Hefetz Haim, Israel (CNSNews.com) - Israel's Patriot missile battery forces are at their highest state of readiness ever to combat the threats of air terror and tactical ballistic missiles (TBM), an Israeli Air Force commander said on Thursday.
Since the September 11, 2001, terror assault on the U.S., Israel has shifted some of its Patriot missile batteries to central locations in the country to guard Israeli population centers against a repeat of the suicide plane attack.
But in the past three months, the missile battery crews have also been on a heightened state of alert, training and preparing in advance of a possible U.S.-led strike against Iraq, said Lt. Col. Yariv Shnapp, commander of Air Force battalion 138, which is responsible for Israel's northern artillery air defense shield.
"In the last year, we relocated the Patriot battery, which is deployed here at Hefetz Haim...in order to continue preparations for any possible terror attack on the Tel Aviv area," Shnapp told journalists who were invited to the air force base on Thursday to take a look at the Patriots.
The launchers deployed at the base can fire four missiles each before being reloaded. There are up to eight launchers in a battery. The giant mobile units, complete with their own radar systems, can be redeployed quickly.
Israel has employed "the heaviest air defense artillery batteries deployment ever in order to prevent Israel from a re-occurrence of the 9/11 event," Shnapp said.
Since December, the Patriot crews have also been training and concentrating on preparations for a possible war in Iraq, he said.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. rushed a number of Patriot missile batteries to Israel when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein began launching Scud missiles at the Jewish state.
The Patriots - originally designed to intercept aircraft and not missiles - were not very effective, but since then, they have been improved.
"The Patriot weapon systems capabilities against TBM were dramatically improved since the Gulf War," Shnapp said.
"Our new version of the Patriot missile is...much more accurate. We have upgraded our system with new software and hardware [for the radar to communicate with the missile launcher]... The warhead is larger, and the impact of the interception point will be stronger," he said.
He declined to say how much better the upgraded version is than the older one.
Since 1991, Israel has prepared itself against the possibility of a missile attack with the most comprehensive air defense system in the world.
"We are the only country with a double air active defense based on the Arrow weapon systems and the Patriot system," Shnapp said. "It is something quite unique for Israel to have these two active defense layers."
The first layer against ballistic missiles is the Arrow system, which was designed specifically as an anti-missile missile system. Its range is four times higher and larger than that of the Patriot.
It was designed to detect and impact incoming missiles above the atmosphere, obliterating the incoming warhead so completely that even if it is carrying poisonous chemicals, the material will not reach the ground.
If the Arrow fails to impact the missile, the Patriot missiles - whose primary function is to prevent air terrorism from penetrating aircraft - act as a back-up system. Hawk missiles also guard against incoming aircraft.
Even the U.S. currently does not have such a system, Shnapp said.
Washington is keen to make sure Israel is not hit by missiles as it was in 1991. Then, Israel absorbed the hits without retaliating, but this time, the Israeli government has pledged to respond according to the number of casualties and amount of damage.
Any Israeli involvement in a war against Iraq could inflame the Arab world against the U.S.
American soldiers are currently in Israel carrying out exercises on separate Patriot batteries. The American crews and batteries, which were here for joint Israeli-American drills that ended two weeks ago, are still in Israel.
According to Shnapp, the American Patriots are "more improved" than the Israeli ones. "We hope during wartime that the Americans could give us some of these kinds of missiles that could improve our capability more than we have now," he said.
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