The State of Israel is targeted by the largest number of rockets and ballistic missiles in the world, yet it remains curiously and dangerously unprotected. Hamas has fired more than 4,500 projectiles at the Jewish state since 2001. Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel in 2006, and has since rearmed with more than 20,000 rockets, mostly supplied by Iran. The Mullahs, for their part, have upped the number of Shahab-3 missiles in their arsenal from roughly 30 at the start of 2008 to more than 100 today. Syria, too, threatens Israel with at least 1,000 Scud-C missiles, not to mention other dangerous varieties with more dangerous payloads.
How can Israel defend itself against this potential aerial onslaught? Short of taking out caches of rockets with air raids and running the risk of a reprisal, Israel must ulrimately rely on missile defense — also known as active defense in military circles— to shoot down incoming rockets, mortars and missiles before they hit their intended target on the ground.
For years, military experts have raised concerns over Israel’s lack of commitment to this defensive tactic. In a recently published report, the Comptroller of the State of Israel, Micha Lindenstraus, cited severe deficiencies in nearly every aspect of Israel’s missile defense program–everything from its funding to its research and development components. Now, as Hamas rearms after Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli public is growing increasingly uneasy over the vulnerability to attack.
From Arrow to Iron Dome
Presently, the Arrow missile defense system is Israel’s only functioning active defense system, designed to defend against long-range missiles, such as those fired from Iran. A joint U.S.-Israel project, Arrow has been upgraded over the years and is seen in Israel as a success story. Unfortunately, it offers no protection against short range Katyushas, Qassam rockets, and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip (Hamas) or southern Lebanon (Hezbollah). In addition, attempts to hit intermediate rockets (from Lebanon or Syria) with the Arrow system would likely deplete the ammunition reserved for defense against the aforementioned longer-range projectiles.
Two other missile defense systems designed to fill in the gaps — Iron Dome and David’s Sling — are now in development. Iron Dome, developed entirely in Israel (by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems), is designed to mitigate the dangers of short-range attacks, such as those coming from Hamas in Gaza. However, Iron Dome suffers from a lack of funding and what some in Israel perceive as a lack of commitment by the defense establishment. Its roll out date has been pushed back repeatedly.
David’s Sling, a joint project of Israel (Rafael) and the United States (Raytheon), is seen as the answer to the mid-range rockets (45 to 150 miles). However, U.S. experts don’t envision David’s Sling as being operational for years.
“It will be a great system once deployed, but that’s still some ways off,” said Avi Schnurr, Executive Director of the Israel Missile Defense Association (IMDA), a nongovernmental organization, referring to Davis’s Sling.
“Once they finish developing it, it has to go into testing. Once they finish testing, they then go into production. Once production is completed, then these missile defense systems are deployed,” Schnurr said in an interview with Palestinian Rocket Report.
The Other Israel Lobby
Thanks to Schnurr and his colleagues at IMDA, the Israeli public is increasingly aware of the slow timeline involved in defending against Hamas and Hezbollah rockets. This organization is playing an ever-important role in a sophisticated and embattled society that knows almost too much about traditional military tactics and strategies. The Israeli public has much to learn about the growing field of missile defense.
Prior to moving to Israel in 2005, Schnurr worked at Northrop Grumman and has given briefings to Congress, the White House, and NATO. He has since joined forces with several other missile defense experts— political and military leaders, past and present— to make the case for a faster roll-out of missile defense technologies to defend Israel in the coming rocket wars.
Interestingly, IMDA does not fault the government. Rather, it points out that history is replete with examples of decision-makers who failed to find solutions to projected problems. “A failure of imagination,” is how one military expert put it.
It is clear that more rocket attacks are in Israel’s future. Past clashes with Hamas and Hezbollah indicate that Israel cannot prevent all rocket attacks, even with pre-emptive strikes. An active defense is needed. As Schnurr states simply, “You cannot play soccer without a goalie.”
Yet, Israel continues to lack a goalie. Critics, including Israel’s comptroller, claim that much of the problem stems from Israel’s cumbersome bureaucracy. However, industry experts also claim that the slow rollouts are an issue of “blue and white;” Israel may be determined to wait for its own systems, rather than procuring ready-made systems made by other countries.
Industry experts, both in this country and in Israel, believe that Israel need not remain unprotected. The following steps could be taken immediately to defend against incoming missiles:
Purchase several Phalanx systems. Originally used on the decks of U.S. aircraft carriers to serve as a last line of defense against incoming missiles, the U.S. Army has successfully deployed the Phalanx system for years to protect the Green Zone in Iraq and other sensitive areas. If the Israelis were to purchase this system, they could defend key military installations and small communities from mortars and Qassam rockets.
Upgrade Israel’s current medium range system. The Israelis currently have the Raytheon-made PAC-2 system to mitigate the mid-range threat. PAC-2 became famous in military circles during Gulf War I, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Israel. PAC-2 helped these U.S. allies shoot down approximately 40% of the Iraqi projectiles fired. Many other countries have since acquired the upgraded version of this system —the PAC-3. Israel has not, leaving it with outdated hardware and vulnerabilities that its enemies can exploit.
Make missile defense a political issue. With the help of IMDA, the Israeli public can hold the incoming Knesset accountable for making verifiable progress on missile defense. The Knesset, under the leadership of incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has an opportunity to shore up an Israeli vulnerability that has been exposed for too long.
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).