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Israel's SDI By: Robert Ivker
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel has been on the receiving end of close to 7,000 short-range rockets and missiles, including the attacks that have received increased media attention this week. In fact, during just one day last week, Hamas launched over 60 at the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip. Even now, as Israel pummels Hamas launch sites, rockets continue to hit the civilian populations of southern Israel. These populations continue to call upon Israel’s leadership to deploy an effective missile defense system.

Iron Dome

Despite conflicting media reports, Israel’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) insists that the Iron Dome anti-missile system will be operational in early 2010. The MOD chose the Israeli company Rafael in 2003 to develop the system to combat the ongoing threat of short-range rockets that Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups regularly fire from Gaza.

The Israelis expect that, when complete, Iron Dome will detect incoming rockets, transmit that information to its own launching system, and then fire defensive rockets to intercept the incoming Palestinian projectile. Critics, however, question the wisdom of constructing a system in which each intercepting missile costs $25,000 each, particularly when Palestinian rockets, such as the Hamas-built Qassam, costs less than $200 apiece to build.

According to Shlomo Dror, Spokesperson for the Israel Defense Force (IDF), this criticism may be off-target. In a recent interview, Mr. Dror made two important points with regard to the cost effectiveness of Iron Dome. First, he reminds skeptics that Iron Dome would not automatically intercept every Qassam that Hamas launches. Rather, through an early warning system known as Red Dawn (which is already operational), the IDF would determine which rockets pose legitimate threats and which rockets will land in unpopulated areas. Armed with that knowledge, the IDF would deploy Iron Dome only to intercept rockets that pose a threat. Dror also challenges the argument that Iron Dome is not worth the cost. It typically costs $50,000 to repair a home in southern Israel damaged by a Palestinian rocket. This is $25,000 more than the cost of an interceptor.

Why Iron Dome?

Critics, both inside the Israeli government and out, question Jerusalem’s choice of Iron Dome as the missile defense solution to short range rockets. While its estimated “hit rate” of 80 percent is undoubtedly impressive, the mounting development costs and continuing delays in the system’s deployment has led missile experts to question openly why Israel did not elect to purchase a ready-made system from Europe or America, rather than developing one in Israel from scratch.

“If we had a better system from another country, we would have gone with it,” counters Dror. Developing the system in Israel also gave the IDF two distinct advantages. For one, the IDF can customize the system to Israel’s specific needs, rather than trying to retrofit an already existing model. The second advantage is that the IDF can maintain a higher level of operational security. Indeed, Israel faces a lower risk of exposing classified information to foreign nationals because the project is undertaken on Israeli soil. For these reasons, the “Committee of Thirty,” a group of academics, intelligence analysts, military experts, and technologists assembled by the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, stand behind Israel’s decision to continue to develop Iron Dome with Raphael.

Interim Solutions?

While Jerusalem may stand behind its decision, the residents of Sderot and the other Gaza Belt communities do not necessarily stand behind Jerusalem. While these communities wait for Iron Dome’s deployment, the rocket fire continues. Many residents of these areas seek an immediate and effective interim solution.

Massachusetts-based Raytheon Corporation may have that solution. Its Phalanx system, originally designed to protect sea vessels against incoming rockets, is a high-powered, radar-equipped machine gun. In recent years, the U.S. military has given the system extremely positive reviews for its defense of American interests on land, in Iraq. It is capable of firing up to 4500 rounds per minute.

Questions remain, however, over Phalanx’s performance on land. Specifically, the altitude at which Phalanx shoots down incoming rockets raises civilian safety issues. Even if Phalanx can successfully destroy an incoming Qassam, the falling debris from the rocket could create another set of hazards. Critics have also raised concerns that Phalanx is extraordinarily loud when fired.

While one former Raytheon executive familiar with the Phalanx admits that debris is a problem, he notes that a falling rocket is just as dangerous. In response to complaints about the noise, he asks: “How loud do you think the sound will be if the Qassam hits a house?”

The Next Generation

As critics and proponents debate the efficacy and timeframe of Iron Dome along with the interim solutions available prior to its deployment, Israeli officials are already searching for its successor.

Some suggest that laser will be the future of short-term rocket defense. Others believe that Iron Dome will simply require upgrades and modifications. Still another popular idea is a “one size fits all” missile defense – one that can intercept long-range Iranian missiles, medium-range rockets out of Lebanon or Syria, and short-term rockets out of Gaza. However, many experts doubt that such a system is even possible to build.

The most popular vision, among both in Israeli and American decision makers, is for a layered approach. Under this strategy, various technologies and systems would be integrated to deal with all ranges of missiles. Israelis military experts believe that such a comprehensive system is not only achievable, but that it might even help the IDF save in the long-term on costs and personnel.

Whether or not Israel can develop such a system remains to be seen. In the meantime, proponents of missile defense see this current conflict as justification for moving forward with any system that will help defend civilian population centers right now. At this point, issues of noise and debris from missiles are no longer credible reasons to dismiss a system that might prove effective. The country is at war.

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).

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