Nobody knew the day or hour the strike would come — and when a Syrian missile blasted into the sky and headed toward Israel last year, the man who had spent much of his life preparing for that moment slept through the whole thing. “I read about it the next morning,” Uzi Rubin tells me.
Here’s what happened, as best as anyone without an Israeli security clearance can determine: On the night of March 17, 2017, an Israeli jet penetrated Syrian airspace. Although these scouting missions were known to occur, Israeli officials had rarely discussed them — and this was the first one they ever confirmed. Syria responded by launching a Russian-made SA-5 anti-aircraft missile. The Israeli pilot probably took evasive action. Fooled, the SA-5 zipped past the plane. Many surface-to-air missiles will self-destruct when they miss their targets. This one didn’t. It continued to fly southwest.
Radars in Israel detected the rocket, plotted its trajectory, and predicted a point of impact. Although their calculations couldn’t have established exactly where the missile would hit, they implied that it would come down somewhere in the Jordan Valley, within the borders of Israel. At least that’s what General Zvi Haimovitz, head of the Israeli Air Defense Command, said three days later at a press conference. The area in question, between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, includes a lot of empty desert, but also concentrations of people, from the sparse settlements of the Bedouin to the city of Jericho.
For more than 16 years, Israel’s Arrow missile-defense system had stood guard, waiting for such a situation. Confronted by the incoming SA-5, an Israeli officer made a snap decision: The threat was real. Israel fired a missile at the missile — a bullet at a bullet, to borrow the common metaphor. In a hypersonic interception, somewhere over the borders of Israel, Syria, and Jordan, the Arrow obliterated the SA-5.
It might not have happened but for Rubin, the man who slept. For years, he had called on Israel to defend itself against missile attacks, overseeing the construction of the system that finally sprang to life last year. Its performance, raved the former general and prime minister Ehud Barak, “demonstrated our awesome capability.” Looking back on the incident, Rubin is more reserved, even deadpan: “I was satisfied with the results.”
The 81-year-old Rubin has every reason to feel more than satisfaction. He has devoted his life to his nation’s security. He might even be called the founding father of Israeli missile defense. Without him, it’s possible that Israel wouldn’t have had the ability to shoot down that SA-5, let alone to protect itself from the graver threats now posed by Iran and perhaps others in the future.
Today, he’s retired, though that isn’t really the right word for it because he is busy as a Ph.D. student in political science at Bar-Ilan University. “It’s a cover-up,” he jokes. “It’s an excuse for me to write a dissertation on the history of missile defense in Israel.” What he really ought to write is a memoir — and the octogenarian thinks he may do that next.
“I was born a Palestinian,” says Rubin, by which he means he was born in British Palestine, during what Israelis call the “British Mandate” period of their history. His parents were Polish Zionists who moved to the Jewish homeland in 1933. Uzi was born in Tel Aviv in 1937. He remembers getting dressed with his family in 1948 to witness David Ben-Gurion declare the independence of Israel, but they ran late, and he listened to the announcement on the radio. One thing about it surprised him: “I had been sure the new Jewish state would be called ‘Judea.’”
For college, Rubin went to Technion, also known as the Israel Institute of Technology, where he majored in aeronautical engineering. Next came a job at Israel Aerospace Industries, a defense company. Later on, he earned a master’s degree in upstate New York, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A couple of wars interrupted this early phase of his career. In the Six-Day War of 1967, he was part of the force that overran Gaza, but his jeep broke down on the way. He was left on the roadside and told to make his way back to camp. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Rubin found himself serving in an anti-tank missile unit in the Golan Heights. “I didn’t see action, but I was chased by Syrian shells,” he laughs.
In 1983, President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), calling on the United States and its allies to develop a missile shield against the Soviet Union. In Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, a 1980s defense minister who later became prime minister, pushed to join the effort. He tapped Rubin, who “had proven himself on a number of classified defense projects and was known for being a no-nonsense manager,” wrote Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot in The Weapon Wizards, a book published last year.
Determined to make a contribution to SDI, Rubin and his team brainstormed ideas, including a chemical cannon that would fire high-speed projectiles at enemy missiles. That proposal was stillborn, but another one — the creation of an anti-ballistic missile that could hit targets outside Earth’s atmosphere — caught on. Rubin pitched the plan at a meeting in Huntsville, Ala., a town nicknamed “Rocket City” for its long connection to missile development and spaceflight. American strategists liked the idea so much that they agreed to fund the whole thing. Back in Israel, Rubin began work on a start-up operation that in time would become the Arrow missile.
Just as doubters criticized Reagan’s SDI — they dubbed it “Star Wars” to demean it as a cinematic fantasy — Rubin met with naysayers who claimed that his vision was impossible. Yet he never agonized over the technical complaints. “Those issues were tough but solvable,” he says. “Everything can be done if it’s not against the laws of physics.”
In the United States, Reagan and SDI’s supporters faced opposition from arms-control activists who feared a new weapons race. Rubin and his team ran into a different kind of resistance. Many leaders within their country’s military believed that Israel could not win its next war by going on defense and shooting down missiles. Instead, Israel would prevail by going on offense and beating its foe quickly. During a conflict, they argued, the government could protect its people by moving them into bomb shelters.
Rubin thought this was a false choice. Why not play both offense and defense? From his own study of history, he knew that defensive victories can lead to strategic turning points. In 1940, for example, the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force beat back a massive German assault in the skies, in the Battle of Britain. Winston Churchill immortalized the achievement with his words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” In a future conflict, Rubin believed, Israel might owe its survival to a few anti-ballistic missiles.
Then came the first Gulf War in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lobbed dozens of Scud missiles into Israel, hoping to provoke a response and inspire Arab nations to rally around his cause. Batteries of Patriot missiles, deployed by the United States, provided Israel’s only protection. Following initial claims of great success, experts have debated how well the Patriots in fact performed. Rubin, for his part, thinks they were largely ineffective. Yet they proved enormously popular with the Israeli public. Before the war was over, the government put the Arrow on the fast track — and at an emergency meeting, Rubin received what he calls “my battlefield commission.”
Rubin led an effort not only to build a groundbreaking missile but also to develop a new radar to track targets and devise a battle-management system that would allow commanders to execute orders. The work involved computer simulations and live tests, plus a public-relations effort to overcome the skeptics who still served in the military. Rubin tried to outmaneuver them in the pages of Haaretz. “The first thing the prime minister saw in the morning was his newspaper,” says Rubin. “He took it with his coffee, before he talked to his generals. I needed him to read about what I was doing.” Rubin figures he spent nearly a third of his time burnishing Arrow’s image, briefing journalists and others on the missile threats to Israel and how his program would counter them.
At the end of 2000, following years of research and tests, Israel deployed the Arrow, becoming the first country in the world to enjoy an operational anti-ballistic-missile system. Soon after, Rubin faced mandatory retirement at the age of 67. Yet he stayed active as a consultant, watching Israel expand its missile defenses with Iron Dome, which targets the type of short-range rockets that Palestinian militants fire from Gaza, plus David’s Sling, which can take out medium-range cruise missiles. Missile-defense experts refer to this combo as “layered architecture” — and atop it all is the Arrow, protecting Israel against the biggest and most dangerous missiles.
Syria’s SA-5 — the kind of missile that an Arrow destroyed last year — doesn’t quite count as an existential threat. A surface-to-air missile whose purpose is to knock out planes, it isn’t even a ballistic missile, which has an arching trajectory and a monster warhead. Some have suggested that such a target wasn’t worth the use of an Arrow. On this matter, even Rubin is agnostic.
He has no doubts, however, about other threats. “The Middle East is a cockpit of wars,” he says. The Iranians worry him the most: “They have precision rockets. These aren’t terror weapons but military weapons.” What he means is that, unlike the smaller rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza or by Hezbollah from Lebanon, which can cause chaos but only limited damage, Iran’s weapons endanger military bases and cities. Can Israel defend against an assault of ballistic missiles from this adversary? “We cannot guarantee 100 percent success,” he says.
No missile-defense system can make possible such a promise, of course. Last year’s performance of the Arrow, however, offers hope. As Rubin put it in a paper he wrote for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the successful takeout of the SA-5 “broadcast the powerful message that Israel’s missile shield has reached maturity.”
It certainly ought to cause Israel’s enemies to think twice before attacking — and give Rubin’s countrymen reason to sleep a little more peacefully.