Secrecy and Precision: The Jericho Missile Program Unveiled

Over the years, these missiles have evolved, and testing has indicated the continuous development of Israel’s missile technologies. The Jericho missile systems have not only contributed to Israel’s defence but also had regional and global implications, influencing geopolitical dynamics

A recent statement from an Israeli legislator has reignited discussions about the presence of nuclear weapons in the volatile West Asian region, with particular attention on Israel’s Jericho missile system.

Revital “Tally” Gotliv, a prominent Israeli attorney and member of the Knesset representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, sparked controversy with her recent remarks on a social media platform known as X, formerly Twitter. She proposed that Israel should contemplate nuclear warfare as an alternative to deploying extensive ground forces.

Gotliv expressed her viewpoint on the matter by emphasising the Jericho Missile system: “Jericho Missile! Jericho Missile! A strategic call for vigilance before resorting to ground forces. It’s a last-resort ‘doomsday’ option, in my opinion. May God protect our strength.”

This statement has raised important questions about Israel’s strategic considerations in the region and the complex issues surrounding the use of nuclear weapons.

All you need to know about Mr. Jericho (Missile)

Media reports have shed light on the Jericho missile system, a family of ballistic missiles developed by Israel since the 1960s. The name “Jericho” traces back to the initial development contract for the Jericho I, signed between Israel and Dassault in 1963, with its codename drawing inspiration from the ancient city of Jericho mentioned in the Bible. Much like other unconventional Israeli weapons systems, the specifics are classified, but there are some insights available through observed test data, public statements by government officials, and information in open literature, particularly concerning the Shavit satellite launch vehicle.

The subsequent development of the Jericho missile family is intricately linked with the Shavit and Shavit II space launch vehicles, believed to be derived from the Jericho II Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). These paved the way for the Jericho III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States assessed that the Shavit could potentially be adapted as an ICBM capable of carrying a 500 kg warhead over a distance of 7,500 km.

The South African missile program also provided additional insights into the Jericho program. The RSA series of missiles, particularly the RSA-3, are believed to be licensed copies of the Jericho II/Shavit, while the RSA-4 incorporated components of these systems in their stack, coupled with a heavy first stage. Following South Africa’s declaration and disarmament of its nuclear program, the RSA series missiles were commercialised as satellite launch vehicles, making their advertised specifications public knowledge.

The civilian space launch variant of the Jericho missile, known as the Shavit, has been a subject of interest for an air-launched version. This concept involves piggybacking the Shavit missile on a Boeing 747 aircraft, somewhat reminiscent of a U.S. experimental launch of the Minuteman ICBM from a C-5 Galaxy. This approach is a fascinating exploration of alternative launch methods and may offer advantages in terms of flexibility and responsiveness in deploying payloads to space. However, the technical and operational challenges associated with such air-launched systems are substantial and would require careful consideration and development.

The Jericho I missile system, publicly acknowledged as an operational short-range ballistic missile system in late 1971, was a crucial component of Israel’s defence strategy. Its specifications included a length of 13.4 metres, a diameter of 0.8 metres, and a weight of 6.5 tonnes. With a range of 500 kilometres and a circular error probable (CEP) of approximately 1,000 metres, the Jericho I was capable of carrying a payload estimated to be around 400 kilograms. Notably, it was designed to carry a nuclear warhead, although Israel maintained ambiguity regarding its nuclear weapons program.

During its initial development, Israel collaborated with France, with Dassault providing various missile systems starting in 1963. Test firings of a type designated MD-620 took place in 1965.

A significant historical moment in the Jericho program occurred in 1969 when Israel reached an agreement with the United States, committing not to use Jericho missiles with nuclear warheads as “strategic missiles” until at least 1972. This agreement reflects the diplomatic complexities surrounding Israel’s nuclear capabilities.

The Jericho I missile system is closely associated with the tense situation during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. At that time, Israel was facing surprise attacks from Arab armies on both its northern and southern borders. During this crisis, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan expressed deep concern to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, using the phrase “this is the end of the third temple.” While he was warning of a potential total defeat for Israel, it’s worth noting that “Temple” was a code word for nuclear weapons.

In later years, it is believed that all Jericho I missiles were phased out of service in the 1990s and replaced with the longer-range Jericho II. These Jericho I missiles were stored in Zakharia, located southeast of Tel Aviv, and housed in caves, contributing to the security of Israel’s strategic assets.

Jericho 2.0

The Jericho II (YA-3) is a significant advancement from the Jericho I project, representing a solid-fueled, two-stage long-range ballistic missile system. These missiles are strategically placed in caves near Zakharia, specifically at the Sdot Micha Airbase, located southeast of Tel Aviv. As of the available information, there may be as many as 90 Jericho II missiles in these secure storage facilities.

The development of the Jericho II missile system commenced in 1977 after a request from Israel for 1,100 mile (1,770 km) range Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles was rejected by the United States. This rejection occurred during negotiations in 1975 concerning the transfer of the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli to Egyptian control as part of a US-brokered peace agreement.

By 1986, there were reports of test firings, and a series of test launches into the Mediterranean took place from 1987 to 1992. The longest of these tests had a range of approximately 1,300 kilometres, mostly launched from the facility at Palmachim, located south of Tel Aviv. In June 1989, it is believed that a test launch of 1,400 kilometres occurred at South Africa’s Overberg Test Range.

The Jericho II missile system measures 14.0 metres in length and 1.56 metres in width, with a reported launch weight of 26,000 kilograms. However, an alternative launch weight of 21,935 kilograms has also been suggested. It possesses a 1,000-kilogram payload capacity, making it capable of carrying a substantial amount of high explosives or a 1 Megaton yield nuclear warhead. The missile employs a two-stage solid propellant engine with a separating warhead, enabling it to be launched from a silo, a railroad flat car, or a mobile vehicle. This adaptability allows for concealment, rapid deployment, or storage in a hardened silo, enhancing its survivability against potential attacks. Additionally, the Jericho II features an active radar homing terminal guidance system similar to that of the Pershing II, ensuring high precision in striking its target.

The Jericho II serves as the foundation for the three-stage Shavit NEXT satellite launcher, weighing 23 tons and first launched in 1988 from Palmachim. The performance of the Shavit launcher has led to estimates that, if utilised as a ballistic missile, the Jericho II could achieve a maximum range of approximately 7,800 kilometres when carrying a 500 kg payload.

Regarding its availability as an Israeli counterattack option during the 1991 Gulf War in response to Iraqi missile bombardment, there are disputes and uncertainties surrounding this matter. According to Jane’s, it was believed at the time that the Jericho II entered service in 1989, but the exact details and the extent of its operational use during the Gulf War remain subject to debate and speculation.

The Jericho III

The Jericho III (YA-4) is believed to be a nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that is thought to have entered service in 2011. It’s a significant advancement from its predecessors, with the following characteristics:

  • The Jericho III is assumed to have either two or three stages, all of which use solid propellants.
  • It carries a substantial payload, estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,300 kilograms.
  • The payload can be a single 750-kilogram (150–400 kiloton) nuclear warhead or, alternatively, two or three low-yield Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads.
  • The missile is estimated to have a launch weight of around 30,000 kilograms.
  • Its length is approximately 15.5 metres, with a width of 1.56 metres.

The Jericho III is believed to be based on an upgraded and redesigned Shavit space launch vehicle, which is produced by Israel Aerospace Industries. It is thought to feature enhanced first and second-stage motors. While its exact range remains a subject of some debate, estimates that it has a range of 4,800 to 6,500 kilometres (2,982 to 4,038 miles). However, a 2004 missile proliferation survey by the Congressional Research Service suggested that its maximum range could be as high as 11,500 kilometres, with the caveat that missile range is inversely proportional to payload mass.

According to an official report submitted to the U.S. Congress in 2004, with a 1,000-kilogram payload, the Jericho III could potentially provide Israel with nuclear strike capabilities across the entire Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, and portions of North America, as well as parts of South America and North Oceania. This extended range would enable the missile to achieve an extremely high impact speed for targets in its vicinity, making it challenging for Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defences to intercept.

On November 2, 2011, Israel conducted a successful test launch of a missile believed to be an upgraded version of the Jericho III. This test was conducted at the Palmachim facility, and the long trail of smoke from the launch was visible throughout central Israel. It demonstrated Israel’s ongoing efforts to enhance its long-range missile capabilities.

It’s noteworthy that Israel’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers are believed to be deeply buried, ensuring their survivability in the event of a first-strike nuclear attack. This level of protection is designed to maintain a second-strike capability, which is an essential component of a credible nuclear deterrent.

In early 2008, after a successful missile test launch, General Itzhak Ben-Israel, a prominent Israeli weapons expert who had served as the former chairman of the Israeli Space Agency at the Ministry of Science, made a significant statement. He mentioned, “Everybody can do the mathematics… we can reach with a rocket engine to every point in the world.” This statement seemed to confirm Israel’s expanding missile capabilities, and officials from the Israeli Ministry of Defense described the 2008 test launch as a “dramatic leap” in the country’s missile technologies.

In 2013, Alon Ben David, an expert in defence and military affairs, published an opinion in Aviation Week regarding the Jericho III missile’s range and payload capacity. He stated, “Reportedly, Israel’s Jericho III intermediate-range ballistic missile is capable of carrying a 1,000-kg (2,204-lb.) warhead more than 5,000 km.” This indicates that the Jericho III has substantial reach and payload capacity.

Subsequent tests in July 2013 were conducted, and they may have been related to either the Jericho III or the Jericho 3A missile, which is believed to be a follow-up with a new motor, reflecting Israel’s ongoing efforts to improve its missile capabilities.

The Bottom Line

The Jericho missile system stands as a testament to Israel’s steadfast commitment to maintaining a credible and robust deterrence capability, particularly in the realm of ballistic missile technology. This family of missiles, including the Jericho I, Jericho II, and Jericho III, has played a pivotal role in Israel’s national security strategy, safeguarding its sovereignty and contributing to regional stability.

The Jericho I, with its early development in collaboration with France, laid the foundation for subsequent advancements. It was designed for short-range operations and was indicative of Israel’s resolve to maintain a credible second-strike capability, even amidst secrecy about its nuclear program.

The Jericho II represented a significant leap forward, featuring solid-fueled propulsion and enhanced range. The ability to carry MIRV warheads or single high-yield nuclear warheads underscored its versatility as a strategic deterrent. Its performance as a satellite launcher, particularly the Shavit NEXT, showcased its dual-purpose nature.

The most recent and advanced member of the family, the Jericho III, is believed to be an ICBM with extended range and payload capabilities. Its deep-buried launchers emphasise Israel’s commitment to ensuring survivability and maintaining a robust second-strike capability in the face of potential nuclear threats.

Over the years, these missiles have evolved, and testing has indicated the continuous development of Israel’s missile technologies. The Jericho missile systems have not only contributed to Israel’s defence but also had regional and global implications, influencing geopolitical dynamics.

The precise details of the Jericho missile family, especially in terms of range and payload, are shrouded in secrecy and subject to estimates and conjecture. Nevertheless, it’s clear that these missiles play a critical role in Israel’s deterrence strategy, allowing it to maintain strategic stability and security in a volatile region.

The Jericho missile system remains an emblem of Israel’s commitment to its national defence, symbolising the nation’s determination to ensure its security and stability in an uncertain world. Its development and operational readiness underscore the complexity and dynamism of global security issues, reaffirming the importance of dialogue, diplomacy, and arms control in addressing the challenges posed by advanced missile technologies and nuclear deterrence.

(Views presented in the article are of the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn Asia)