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Israel this week used its Arrow missile-defence system to shoot down a ballistic missile outside of Earth’s atmosphere, in what is believed to be the first combat ever to take place in space.
The ballistic missile was launched from Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthis, and flew almost 1000 miles (1600km) over the Arabian peninsula on the way to its target, the Israeli port city of Eilat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman watch a video of the launch of the Arrow 3 hypersonic anti-ballistic missile in 2019.Credit: AP
While the Israel Defence Forces has released few details about the interception, the Air Force is known to operate several batteries of the Arrow 2 system, which uses a hypersonic interceptor to take out incoming missiles in space.
The Israeli defence ministry released a video showing the moment of interception, with the faint cylindrical shape of the incoming ballistic missile barely visible in the false-colour image, before an explosion smears across the screen.
In a statement, the IDF said that air force systems tracked the missile’s trajectory and intercepted it “at the most appropriate operational time and location”.
Photographs from Eilat showed a trail of smoke from the Arrow interceptor, while residents reported hearing a large explosion from the ground.
Yemen’s Houthis also released footage purporting to show the missile being launched as part of a barrage of drones and other long-ranged weapons aimed at Israeli towns and cities.
The ballistic missile, which was fired on Monday, is said to have been a Qader missile – an improved version of the Iranian-designed Shahab 3.
At more than 15-metres long, the Qader carries a high-explosive warhead and has a range that puts all of Israel in striking distance of the Houthis, which have now declared war on Israel and are a key part of the Iran-backed alliance set against the country.
It is precisely the threat that Israel’s Arrow system, first deployed some 25 years ago, was designed to counter.
A joint US-Israeli project, Arrow sprang from the need to give Israel a way to defend itself after Israeli cities were hit by Iraqi Scud missiles during the first Gulf War.
Where other missile-defence systems were originally meant to shoot down aircraft and had to be adapted to the job of shooting down longer-range ballistic missiles at much higher altitudes and speeds, Arrow was the first to be designed specifically for that task.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the factory that makes the Arrow-3 interceptor in 2019.Credit: AP
The system had previously been used in 2017 to shoot down a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile which missed an Israeli warplane and was heading towards an Israeli town. But Monday’s interception was the first time that it was used for its original purpose.
“The successful interception is about much more than protecting the residents of Eilat and dealing a blow to the Houthis’ boastfulness,” an Israeli defence official said.
“Primarily, it proves to Iran, which was behind the launch and supplied the missile, that Israel has the ability to act against its missile program, and this has much broader implications for the regional conflict.”
Since the October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel, and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, the Houthis have launched drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles at Israel on four occasions.
The Houthis have vowed there would be more such attacks “to help the Palestinians to victory”.
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More coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict
- Cascading violence: Tremors from the Hamas attacks and Israel’s response have reached far beyond the border. But what would all-out war in the Middle East look like?
- The human cost: Hamas’ massacre in Israel has traumatised – and hardened – survivors. And in Gaza, neighbourhoods have become ghost cities.
- “Hamas metro”: Inside the labyrinthine network of underground tunnels, which the Palestinian militant group has commanded beneath war-ravaged Gaza for 16 years. The covert corridors have long provided essential channels for the movement of weapons and armed combatants.
- What is Hezbollah?: As fears of the conflict expanding beyond Israel and Hamas steadily rise, all eyes are on the militant group and political party that controls southern Lebanon and has been designated internationally as a terrorist group. How did it form and what does Iran have to do with it?
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