As another war in Iraq seems to approach, Israelis can feel considerably more secure from missile attack than they did in 1991, when 39 Iraqi Scuds landed in Israel. The reason is the substantial improvement in Israeli missile defenses, an improvement that other nations understandably are seeking for themselves.
Among the first in line interested in Israel's Arrow Theater Missile Defense system is, not surprisingly, India. Though the debate over whether to allow the purchase to go forward has not been given much attention, it could have momentous consequences for both American missile defense plans and US strategy in South Asia.
The debate first surfaced this July, when the Indian government citing ongoing tensions with neighboring Pakistan publicly floated a request to Jerusalem for the Arrow system.
India has good reason for its interest. Pakistan, thanks to Chinese and North Korean assistance, is fast emerging as a major missile power.
According to recent reports, Islamabad's "Shaheen-3" rocket, touted as one of the world's most advanced missile systems, is about to enter testing by the country's armed forces. And in recent months, as tensions with India have escalated, Pakistan has conducted high-profile tests of its "Hatf-III" short-range and "Guari" nuclear-capable medium-range missile in an unmistakable signal to its regional rival.
For New Delhi, the lack of any comprehensive protection against Islamabad's burgeoning arsenal has made missile defense a top priority. Just days before stepping down, outgoing Defense Secretary Yogendra Narain publicly outlined his government's plans for a "sharp and visible" acceleration of anti-missile efforts.
Domestically, this has taken the form of an ambitious program to develop indigenous defenses. And internationally, India has initiated a serious dialogue with its newest strategic partner - Israel. The centerpiece of these discussions is New Delhi's acquisition of the Arrow, the world's only operational, fielded theater missile defense system.
BUT THE proposed sale of the Arrow is politically contentious. The system, jointly developed by Israel with the United States, requires American approval for export to third countries. Pentagon planners, who view India as a critical component in Washington's planned international missile defense architecture, are pushing hard for the sale. Foggy Bottom, however, has other ideas.
The State Department is concerned that a green light for the sale could ratchet up tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, and might encourage a South Asian arms race. So US diplomats are now lobbying New Delhi to drop its bid to acquire the system.
So far, the White House appears undecided on the Arrow issue. But Washington's wavering could turn out to have far-reaching consequences.
For one thing, other missile defense suitors like Russia are waiting in the wings. Russian President Vladimir Putin's upcoming December trip to India is expected to entail a major effort to expand the military relationship between Moscow and New Delhi. On the agenda are proposals for the construction of an integrated national architecture for India based around Russia's S-300VM air-defense system. Such a development could decisively take India off the table as an American missile defense ally.
Even more significantly, Indian officials are increasingly making clear that they view the Arrow issue as a barometer of the emerging strategic relationship between Washington and New Delhi. As one Indian policymaker recently put it to the Far Eastern Economic Review, "What does this new relationship consist of if the US does not deliver in areas of interest to India?"
A good question, and one with important ramifications for the US. Approval of the Arrow sale could put New Delhi squarely in Washington's corner, not only on missile defense, but on larger regional security issues as well.
In addition, arming India with the Arrow given New Delhi's deepening ties with Jerusalem could mark the start of just the international missile defense architecture that the Pentagon is hoping for. A perceived American ambivalence to Indian defense needs, on the other hand, could torpedo hopes for a warmer strategic relationship, much to the detriment of US plans in the Asia-Pacific. It might also strike a serious blow to the Bush administration's long-term plans for a layered global missile shield.
For President Bush, arming India with the Arrow would go a long way toward making his campaign pledge to protect the US and its allies from ballistic missile attack a reality. With so much at stake, the decision should be an easy one.