ISRAEL’S MISSILE DEFENSE GAP


Last week, the number of rocket propelled attacks on Israel initiated from Gaza and falling on Israeli territory passed the 10,000 mark.  Someone, somewhere is obviously keeping score, despite the fact that the aggregate number of attacks seems to have little impact on governmental decision making.   The milestone would, in fact, go largely unnoticed if it wasn’t for the fact that Hamas has called an end to its six month old cease fire agreement with Israel and that Israeli intelligence had confirmed that the rockets’ range now allows them to penetrate up to 40 kms of Israeli airspace.   This brings hundreds of thousands more Israeli citizens within range of Hamas’ Kassam rockets.

 

The Israeli government’s virtual accommodation of the Gaza attacks reflects one of the strangest anomalies in international relations today.  A sovereign nation, possessing one of the strongest and most effective military capabilities in the world and aided by an unrivalled intelligence service, is either unable or unwilling to curtail terrorist attacks on its citizenry emanating from foreign soil.  Reaction to direct hits on houses, schools, playgrounds and commercial centers vary from threats backed up only by hyperbole, to little more than a shrug.  A prime ministerial candidate has even gone on record as describing the situation in Israel’s south as something the country “ must learn to live with.”

 

There is of course a certain torpid symmetry with what is happening in the country’s north.  Since the August 2006 ceasefire with Hezbollah, that terrorist organization has continued to amass considerable armaments for a renewed attack on the Jewish state, with missiles that can reputedly cover almost the entire country.  Given Hezbollah’s continued and unimpeded build up, a renewed Lebanon war, as almost everyone in Israel acknowledges, is simply a matter of time. 

 

Given the inertia of the Israeli military and the complaisance of the government on the  threats emanating from enemy territory, you could be forgiven for believing  that one of the prime matters over which the Israeli electorate would be asked to decide in its coming February election is the issue of missile defense.   But you would be wrong.  Missile defense is not seriously discussed or debated in Israel, despite the fact that the country has no effective short or medium range missile defense shield.  While the Arrow defense system is capable of intercepting long range ballistic missiles, the short range missiles, such as Kassams and Katyushas can be fired into Israel unimpeded.   And in the north, Hizbullah has obtained 200 new Fatah missiles against which Israel has no effective defense.

 

To be fair, the Israeli government has spent millions on the development of two missile defense systems.  David’s Sling would fill the medium range defense gap, in an estimated five to eight years.  Iron Dome is designed to address short range katyushas and kassams, and could be deployed in three to four years, though it is generally acknowledged it will not be useable against mortars or the shorter range kassams being fired against Sderot.

 

But, even if these defenses arrive on time and do the job, Israel may not have the luxury of time.  The July-August 2006 attacks by Hezbollah on the country’s north rained 4,000 rockets on the country within a 33 day period, at a cost to Israel of about $5.2 billion, taking with it 133 lives and forcing over one million people to evacuate their homes.  The physical, economic and psychological devastation wrought by that conflict would be multiplied exponentially in a war in which missiles from both the south and north would collectively reach every major Israeli population center. 

 

Simply put, in the next war, there will be nowhere to run.

 

Certain experts in Israel will tell you that no immediate solution exists to this existential threat and that the technology has yet to cope with the enormity of the issue.  But that is patently untrue.   For the shortest range threats, a working prototype of an active laser missile defense system exists and could be upgraded and deployed in Israel in approximately twelve months.  Another system – the Phalanx Gun – is already in use in the Green Zone in Iraq against such threats.  Although it has far less coverage than the laser, several systems could begin providing immediate capability.  For medium range, the new PAC3 missile has been tested with outstanding performance, and is now deployed in Japan, South Korea, Europe and in Arab states throughout the Middle East. 

Given the ongoing, severe problems Israel faces in the south, the existing Phalanx Gun and the demonstrated laser weapon system seem like obvious choices.   The short range laser weapon, known as Nautilus, or the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) actually began life in 1996 as a joint project between the U.S. Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Nautilus/THEL focuses a high-energy laser beam on flying threats such as rockets, missiles, mortars and artillery shells, destroying them in flight.

While planned for several years as the solution to Israel‘s problems with Katyusha fire and Kassam attacks, funding for the program was reduced following Israel‘s May, 2000 pullout from Lebanon and, for a variety of reasons, Israeli and American funding for the program was cancelled in January 2006.  In 2007 Northrup Grumman, the U.S. main contractor of MTHEL systems, offered to build and deploy in Israel a number of Skyguard systems – a special implementation of the MTHEL tailored for Israel’s needs.  Israel’s Ministry of Defense refused the offer, as they have refused to consider trying out the Phalanx Gun.

Why?  The answers are multifold.  The first is politics.   The millions of dollars which have been made available in research funds for the development of missile defense  system have been managed almost exclusively by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, which has, apparently, dealt with its concerns about competition for Iron Dome funding by suppressing other, more mature systems.  This reflects a fundamental compartmentalization of the problem – funding decisions might be made at the highest levels of the government, yet decisions on allocations of these same funds for critical programs are made by lower level officials who feel they must deal with existing budgets.

The second reason is one of constituency.    Israel’s army and airforce possess extraordinary influence in the country and have advocates both in Israel and abroad capable of bringing pressure to bear on the political establishment.  There is no comparable missile defense agency or a lobbying group advocating for it in Israel.  To exemplify the lack of political clout, the operational office responsible for Israel’s missile defense is located in a back corner of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and must make do with a very small staff.  With almost no one to approach for stories, the Israeli media has therefore not adequately broached the issue and no discussion or debate takes place regarding it on the country’s talk shows and news programs.

The third reason is ignorance.    Successive Ministers of Defense have not had adequate knowledge or felt the urgency to become extensively informed about the systems that could have effectively averted the last Lebanon War or made life immeasurably easier for the inhabitants of border towns such as Sderot.  The current Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff and a former prime minister as well, has shown only minimal interest in building missile defense systems of any sort– short, medium or even long range.

This tale of woe has its mirror, to a certain extent, in the United States.   While short range rocket fire is not an issue (providing Mexico’s drug cartels do not gain hold of missile technology) the country is very exposed to a short range ballistic missile attack launched by a terrorist commanded vessel beyond U.S. territorial waters.  To the country’s detriment, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, known derisively as “ Stars Wars”, by which rockets launched at the United States could be detected and eliminated from space, was cancelled by the Clinton government.    This was a significant blow to missile defense in the United States and parallels, for many of the same reasons, the problems in Israel.

 Both countries must come to grips now with the accelerated need for effective missile defense.  There is no excuse for countries as technologically sophisticated and financially capable as Israel and the United States in not exploring every avenue possible for full protection of their hinterlands.  Without question it must be a high priority for the Obama Administration as well as the incoming Israeli prime minister, whoever he or she might be. 

 

 

 

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