PLAINS OF HAR MEGIDDO, ISRAEL – MARCH 5, 0412 HOURS
It was still more than two hours before sunrise and the dry desert air was cold. The small red lights inside the mobile Launch Control Centre (LCC) were dim but the missile operators were used to working with the precious little illumination these lights offered. The men, members of Israel’s elite Strategic Missile Forces, had been at their computer stations now for well over an hour, making the final checks for the mock missile launch at dawn.
Seven hundred metres away Lieutenant Ariella Tamer was alone checking the guidance system of the Jericho III missile that would be used this morning for the training simulation.
Carefully she removed the inert starter switch which when activated would transmit an electronic signal of a successfully simulated engine ignition to the computers at the LCC while the missile itself remained safe in its launch cradle. She replaced it with a live switch that had the same serial code as the inert one making it impossible for the computers to tell the difference during their pre-launch safety checks.
Lieutenant Tamer then turned her attention to the GTT module. The Guidance, Telemetry and Targeting circuit board is the brains of the missile, directing the warhead using satellite navigation to its intended target programmed into its memory.
As a safety precaution against an accidental launch, all ballistic missiles of Israel’s Strategic Missile Forces are aimed by default to strike harmlessly six kilometres off the Israeli coast in the Mediterranean Sea in a protected area reserved for military exercises. This splashdown site was codenamed Romeo Delta Two Four.
Carefully removing the GTT module, the officer replaced it with the one which Saeed had given her. Apart from programming new guidance and telemetry data, the chip also contained both the 16-digit arming and the 8-digit ‘lock-out’ codes for the biological warhead. The Jericho now had a new target and a new mission. Once airborne, it would not take orders from anyone and it could not be stopped.
She was almost done now. Nervously looking around, Lieutenant Tamer saw that the other men in her squad were still four hundred metres away attending to the remaining missiles securing them for the trip home to their base later that morning. In the pre-dawn darkness, no one took any notice of her and so she continued.
Unlike most American missiles, Israel had a built-in Command Destruct System. This is essentially a self-destruct mechanism built into its rocket thrust engine allowing ground operators to destroy a malfunctioning or wayward missile in flight during its first or second stage.
The Jericho III is an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a range of nuclear, biological, chemical or conventional warheads. First commissioned in 2008, it has proven to be extremely reliable and in more than 28 live test launches conducted over the years, none had to be destroyed in flight due to engine or telemetry malfunctions.
Taking a deep breath Lieutenant Tamer removed the 20-ampere fuse to the CDS and replaced it with one of just 5 amps. It would still show a ‘live’ fuse reading on the launch computers. However given its lower electrical resistance, the fuse would burn out if an operator attempted to activate the CDS. This would essentially block any commands to the missile to destroy itself. Electronic suicide would no longer be an option.
Her job was now done. Replacing the maintenance cover of the missile’s Guidance System Module, she carefully wiped it with a rag unconsciously attempting to remove her fingerprints. It was a needless task for hardly anything of Jericho would remain intact once the deed was done. Her fate was sealed the moment she made that video confession as demanded by Saeed for it prevented her from having second thoughts and aborting the mission.
Inside the Launch Control Centre, it was 5.45am when Major David Rothschild received his coded orders for this morning’s mock launch. Together with his Firing Control Officer (FCO), Rothschild compared the nine-digit launch code against that in the MAC – the Missile Authenticator Card kept in a sealed envelope locked in the FCO’s safe. Both Rothschild and the FCO had to independently check and verify that the codes given this morning were an exact match to those printed on the MAC.
“Orders are authenticated and verified. We are GO for simulated launch,” said the FCO.
“I concur. Message is authentic. We are GO for simulated launch,” repeated Rothschild.
This was the seventh and final launch exercise that his unit would conduct at their desert training range before they returned to their base south of Tel Aviv later that morning.
“Firing Control Officer – secure the launch centre,” ordered Rothschild.
The FCO walked to the door of the mobile cabin and keyed in the six-digit command to lock the only door to the large armoured vehicle. Eighteen ventilation slats that allowed air from the outside to circulate through the vehicle were automatically sealed. The four men would remain securely locked inside the centre until the exercise was complete. This was a routine security procedure designed to prevent enemy forces from taking over the launch control centre and command of its missiles in the field.
“Launch Centre is sealed. We are on internal air and power,” reported the FCO.
Checking his computer screen, LCO One said: “Field engineers confirmed systems GO. Pre-flight checks completed. Inert Trust Control verified – safety is a GO. Bringing up the bird now. ”
He was one of the two Launch Control Officers on duty that morning. They were responsible for all the safety, telemetry and pre-flight checks with the engineers in the field to ready the missile before handing over control to the FCO who would initiate the simulated launch when the order was given.
Hydraulic pumps were engaged as the black Jericho III missile made of a titanium alloy was now raised silently skyward on its launch cradle, its sleek nosecone pointing menacingly towards the dark heavens.
“Primary target confirmed – Romeo Delta Two Four,” said LCO Two confirming that even though this was a pseudo launch and the missile would not leave its cradle, as an added precaution it was aimed at the control area in the Mediterranean Sea.
“FCO, confirm launch area is clear?” said Major Rothschild.
“Affirmative Green Range – site is clear for cold launch exercise. Iron Dome confirmed – weapons hold – observer status yellow,” responded the Firing Control Officer as he scanned the bank of closed-circuit thermal camera screens on his console and his radar display.
Major Rothschild checked his watch. It was 5:58am and time to get the last training mission of this series underway. Turning to the three men before him he began his final instructions. “This is a simulated launch exercise number 07-22. Prepare for cold launch of Jericho missile SGI-415. Insert launch keys …” he commanded as each LCO removed a chain with a brass key from around his neck and inserted it into his computer console.
Confirming that both men had inserted their keys into their respective terminals, Major Rothschild continued: “On my command, prepare to rotate to READY – rotate.”
Both LCOs turned their keys simultaneously ninety degrees clockwise to ready the missile. This bridged the final electrical connections from the firing terminal in the launch centre to the missile.
Outside the command vehicle, a small siren began to wail as the other soldiers huddled in their bunkers. As this was just another launch exercise, there was nothing for them to see. It would be just another computer drill. The mock launch was now just seconds away.
“Rotated – missile ready,” said the two LCOs in unison.
“Prepare to rotate to ARM – rotate,” said Major Rothschild.
Again the LCOs turned their keys another 90 degrees.
“Rotated – missile armed,” said the two LCOs again.
“Confirmed … missile is armed, ready for simulated launch,” said the FCO checking the readings on his computer. In arming the missile, control of the weapon was automatically passed on to the FCO station.
The Captain double-checked the flashing green light of the Inert Thrust Control indicator verifying that the engines of the missile would not fire when he depressed the launch trigger. The indicator for the Command Destruct System also glowed green confirming that it too was working as an additional safety precaution.
With the last safety checks done, Major Rothschild continued with his pre-launch orders.
“Firing Control Officer, you are cleared to remove the pickle.”
“Roger,” responded the FCO as he unlocked a small safe beside his computer and removed the launch trigger. This was a small pistol grip with a trigger and it was connected to the launch computer by a long coiled wire.
Turning to Major Rothschild while holding the launch trigger at chest level in his right hand with his index finger on the trigger guard, the FCO responded:
Checking his watch again Major Rothschild saw that it was now exactly 5:59am. “LCO One – confirm final launch status,” said Major Rothschild. This was the last chance for the officers to recheck their computers and verify that everything was set for this final cold drill.
“LCO One – all green. Ready for simulated launch exercise,” he said.
“LCO Two – all green. Ready for simulated launch exercise.”
“FCO – we are GO for cold launch exercise,” he said facing his Commanding Officer standing just two metres away.
“On my command … Jericho Missile III serial number Sierra Golf India 415 – activate simulated launch,” ordered Major Rothschild as the FCO depressed the firing trigger. It was exactly 6 am.
“Simulated launch activated,” announced the FCO as he turned to his computer.
A steady red light should have appeared on the ‘Away’ indicator on the FCO’s screen signalling a successful simulated launch. Instead, it showed a flashing green light indicating the system was engaging.
“Oh shit!” muttered the FCO in disbelief.
A small electrical pulse was racing through the cables ready to ignite the missile’s mighty thrust engines. Less than two seconds later a deafening growl enveloped the Launch Control Centre as the solid-fuelled engines of the Jericho roared to life sending the 30,000-kilogramme missile streaking skyward.
“What the hell happened?” screamed Major Rothschild to his FCO.
Before the man could respond the first LCO cut in. “Sir we have confirmed a hot launch. The Jericho is flying … reaching Mach One in nine seconds …”
“Activate CDS – kill it now!”
“CDS is not responding. It’s a malfunction,” said the FCO as he punched the self-destruct button repeatedly.
“Reset and try again. Contact Romeo Delta. Tell them to expect the bird to come in hot. What time do we have to splashdown?”
“Eighteen minutes sir,” said the LCO One as he keyed his radio receiver to contact the warships stationed in Romeo Delta Two Four in the Mediterranean Sea to expect the incoming rogue missile.
Seconds passed agonisingly slow and then another light flashed from red to green on the FCO’s computer. “Major, the warhead has just gone live!”
“What? How the hell can that be? It didn’t have the codes. We don’t have those damn codes!”
“I don’t know … it could be a system malfunction … or sabotage … I’m checking now to verify the status …”
“Deactivate the warhead now!”
Typing furiously on his keyboard, the FCO replied in frustration: “Negative … it’s not accepting the deactivation code. We seem to be locked out!”
“Notify Romeo Delta that the bird is armed hot. Tell them to shoot it down,” said the Major.
More tense minutes passed as the men in the Launch Control Centre tried in vain to regain control of their deadly wayward missile.
“Sir, we have an unauthorised course correction,” said the LCO Two looking at his radar screen, his face looking deathly pale. “SGI-415 is turning … it’s not heading west towards the Med … the missile has veered off course … it’s now heading east … no, make that south-east. Successful Stage Three separation now confirmed. Ballistic heading holding steady … North 31 degrees 56 minutes, East 35 degrees 55 minutes ... we will have atmospheric re-entry in two minutes … the warhead is armed and it’s coming down hot …”
“Where?” shouted Major Rothschild still staring unbelievingly at his radar screen.
Turning to his commander LCO Two reported gravely: “Sir if the Jericho continues on its present ballistic trajectory, it will impact Amman Jordan plus/minus two kilometres in just under six minutes.”
Major Rothschild feared that it might already be too late but still he had to try. “Get me Iron Dome Echo Base quickly!”
OUTSKIRTS OF BEIT SHE’AN, EAST ISRAEL NEAR THE JORDANIAN BORDER – MARCH 5, 0609 HOURS
For all his years of intense training, Lieutenant-Colonel Yuval Eisner was a man who learnt to rely on his instincts. As commander of an Iron Dome anti-missile battery located twelve kilometres outside Beit She’an, he did not have the luxury of time to think and process information. It would be far too slow. In his line of work when called upon to act, he had only seconds to make a decision. It would all come down to his instincts.
“We have a confirmed RAM Foxtrot – coordinates now North 32 degrees 06 minutes, East 35 degrees 34 minutes … Angels eight seven dot four … descending hot,” said Major Rothschild.
RAM Foxtrot is the abbreviation for a Rogue Armed Missile (Friendly). LTC Eisner’s radar tracking systems which were responsible for providing an anti-missile shield to protect Israel’s eastern flank had already detected the unauthorised missile launch a few minutes earlier.
“We still have a hard track on the warhead … it’s outside our borders … approaching max range of the Arrow. Confirm your payload?” responded Colonel Eisner as he watched the little red triangle on his radar screen moving rapidly towards the outer edge of his tracking beam.
“Payload is live … biological … anthrax. Repeat, warhead is armed for airborne dispersal at Angels Three Zero.” The bullet-nose weapon was set to discharge its deadly payload automatically at 3000 feet above the target zone.
“Biological live ... roger … attempting intercept … standby,” said Colonel Eisner coldly. He knew that the warhead which had separated from its missile body was already in Jordanian airspace and barely within the fuel range of his Arrow missiles but still he had to try.
Confirming that he still had a good radar lock on the distant target, Colonel Eisner fired a salvo of four Arrow II interceptors to chase down and destroy the rogue warhead which was just minutes away from the Jordanian capital.
Still, he knew that his efforts would in all probability, be in vain. His Arrows were after all short-range interceptors meant to engage incoming enemy missiles headed in their general direction. They simply were not designed to pursue a distant outbound target in its final ballistic trajectory stage.
On his radar monitor, Colonel Eisner watched the chase for two minutes. One by one he saw his Arrow missiles disappear from the screen, falling harmlessly to earth as they simply ran out of fuel. It was all too late.
JORDANIAN DESERT – MARCH 5, 0609 HOURS
The volatile skies above the Middle East are among the most closely watched in the world. Military monitoring stations in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Iraq detected within minutes the launch at Har Megiddo in Israel as the Jericho streaked skyward punching into the stratosphere trailing a tail of fire.
Among those tracking the rogue weapon was a US Patriot anti-missile battery stationed in northern Jordan. It was there to protect the kingdom against rebel attacks in the civil war raging nearby in Syria as militants from the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) regrouped and pushed to capture more territory.
Battery commander Captain Dominic Michael Miller watched transfixed as the four Arrow missiles fired by Israel, crossed the rugged Jordanian border before crashing harmlessly in the mountains just north of Balqa after they presumably ran out of fuel.
Captain Miller’s orders were clear – he was allowed only to engage the missiles fired into Jordan by Muslim rebels in Syria. Targeting an Israeli missile was far beyond the scope of his jurisdiction. He knew he would only have a very limited time – just seconds really – to make a decision. A voice to his left interrupted his thoughts. It was his second in command, Lieutenant Gary Kennedy.
“Bandit is acquired. We have a confirmed lock. Range to target now One Two Four miles. The Jericho’s coming down fast Captain.”
Years of training kicked into high gear in an instant. Without thinking, the technical specifications of the Jericho missile instantly ran through his head. The Jericho III is a highly-capable intercontinental weapon; a three-stage solid-propellant gives it a range in excess of 11,000km; weapons – a single 750-kilogramme nuclear warhead or up to three low-yield independently-targeted nuclear warheads for a tactical dispersal strike; also capable of carrying a chemical or biological payload or conventional high-explosive munitions.
Even in the best-case scenario, Captain Miller knew that a single warhead loaded with up to 1,300 kilogrammes of conventional high explosives could easily take out a quarter of the city if not more. Still, his orders had been explicit. His job was to engage enemy missiles fired into Jordan from Syria. The only exception he had was to target any airborne threats aimed directly at his missile battery.
“What’s the target area?”
“Final stage separation complete … appears to be a single warhead … unable to detect any radiation signature … based on its present ballistic trajectory, the weapon will impact central Amman in … under two minutes. Range to target now … eight six dot seven miles … closing fast.”
The Jericho would not come even close to his Patriot missile base. He could not claim any action in self-defence.
“Awaiting launch order …” said Lieutenant Kennedy as he stared at his commander.
“No,” replied Captain Miller shaking his head, “We can’t … PAAC4 is to stay on Weapons Hold. We need Washington’s approval.”
“Fifty-five seconds till target is out of intercept range,” said the Lieutenant. “Come on Captain, you know what’s at stake here – it’s a Jericho III – an ICBM. That could be another nuke heading towards a friendly. This could be a Singapore-style hit all over again …”
Just months earlier, a group of terrorists detonated a small nuclear device in Singapore destroying a visiting US carrier group in port and killing thousands of civilians.
Captain Miller waited as his satellite telephone connected him to Washington some 6,000 miles away. “I know, I know … it’s ringing,” he hissed back.
“Captain we don’t have time. The target is still in range … just barely. We only have a few more seconds to intercept before it’s out of AOR. It’s up to us now!” said Lieutenant Kennedy as he continued watching his radar monitor. The Jericho warhead was now almost above Amman. He moved his gloved finger over the launch button.
“No! We can’t … it’s not up to us. You don’t launch just one missile at the enemy – you launch a salvo. This could just be a mistake … or the first of many … its Washington’s call.” Finally, he heard a voice on the other end of the line but he knew that the seconds he had to engage the target had already run out.
Captain Miller had barely begun relaying the information to his superiors when he was interrupted by Lieutenant Kennedy again.
“Impact … impact – warhead is down!” he said, his eyes still glued to his radar monitor.
“Do we have detonation?” asked Captain Miller still clenching the telephone receiver even tighter.
“Wait – still checking …”
“Shit, Gary, do we have a damn nuclear blast or not?” he screamed.
“Negative, Captain,” replied Lieutenant Kennedy, “Thermals are negative … nothing on satellite … no explosion. It could be a dud.”
But the missile was far from a dud. Barometric sensors buried deep inside Jericho’s brain detected its rapidly descending altitude. At 3000 feet just as the warhead overflew the outskirts of Amman, eight small guide fins were extended to reduce the angle of attack and increase the glide profile of the weapon maximising its contamination area.
At the same time, a miniature servo motor was activated. Twenty-two small protective shields within the nosecone were instantly retracted revealing a series of tiny channels to the inner core. There a canister of compressed nitrogen was triggered forcing out a steady stream of the anthrax spores from the billions it contained in its little payload bay. It was all over in less than ninety seconds.
Depleted of its deadly cargo, the spinning titanium warhead crashed harmlessly into the ground gouging a trench over a metre deep as a light mist of spores gently descended on the sleeping capital carried along on the morning’s spring breeze.
It took only 25 minutes for Jordanian military officers to locate the downed nosecone of the missile which had crashed barely three kilometres from their base. Its location had been tracked to an open field beside the main highway leading to Al Zarqa, a town northeast of the capital.
Climbing into the trench created by the impacting missile, the soldiers carefully inspected the dented remains confirming that it did not contain any explosives. None of them had ever seen a warhead like this before. Clearly it had not been designed to carry an explosive payload. The twisted electronics led them to believe that this was probably nothing more than a dummy warhead used in exercises for tracking a missile in flight.
Reporting back to their commander, the soldiers were ordered to photograph the scene and to carefully crate the wreckage which would be examined later by its military scientists. This debris could still yield some valuable military intelligence on the progress of Israel’s missile development programme.
While the soldiers were issued with protective gear, none of them thought it necessary to don their heavy anti-contamination suits. These might have offered them a measure of protection against the anthrax spores they were now inhaling. But no one bothered. Within the hour their job would be done. As for the intrusion into Jordanian airspace, it would be up to their politicians to sort this one out with their pesky Jewish neighbours to the west.
It was just after 6.20am and many of the three million residents of Amman were waking up to a new day. It seemed like any other as they prepared to leave their homes for work or school. A few people had already started to cough, some had watery eyes while a few more were vomiting. Most dismissed these symptoms as nothing more than an early sign of the Spring Influenza, a common ailment during this time of the year.
But within an hour any thoughts that this might just be a touch of the flu were quickly dismissed.