Since Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in June 2005, the Hamas terrorist organization has launched thousands of crude but deadly rockets (mostly Qassams) into civilian populations in Southern Israel, including an estimated 35 in one night last week. Occasionally, these rocket attacks elicit a brief Israeli military response. Just as often, however, there are calls to fortify local schools and homes to help reduce the damage.
As the recent Qassam salvos indicate, Hamas cannot be expected to honor the ceasefire much longer, and Israelis are growing frustrated. Their question: where is the high-tech missile defense system, promised by Israeli leadership in recent years, to shoot these rockets out of the sky?
The Case for Missile Defense
Missile defense (known in military circles as Active Defense) refers to the ability of a country to identify, target and destroy incoming rockets before they hit their intended targets. Americans (and much of the world) were first introduced to this technology during the first Gulf War in 1991 (Operation Desert Storm), when Patriot Missile Defense, developed by the U.S. military, targeted Iraqi Scud missiles fired into Saudi Arabia and Israel.
All missile defense systems are not created equal. There are specific defense systems for specific missile types. For example, the Arrow-2 system (developed jointly by the United States and Israel) was designed to intercept missiles traveling long distances. Arrow-2 was reported to be “operational” in 2000. However, the system is useless in intercepting short-range rockets (6 miles or less), such as the Qassams fired by Hamas from Gaza.
“1991 was the first time we [Israelis] understood that missiles can come into our country,” Brigadier General Aryeh Fishbein (Res) of the Israel Air Defense Corp recently noted at a September 2008 conference in Jerusalem. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein lobbed Scud missiles into northern Israel, the population fled south. “Today,” Fishbein observed, “there is nowhere to run. People want a solution.”
The September conference, sponsored by the Israel Missile Defense Association, brought other top strategists on the subject. Among the many important observations made, Brigadier General Etan Yariv (Res) noted that because of the growing missile threat from areas adjacent to Israel’s borders (including the missile threat from the Lebanese Hezbollah organization to Israel’s north), new approaches to the problem are urgently needed. Indeed, as Yariv stated, in Israel’s current military climate, “there is no distinction between home front and the [battle] front.”
Proponents of Active Defense point out that the benefits of shooting down missiles before they hit their intended targets are not limited to the obvious goal of preventing damage and injury. There is a psychological component, too. The technology frustrates terrorist organizations seeking to claim credit for damage or casualties inside Israel. This removes a critical component of the terrorist media strategy.
Moreover, as Yariv and some of his colleagues argue, preventing fatalities from rocket salvos in a civilian area gives political “decision makers time to decide the best course of response” to attempted attacks. In other words, rather than making decisions regarding reprisals at the instant attacks occur (when emotions can cloud judgment), missile defense would allow Israel’s political leaders to calmly determine the best course of action. Still, it must be noted that this benefit is useless without a tough Israeli government determined to defeat its rocket-launching enemies.
As Palestinian rockets have become more lethal and capable of reaching deeper into Israeli territory, media reports indicate that the Israeli public is impatient to get missile defense up and running. In February 2007, then-Minister of Defense Amir Peretz confirmed publicly that Israel had selected “Iron Dome” as the country’s preferred missile system to defend Israel against Qassams and other short-range missiles. It was billed in the media as an Active Defense program that would be designed and built entirely in Israel. The Israeli government chose Rafael, an Israeli defense contractor based in Haifa, over a number of other well-regarded defense companies, including American juggernauts Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. However, nearly two years later, Rafael has yet to roll out its system.
Once it is finally deployed, the system promises to represent the best that Israeli technology has to offer. When a rocket is fired, the radar alerts the system’s operators to the threat of an incoming projectile. The information is then quickly relayed to a computerized control vehicle for assessment. If the projectile is deemed to pose a threat (some are misfired and fall short on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border), Iron Dome will launch its own defensive “missile.” When Iron Dome locks on to a Qassam’s trajectory, Israeli radar guides its defensive missile to intercept the incoming rocket. While still in its testing phase, developers believe the system will intercept incoming Qassams far enough away from civilian populations to prevent missile debris and fallout from landing on Israeli population centers.
While Israelis are optimistic that Iron Dome will save lives, development glitches have delayed roll out. The target deployment date of 2009 has been pushed back. Industry analysts now estimate that the system will be unveiled in 2011, or even later. Privately, some missile experts in the United States and Israel question whether Iron Dome will ever be deployed.
One reason for the delay is cost. Although Defense Minister Ehud Barak labeled Iron Dome a “national emergency project,” supporters of this estimated $300 million missile defense initiative must fight for funding among many other crucial projects vying for a piece of Israel’s increasingly competitive defense budget. It was reported during the summer that the United States was needed to assist in funding the project.
In addition to development, the cost of one disposable component – the interceptor – makes daily operation prohibitively expensive. The original estimated cost of $25,000 for one interceptor missile has crept steadily up. When compared to the cost of the crude Qassam missiles that Iron Dome shoots down – a mere $100 – the project’s operational costs seem exorbitant.
Iron Dome’s Detractors
While Iron Dome enjoys the support of Israeli politicians and some leading military officials, it also has detractors. Some industry experts favor other Active Defense systems. One system currently in use on the battlefield is called Phalanx, a product of Raytheon. Originally designed for the protection of naval ships,it is used in Iraq to protect American assets and positions. Phalanx is basically a radar-equipped, high-powered machine gun that shoots down incoming rockets. Some in Israel are calling for the deployment of the Phalanx system around the oft-targeted town of Sderot until Iron Dome is operational.
But Phalanx, too, has its downside. Avi Schnurr, executive director of the Israel Missile Defense Association, calls it a “very capable system,” but also warns that the “defended footprint is small.” In other words, Phalanx can only defend a very small area (such as the ships they were originally designed to protect). Thus, at least five of these systems would be needed to defend even a town as small as Sderot. The other drawbacks associated with Phalanx are the exceptionally loud noise it creates when it is deployed, as well as the higher potential for debris caused by missiles destroyed in the air. Both of these are legitimate civilian qualms, but both are also far better than the alternative of continued rocket fire.
Active Defense is not Active
There is no doubt that the Jewish state has the ability to develop a missile defense system capable of reducing this threat. As one Israeli general stated, “Priorities, not budget, is the problem.”
To some in the military, Israel’s continued vulnerability to Qassams and other deadly rockets stems from its historical reluctance to commit to missile defense. The reason for this is that it runs counter to the guiding principles of the Israel Defense Forces. Indeed, no matter how “active” the system is characterized, it is still defensive. The Israeli military takes pride in its proactive approach to warfare, always seeking to fight its battles as far as possible from its own civilian populations.
As Janes editor David Isby reported this summer, “for some in the [Israeli] military, Iron Dome will – at best – reduce the effects of Qassams, whereas many in and out of the military are demanding elimination [of Qassams].”
In other words, Active Defense will save lives, but it endangers the very defense doctrine that has protected Israel since its inception 60 years ago. Indeed, eradicating the Hamas infrastructure that produces Qassams is the only way Israel can truly neutralize this threat. However, every day that passes without an Active Defense system in place leaves Israelis vulnerable to continued rocket attacks.
Robert Ivker is a missile defense analyst for Palestinian Rocket Report. He is a former journalist at the United Nations and author of One Town’s Terror: 9/11, Iraq and Burlington, Vermont (2006).