Analyst: Rocket Engine Test Likely Caused Blast in Israel

israel rocket blast
A satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows what analysts describe as a test site for rocket motors at Israel’s secretive Sdot Micha Air Base on Saturday. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

A mysterious blast heard in central Israel appears to have come during a rocket engine test conducted at a secretive military base associated with the country’s missile program, according to an analyst and satellite images.

Video of the incident at Sdot Micha Air Base circulated online last week. Iranian state media seized on it amid its tensions with Israel after a series of attacks targeting its nuclear program and amid negotiations in Vienna over its tattered atomic accord.

However, the smoke and flames filmed April 20 appear to be from a rocket engine test, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who located the site with others. Lewis said the image compared to others of similar tests he and experts have extensively studied.

Satellite photos taken by Planet Labs Inc. and analyzed by The Associated Press of a known rocket test stand at Sdot Micha showed char marks and foliage burned away at the site after April 20. However, the surrounding buildings bore no signs of damage. The location also mirrored details of the video posted to social media.

The Israeli Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to questions from the AP.

Tomer, an Israeli government-owned company, told the AP on Sunday the blast came from “a conventional, controlled test in accordance with the working plan.”

The incident came just after Israel and the U.S. announced in February they would begin work on a new generation of interceptor missiles called the Arrow-4. Tomar on its website describes itself as producing the “rocket motors of the Arrow missiles, Shavit satellite launchers, ELRAD air defense systems and artillery rockets.” Such test-stand experiments often involve new systems.

Tomer declined to comment on whether the test involved the Arrow.

Israel hopes to replace its Arrow-2 missiles for the Arrow-4. The missiles, fired out of canisters, intercept and destroy ballistic missiles. The Arrow missiles are key to Israel’s defense against the ballistic missile program of Iran. In a February statement, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the Arrow-4 would provide Israel with a “technological and operational leap forward, preparing us for the future battlefield and evolving threats in the Middle East and beyond.”

The air base, some 21 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, includes a system of bunkers and underground facilities, some built with assistance from the U.S. government. Defense-analysis firm Janes believes the air base also is home to Israel’s nuclear-weapon-capable Jericho ballistic missiles. Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons, though it is widely believed to possess them.

The question arises as to why Tomer was not more candid about the nature of the test, especially when it openly produces rocket motors for well-known, non-controversial Israeli missiles, including the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 air defense systems and the Shavit satellite launcher.

“Why didn’t Tomer just say it was a solid rocket motor test? The fact that Israel produces large solid rocket motors for, among other systems, the Shavit space launch vehicle is no secret. There isn’t really any reason to be coy, it’s just … a habit. A culture that evolved in a past era and has yet to adapt to the current one,” Lewis said, according to The Times of Israel.

With reporting by the Associated Press.