli defence analyst Alon Ben-David suggested the United States might end up supplying the Tomahawks in order to scotch Israel’s rival cruise missile programme.

“If the Americans discover that Israel is close to a credible cruise-missile capability, I expect they will be quick to curb it by finally coming up with the Tomahawks,” he said.

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