Monday, August 04, 2003

After a welcoming of the 40 Israeli party animals into Columbia, we will have to take a closer look at what Israel has to offer.

Israel is one step closer to producing the most advanced air-to-air missile in history, according to Rafael, the government-owned Israel Armament Development Authority. Its Python-5 has recently passed "significant milestones" in testing and will be ready for operation by 2005.

Together with the American manufacturer Lockheed Martin, Rafael currently produces the Python-4, a 1990s-era heat-seeking missile that effectively gives the attacking pilot a lethal gaze: anything he sees from his cockpit, he can shoot down. But the Python-5 promises, in addition to sharper target recognition electronics, a "full attack envelope" - meaning the pilot can destroy aircraft on his tail without needing to turn his jet around.

"An enemy fighter jet has a very slim chance of surviving the launch of a Python-5," said Col. (res.) Naftali Maimon, who is airborne systems marketing director at the authority. It is a bold claim. Others are more cautious.

"You have to take claims about experimental weapons with a grain of salt," said Dan Goure, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think-tank.

It is one thing for a missile to pass a test under ideal conditions. It is quite another for it to do well when the pilot is performing extreme maneuvers in an airspace cluttered with both friend and foe.

But should Rafael's claims be borne out on the battlefield, Goure said that the Python-5 "will be superior to anything out there."

Whatever the case, Rafael has come a long way since its clunky Shafrir-1 missile was introduced into military service back in 1964. The missile division, in particular, has proven itself to be the most profitable part of Rafael, netting $ 27 million in profits from $ 760 million in worldwide sales in 2002.

The key to its success: technology.

"I visited the Rafael missile-firing simulator a few years back," said Douglas Richardson, editor of Jane's Missiles and Rockets, "and it was just as advanced as a brand new simulator I visited a few weeks ago in England."

Rafael does not only give the British a run for their money. While the American arms manufacturer Raytheon has sold a number of hi-tech weapons to the IDF, the company's local Tel Aviv distributor does not bother to sell competing systems, such as the Sidewinder AIM-9X air-to-air missile and the anti-tank Javelin, in Israel.

Of course, the sales of a weapon system, or the lack thereof, is not necessarily an indication of its superiority. A missile has to be tailored to a specific enemy, military doctrine, budget, and maintenance ability of the buyer.

"If it were just a matter of inches of penetration per dollar," noted John Pike, a defense analyst for, "military sales would not be so be protracted."

The Python-5 was designed for aerial dogfights. When launched, the missile goes idle after a millisecond of flight so as not to overshoot its mark, at which point the Python-5 locks on to its target and then matches it move for move.

"It will outmaneuver any plane," said Maimon.

By contrast, the American Sidewinder has a longer reach, but cannot turn on a dime - which is fine by the USAF, which trains for a different kind of air war.

Another hot item offered by Rafael is the Spike, which since 1999 has been in service with the IDF under the name "Gil." Its primary mission is to turn main battle tanks (MBTs) into coffins.

The missile sports a dual, or "tandem" HEAT (high- energy anti-tank) warhead - delivering a lethal one-two punch against the most sophisticated of armor. Due to its arching trajectory, the Spike can also attack the top of the tank, where it is most vulnerable.

"I would not want to be a tank crewman in any future war," said Yosef Berger, a marketing manager in Rafael's Anti-Armor Directorate.

Like horse breeds, the Spike comes in a number of compatible versions: from a light-weight missile (SR) useful for leveling concrete bunkers at 800 meters to a vehicle-borne extended range (ER) projectile, which can destroy a tank eight kilometers away. The armed forces of Holland, Romania, and Finland have already bought the missile system, and Rafael is currently negotiating with Poland for purchase of the Spike. According to an Associated Press report, the deal is worth $ 250 million and involves thousands of missiles.

The medium-range version of the missile, the Spike-MR, ranks right up there with other "fire-and-forget systems," like the US Javelin and Indian Nag, still under development. But it is the long-range Spike-LR - what Rafael dubs "a lethal observation system" - which takes tank-killing technology to a whole new level.

Upon launch, an optical fiber resembling a fishing line spools out the back of the Spike-LR. This allows the gunner - hiding from behind cover - to peer out from the cyclopean eye of the missile, and if necessary, change the course of its flight.

This added capability is vital on the ever-changing battlefield.

Imagine this scenario: Crouching in the heavy brush, a Spike gunner spots what he thinks is a Russian-built T-72 tank out in the open plains some four kilometers away. He takes aim and fires, but as the missile zeroes in on the target, the gunner suddenly realizes that the vehicle is a dummy.

Now, through the lens of the flying Spike-LR, he sees a real tank nearby, hidden under camouflage netting. Thanks to the fiber optics line, he can redirect the missile to the real target.

"It's like having the brains of a Kamikaze pilot built inside the missile - except you don't have to sacrifice a person for the mission," said Berger.

The company also spares the backs of infantrymen. Both the Spike-MR and -LR systems - the missile, launcher, and tripod - weigh only 26 kilograms (57 pounds), which can be carried comfortably by two soldiers. Want to increase the firepower of the tank-hunting team? Just take two missiles along. Each only weighs 13 kilograms, as opposed to the 15.9-kilogram Javelin.

"Our missile may weigh more than the Spike," countered Mike Conti, who is a manager of Raytheon's Javelin joint project with Lockheed Martin, "but our total system - which does not use a tripod - weighs less."

Conti also noted that, even under unfavorable cold and humid weather conditions, the Javelin gives off only the smallest plume of smoke, helping the gunner to remain undetected. In fact, it can even be fired from inside a bunker no bigger than the average-sized bedroom.

"I won't name names," he said, "but someone seeing the Spike tested in Canada said it looked like the launch of the space shuttle."

The Spike is as simple to master as an arcade video game. Berger recalls how, in 1999, a general came to visit a test firing of the missile on the Golan Heights. The anti-tank operator at the army range gave him a brief introduction on the missile before the launch.

"Then, to everyone's surprise," said Berger, "the officer decided to fire the missile himself - and he hit the target, which was two and a half kilometers away, on the first try."

Of course, Rafael admits that there is still one aspect of performance on which it can improve.

"It's just a matter of software," said Lavi Segal, who is the missile division's general marketing manager.

As for the Javelin, Conti said, "We are confident of the performance of our missile under all battlefield conditions."

Earlier this month, the IAF admitted for the first time that it employs an air-to-surface precision guided munition (PGM) called the Spice.

Though technically a bomb, the Spice functions as a poor man's cruise missile and has catapulted Israel into an exclusive club of countries - including the US, France, Germany, and England - with the technological ability to place an automated, flying explosive through the window of a building 60 kilometers away.

"The Spice is a revolution in air-to-ground warfare," said Alon Amitay, the business development manager of the project.

Launched from the wing of a fighter aircraft, the Spice will plow into a pre-programmed target - be it a bridge, radar station, or military headquarters - at speeds reaching up to Mach 9. And one need not worry, as with laser-guided bombs, about rain and heavy cloud cover fouling up its mission.

Amitay claimed that, in terms of reliability, the Spice even surpasses the GPS-guided bombs that starred in the recent war in Iraq. Since it is not dependent on coordinates fed to it by a satellite, the Israeli-made PGM cannot be jammed. Nor can it be "spoofed," that is, given false coordinates by the enemy who then sends a very expensive bomb into a strategically valueless meadow.

Rafael does admit that the Spice is more expensive than other PGMs. But then again, an American-made Tomahawk cruise missile costs $ 1 million.

Goure said the Americans are on the cusp of unveiling their smaller "tactical Tomahawk" that could reach hundreds of kilometers. Still, this pocket cruise missile would cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and would be too big to be fired from a fighter-jet.

As it did with the Python project, Rafael is now looking for a foreign partner to expedite sales of the Spice.

"People are excited," said Amitay, "but there is always the issue of politics."

Why Liberia turns to its American 'big brother'

For a country with little economic, military, or geopolitical value to the United States, Liberia has managed to climb to the top of the Bush administration's agenda.

Within the next three days, about 2,000 US marines are expected to station themselves off the coast of the war-torn country to support a West African peacekeeping force. The US has said, however, that it will not lead any peacekeeping operation and has indicated that most of the troops are unlikely to go ashore.

On Wednesday, the US asked the United Nations to authorize an international peacekeeping force. Paving the way, a Nigerian-led inspection team arrived in Liberia yesterday.

For weeks, Liberians had invoked their country's historical ties to the US to persuadetheir transatlantic "big brother" to help end the three-year war between rebel insurgents and President Charles Taylor.

Created in 1847 as a haven for freed American slaves, Liberia is the closest thing in Africa to a former US colony. Over the years, it has been a solid bit player in US foreign policy.But since the mid-1980s, ties have largely been severed.

How strong are the ties?
For more than 120 years, the Liberian government was the US republican system writ small. A US grade-schooler could be forgiven for mistaking Liberia's bicameral legislature and separation of powers for Uncle Sam's own. The founding former slaves, who made up less than 5 percent of Liberia's population, wore American clothes, spoke English, and even installed themselves as masters in a system of slavery like the one they had fled.

During the 20th century, Liberia played a role in America's World War II effort, with African rubber sailing to American factories from Liberian ports. As the cold war heated up, the airport in Monrovia, the capital, provided US military aircraft 24-hour-a-day landing rights. From Liberia, the US beamed Voice of America programs and relayed radio communications to its embassies around the continent. A 1,400-ft. radio tower guided US ships and planes operating in the Atlantic. Throughout the first half of the 1980s, the West African nation received some $ 500 million in military aid, the largest amount given to any African country.

But as the US began promoting democracy in the developing world as a buffer against Soviet communism, Liberia fell out of favor. The oppression of native groups by the Americo-Liberians, as the descendants of the former slaves were known, became antithetical to the US's pro-democracy agenda.

"[The US] actually turned against the Americo-Liberian elite, regarding them as aristocratic residue of a former tyrant - aristocrats who paid little attention to the indigenous population," says Chris Melville, Central and West Africa analyst for World Markets Research Centre in London.

Things changed briefly when Samuel Doe took power in a 1980 coup. He became a favorite of the Reagan administration. "The US began to see his coup as a kind of revolution, the revenge of these ethnic groups against the Americo-Liberians," says Mr. Melville.

Mr. Doe, uneducated and politically green, became a US puppet. He was anti-Soviet and a bulwark against Libya's president, Muammar Qaddafi, who was accused of running terrorist training camps and meddling in countries around Africa. To show its favor toward Doe, the US turned a blind eye when he allegedly stole the 1985 election.

Did the 1980s shatter the links?
But Doe, too, soon fell out with the US. He was known for killing his political opponents, and tens of millions of dollars that the US sent him went unaccounted for. In 1987, 17 Americans were sent to run the country's finances, though they wound up leaving six months into their two-year stay because of growing unrest from rebel groups that wanted to oust Doe.

The CIA may have even tried to topple Doe, in one of dozens of coup attempts against him. In his book, "The Skull Beneath the Skin," author Mark Huband writes that a deputy in Doe's security services, who had unsuccessfully attacked Doe's convoy in an effort to overthrow him, said that a "US adviser" had helped instigate his failed coup.

Mr. Taylor eventually took power in 1990. Taylor graduated from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., in 1977. He was briefly jailed in the US for embezzling money from the Liberian government, but escaped and later emerged as head of the rebel group that helped topple Doe.

Should the US intervene?
The US never established formal relations with Taylor because of alleged links to Mr. Qaddafi. Even before he took power, the US had begun turning to other West African countries to replace Liberia as the strategic center of the region.

But in an interview with The Washington Times last week, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that while US interests in Liberia may not be "strategic" or "vital," there is still reason for intervention, including what he called the two countries' "historical links."

He also cited the recent successful missions by the British and French, who helped end wars in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. He said that the most powerful nation on earth has an "obligation" to help needy places.

"We looked away once in Rwanda, with tragic consequences," he said, referring to the killing of more than a half million people there in 1994.

Still, with thousands of US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the Pentagon and White House have balked at overcommitting to Liberia.

But Melville says that Iraq and Afghanistan are precisely why the US would want to get involved. While those countries are skeptical of having US troops in their backyard, Liberians have begged for American help. This makes for good public relations, he says. "When the State Department wants to put a humanitarian gloss on US foreign policy, to use military might outside narrowly defined strategic interests, they can invoke historical ties as a way to justify [intervening]," says Melville.

Who's who
President Charles Taylor
* Born in 1948 to a Liberian mother and an Americo-Liberian father.
* Graduated in 1977 from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
* Accused of embezzling more than $ 900,000 from the Liberian government in the mid-1980s. Fled to the US where he was jailed, but later escaped.
* Reemerged in 1989 as leader of a rebel group intent on ousting President Samuel Doe. The US sent marines to evacuate the US Embassy in 1990 as fighting intensified. Taylor took power that year when Doe was toppled.
* Elected president in 1997.
* Indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone by a UN-backed tribunal on charges of supporting rebel groups blamed for atrocities.

Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)
* Formed in 2000, Liberia's largest insurgency group seeks to oust Taylor through military and political means.
* Reportedly supported by Guinea and displaced and exiled Liberians, and tacitly backed by the US through its support of Guinea.
* Condemned by human rights groups for killings, rape, torture, and kidnapping.
* LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), a spinoff rebel group formed in March, control around two-thirds of Liberia.

* The armed Monitoring Group of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It was first deployed in 1990 to halt factional fighting in Liberia.
* It has since conducted intervention or peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, and Ivory Coast.
* It is not a standing army. Instead, troops and funds are donated by member nations for specific missions.
* The US has helped train ECOMOG and contributed more than $ 100 million to its efforts.

- Compiled by Teresa Mendez

Sources: PBS, BBC, US Embassy Fact Sheet,

A brief history of US-Liberian relations
1822 Liberia is first settled by former American slaves. Two years later, the main settlement is renamed Monrovia for US President James Monroe.
July 26, 1847 Liberia is officially founded. National flag is based on America's Stars and Stripes.
June 3, 1862 US formally recog-nizes Liberia's independence.
May 8, 1917 Under pressure from the US and Britain, Liberia declares war on Germany.
1926 Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. opens a plantation.
January 27, 1944 Liberia enters World War II, declaring war against Germany and Japan.
August 1957 The US erects a Voice of America relay, one of several US communications facilities on Liberian soil during the cold war.
1962 US Peace Corps begins operating in Liberia, continues for nearly 30 years.
1978 President Jimmy Carter makes first official US presidential visit to Liberia.
1981 Samuel Doe takes power in a coup, receives more than $ 500 million in US military aid over the next half decade.
1987 US sends 17 experts to manage Liberia's finances. They leave six months later because of growing unrest.
1990 Charles Taylor topples Doe. The US sends 2,000 troops to evacuate Embassy personnel and US citizens.
2003 President Bush sends 2,000 marines to support West African peacekeeping forces.

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