Under a veil of secrecy, Israel appears to have taken another step toward boosting the range and accuracy of its ballistic missiles. A recent test fire of a weapon believed to be an improved version of the nuclear-capable Jericho III was deemed “highly successful,” by myriad defense sources.

The weapon was launched westbound from the missile test center at Palmachim AFB, south of Tel Aviv, to an unknown range and landed in the Mediterranean. The launch of the heavy missile was clearly visible throughout Israel's southern Mediterranean coast.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense declined to comment and issued a short statement saying merely that it had tested a “rocket propulsion system.”

“The scheduled test was pre-planned . . . and was carried out as expected,” the press release stated.

Reportedly, Israel's Jericho III intermediate-range ballistic missile is capable of carrying a 1,000-kg (2,204-lb.) warhead more than 5,000 km. It is believed to be designed to carry nuclear warheads.

Israel had never confirmed having nuclear military capabilities, nor has it admitted possessing an arsenal of ballistic missiles. But in 2008, the country launched what appeared to be a three-stage solid-propellant ballistic missile. Apart from defining it as a “dramatic leap” in missile capabilities, little else was said officially. However, analysts around the world have designated the missile as Jericho III, a heavier, longer-range version of its predecessor, the two-stage 1,500-km Jericho II.

Israel had begun developing ballistic missiles in the 1960s with the assistance of France, which also provided it with the Dimona nuclear reactor. The first prototype introduced then was the Jericho I short-range ballistic missile, with a range of 500 km. The Jericho II was first tested in 1986 and is believed to have become operational shortly after.

Almost immediately following that event, Israel introduced the Shavit satellite launch vehicle (SLV), which was apparently developed in parallel to the Jericho. The Shavit 1 three-stage SLV was used in 1988 to launch the experimental Ofeq-1 satellite and placed it in low Earth orbit. After three failures of the Shavit, Israel developed an improved SLV, the Shavit-2, used to launch the Ofeq-7 reconnaissance satellite in 2007 and the Ofeq-9 in 2010.

The Jericho III is believed to be derived from the Shavit-2 SLV, developed and manufactured by IAI's MLM Div., with Israel Military Industries Givon Div. developing the rocket engine for the first and second stage, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. producing the engine for the third stage.

Perceived to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel has vowed to prevent its archenemy Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities.