Washington Post
May 2, 2000
Pg. 19

Pentagon Questions Israeli Missile Test Near Navy

By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff Writer

An Israeli short-range ballistic missile splashed down in the eastern Mediterranean last month near a U.S. Navy Aegis cruiser, causing momentary fear that the ship was under attack, Defense Department officials said yesterday.

The Jericho 1 missile, which can carry nuclear warheads or about 1,000 pounds of chemicals or high explosives, was launched from a missile-testing facility at Yavne, Israel, on April 6 and landed about 40 miles from the USS Anzio, they said.

"That's pretty damn close for a missile that's not the most accurate," one of the officials said. "The warhead wasn't live, but it still could make a hell of a hole."

The Anzio was about 250 miles due west of the Israeli coast and had not received any notice that an Israeli missile test was underway, one official said. Such a "Notice to Aviators and Mariners" is customary, and even the Russians and the Chinese give notice of their tests, he noted.

The ship's advanced Aegis missile-tracking radar picked up the launch soon after it occurred, a second official said. "During the first 90 percent of the trajectory, it looked like the missile was coming at you," he said.

The first official said the Navy was angry with the Israelis because this was the third time they have conducted a "no-notice" missile launch in the vicinity of a U.S. warship in the past two years. The Navy is especially peeved because the Anzio and two accompanying ships--the USS Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier, and the USS Cape St. George, another Aegis cruiser--were en route to participate in a joint exercise with the Israeli military called "Noble Suzanne."

"They knew we were there, for God's sake," one of the Defense Department officials said.

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy said Israel scrupulously follows safety guidelines in its tests. "When we conduct a missile test, whether on land or sea, there is a very clear and strictly abided to safety procedure," said Mark Regev. "The area of the test is thoroughly checked."

A senior U.S. official said the Clinton administration is addressing the issue through diplomatic channels. A State Department official said he wasn't aware of any diplomatic activity but suggested the matter might be handled outside his department's usual channels.

John Pike, a weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said he thought the missile shot near an American ship likely was an accident that resulted from a failure to communicate. "I cannot imagine why they would have done that intentionally," he said. "It strikes me instead as extraordinarily careless."

But one of the Defense Department officials disputed that interpretation of events. He said the repeated "no-notice" launches have made the Pentagon think that the Israelis are trying to prevent the United States from monitoring the tests and acquiring technical data about the operation of the Jericho.

There is a history of bad blood between the U.S. Navy and Israel that goes back to the 1967 attack by Israeli jets and torpedo boats on the USS Liberty, a signals-interception ship that was operating off the Israeli coast during the Six Day War. That attack killed 34 men and wounded 171. Israel said its forces had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian warship and later paid $6 million in damages.

There recently has been some tension between Israel and the United States over Israel's plan to sell Phalcon airborne radar systems to China. Some members of Congress have threatened to block $250 million in aid to Israel unless the sale is canceled.