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New Mideast Nuke Worry: Israel?

Israeli and foreign defense experts Sunday dismissed a report that Israel had modified submarine-based missiles to carry nuclear warheads, saying such an alteration was technically impossible.

The Los Angeles Times reported in Sunday editions that Israel had modified some of its nuclear warheads to fit U.S.-made Harpoon cruise missiles and upgraded the missiles so they could hit targets on land in addition to maritime ones. The article quoted two U.S. officials and one Israeli official, all speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel made the modifications in response to Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, the Times reported. Both the United States and Israel view Iran as an enemy and say the Islamic country is close to developing nuclear weapons that might be used against Israeli targets. Iran denies that.

Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh called the assertion that Israel had made the Harpoon nuclear impossible.

"Anyone with even the slightest understanding of missiles knows that the Harpoon can never be used to carry nuclear warheads," Sneh told Army Radio. "Not even (Israel's) extraordinarily talented engineers and its sophisticated defense industries can transform the Harpoon into a missile capable of doing this. It's simply impossible."

Ted Hooton, editor of Jane's Naval Weapon Systems in London, echoed Sneh's assessment, saying problems with payload weight would put the Harpoon out of balance, limiting its range and accuracy.

"It seems to me that a nuclear weapon, which is extremely dense, would make the Harpoon nose heavy and significantly reduce its range — in any event well below the 90 miles it is designed for," Hooton said.

While Israel has never acknowledged it has nuclear weapons of its own, Israeli and foreign experts believe it possesses 100-200 nuclear devices and has the capability to deliver them via American-made F-15 and F-16 warplanes and the Jericho II missile, based on a prototype Israel developed with France in the 1960s.

The ability to deliver nuclear weapons from submarines would significantly enhance Israel's reported nuclear deterrent, by shielding the launch platform from all but the most sophisticated countermeasures. According to the Times story, Israel would use Dolphin class diesel-powered submarines acquired from Germany to launch the nuclear-armed Harpoon missiles. Israel has three such submarines in its arsenal.

A report Sunday in the German weekly Der Spiegel said Israel had identified six sites where Iran was allegedly developing nuclear weapons, most believed to be inland.

Der Spiegel reported that Israel's Mossad intelligence agency was developing a plan to attack the alleged nuclear weapons sites in Iran. Iran acknowledges that it has a nuclear development program, but says it is designed only to generate electricity.

In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak when Saddam Hussein was believed to be closing in on the bomb.

The United States, according to the Times, has gone to great lengths to protect the secrecy of Israel's arsenal. Intelligence agencies never mention Israel's suspected nuclear capabilities in their reports to Congress, and the Clinton administration banned the sale of certain satellite pictures that might have proven Israel has nuclear facilities.

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