The intensification of the Kassam rocket attacks on the town of Sderot has once again raised the question of defense against this weapon. Interest in this subject is not new. More than a decade ago, when the town of Kiryat Shmona was being bombarded by Katyusha rockets from Lebanon, the Israeli defense establishment began to address this challenge. Its initial response took the form of the tactical laser system "Nautilus."
The system, which was developed as a joint American-Israeli venture, was supposed to destroy rockets with a powerful laser beam. Vast amounts of money were invested, but the project was finally suspended.
However, interest in anti-rocket defenses has revived in recent years. Even before the Second Lebanon War, the defense establishment reviewed several proposals in the framework of its SRBMD (Short-Range Ballistic Missile Defense) requirements. The main threats against which this system was built were rockets like the Iranian Fajr-3 and -5 and the Zelzal-2, which were already in the hands of Hizbullah. These were rockets with ranges of between 40 km. and 200 km.
In May 2006, the Defense Ministry selected the Rafael-Raytheon proposal called "Stunner" (known in Israel as "Magic Wand.") The system entails a new interceptor based on the Python family of air-to-air missiles, together with a new radar by Elta. It is being developed with American aid: the US Congress allocated $25 million for the project in the 2007 fiscal year. The price tag of a single interceptor is estimated at $100,000.
In the Second Lebanon War, most of the damage to Israel was caused by very short-range rockets, like the Russian Grads. Furthermore, the threat of Kassam rockets fired by Palestinian insurgents from the Gaza strip increased. In a fast-track procedure, the Defense Ministry reviewed several proposals for USRMD (ultra short-range missile defense - 5 km. to 40 km.) and selected Rafael's "Iron Dome." Like "Magic Wand," it is based on a small interceptor and a radar. Rafael is committed to operational capability within 30 months. Once operational, a single system is estimated to cost $300m., and each interceptor will cost about $40,000.
The development of these systems has been harshly criticized in the media. For example, it has been argued that the technological challenge may be insurmountable: the Kassam and the Grad are very small, and their time of flight is very short - not more than 20 seconds. In such circumstances, it will be extremely difficult to identify their launch, analyze the data and intercept them.
Secondly, it is argued that intercepting rockets is not viable economically. A single interceptor costs at least $40,000, while the cost of single Kassam is a small fraction of this sum. Thus, the Palestinians or Hizbullah could draw Israel into an endless cycle of escalating expenses by producing more and more cheap and simple rockets and forcing Israel to build more and more expensive interceptors.
Thirdly, any defense system might be overwhelmed by the simultaneous firing of a large number of rockets. Thus, even if the defender were very efficient, many rockets would still be able to hit their targets. In this context, it should be noted that multiple-barrel rocket launchers were specifically designed to fire concentrated salvos. For example, the BM-21, which is a standard system in many armies, is capable of firing 40 rockets in less than a minute. A battery of six BM-21s would fire 240 rockets in the same time. It is inconceivable that any defense system would be able to intercept a significant proportion of these rockets.
Notwithstanding all the above, an anti-rocket defense system is not necessarily a waste of taxpayers' money. First of all, although it is clear that no defense system would be able to withstand concentrated barrages of rockets, the systems currently being developed are actually intended to defend against protracted harassing fire on civilian targets, i.e. a small number of rockets launched simultaneously over an extended period. In such scenarios, the attacker needs to preserve his resources, and the target will find it easier to defend himself.
Secondly, comparing the price of an interceptor missile to the price of the rocket it is supposed to intercept is a wrong calculation. The correct calculation would compare the price of an interceptor to the expected damage from enemy rocket fire. It is true that on the average, the direct damage from one rocket is very small (most actually do no physical damage at all). But the relevant calculation should also factor in the cumulative damage to a population subject to the ceaseless threat of rockets and the cumulative damage to the economy of towns under attack caused by the flight of residents or of investment capital and the corresponding downturn in business activity. Though impossible to quantify, the damage to public morale is also a major consideration.
Thirdly, the impact on the defense industry, which is an important factor in the country's overall defense capability, must also be taken into account. In order to preserve the defense industry's cutting edge, there must be continuing investment, both in terms of budgets and in technological challenges. The Lavi project proved that even if the final product does not materialize, technologies developed for it can be applied in other products and marketed abroad.
Fourthly, there is the matter of Israel's ties with the US defense establishment, which has a strong interest in developing new anti-missile defenses and associated technologies. Israeli investment in such technologies would encourage complementary American investments and would more generally enhance the US-Israel defense relationship.
Finally, it should be emphasized that there is a political consideration that may well outweigh all other factors: from the moment it becomes clear that the technological underpinning - however theoretical - for anti-rocket defenses actually exists, the political echelon cannot refrain from investing in it. The alternative would be to face the charge: "You could have protected us, and you didn't."
Yiftah Shapir is a researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University