With Israel deep into a military confrontation sparked by relentless rocket fire from Gaza, security officials are fuming over claims made by some reserve officers, scientists and other analysts in newspaper articles and at public meetings, and echoed privately by some politicians, that the US Skyguard missile defense system could have been deployed to protect the South if Israel had not abandoned its interest in the project in 2005.
Former senior military officers, for instance, played up Skyguard's ostensible capabilities at a conference last week dedicated to "Protecting the Home Front." They claimed that Northrop Grumman's Skyguard, which uses lasers to shoot down incoming missiles, is cheaper, more effective and could be ready for use more quickly than the alternative being pursued by the Defense Ministry: local contractor Rafael's Iron Dome, which employs short-range rockets to intercept the incoming fire.
But Defense Ministry officials bitterly reject the criticism. They note that Israel invested $120 million in the Nautilus system - the name by which Skyguard was originally known - along with $280 m. in American funding, and had every interest in its success. Far from being a better alternative to Iron Dome, however, extensive evaluation led both Israeli and American experts to conclude that Skyguard was not even a remotely viable solution to the short-range rocket threat, and both governments pulled out of the project.
Last March, Defense Ministry Director-General Pinchas Buhris paid a visit to White Sands, New Mexico, to see the Nautilus laser system deployed there and be briefed on its upgraded version, Skyguard. Defense officials told The Jerusalem Post at the time that Buchris and his delegation were not impressed and returned convinced that the choice of Iron Dome was correct and that the US system was not feasible.
Since then, the Israeli defense sources say, the difficulties associated with Skyguard, compared to the progress on Iron Dome, have only confirmed their assessment.
Northrop Grumman was reported last year to have told Israel that with an investment of $180 m., it would be able to turn the heavy, land-based Nautilus system into the viable, upgraded Skyguard - a more compact and mobile system that would be ready for shipment within 18 months.
But defense officials dismissed the proposal, and regard the costing as unrealistically low and the timescale as extremely optimistic, the Post has been told.
Iron Dome, by contrast, the officials say, "is proceeding at a good pace," with an important intercept test scheduled for this spring, and its developers working "round the clock" with the aim of a first deployment early next year.
The defense officials have also dismissed the claims made by supporters of the Nautilus - including laser expert and former Rafael employee Dr. Oded Amihai - that Iron Dome is incapable of protecting Sderot due to the short distance between Gaza and the Negev city.
The officials said that Iron Dome had recently been updated and was capable of hitting incoming missiles that were fired at a range of as little as 4 kilometers and as much as 70 kilometers from their target, which would account for the overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza in the current confrontation.
Defense officials stress that even the best missile defense will not provide "hermetic" protection against Kassams, Grads, mortars and similar weaponry. But Iron Dome, they insist, constitutes the most realistic defense currently taking shape.
If Skyguard or any other system was truly available and effective, officials say, it would be unthinkable for Israel not to obtain and deploy it to protect its citizenry. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
As for the Centurion system, deployed by the US to protect bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israeli defense officials say it has only limited potential application for Israel since it is effective only in defending small, specific locations.