(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Ministry Director-General Pinhas Buchris will travel to the US next week to try to interest the Pentagon in the Israeli-developed Iron Dome missile defense system and to explore procuring the Skyguard laser system to protect Sderot from Kassam rockets, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The Iron Dome system is under development by the Rafael Armaments Authority and was chosen last year by a Defense Ministry committee as Israel's defense system against the short-range Kassam and Katyusha rockets. Israel believes that the US Army might be interested in the system to protect its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buchris will be in the US for several days for talks with Pentagon officials and will take a day to travel to White Sands, New Mexico, where Northrop Grumman has stationed the Nautilus system, a precursor of Skyguard. Israel and the US Army jointly developed Nautilus from 1995 until 2005, when both countries decided to pull out of the program after concluding that it was not feasible. Israel had invested more than $400 million in the program.
There is growing criticism by former senior defense officials that the Iron Dome - which uses a kinetic missile to intercept incoming Kassam rockets - will not be effective in protecting Sderot due to the short distance and flight time between the Negev town and the rocket launch pads in Gaza.
On Thursday, the Sapir Academic College, located just outside Sderot, will host a conference on missile defense at which some speakers are expected to call on Israel to buy the Skyguard system.
The Skyguard does not currently exist, but would be an upgrade of the Nautilus. Northrop Grumman has told Israel that with an investment of $180m., it would be able to turn the heavy, land-based Nautilus system into a more compact and mobile system that would be ready for shipment within 18 months.
Defense officials have dismissed the proposal, saying that in addition to the 18 months, it would take another three months to deploy the system around Sderot and that this timeline would extend into 2010, when the Iron Dome is slated to become operational. The officials said that in addition to the initial investment, Israel would need to purchase four more systems - each at a cost of $70m.
"The Skyguard today only exists on paper," a defense official explained. "By the time it is ready, we will already have the Iron Dome deployed around Gaza."
The defense officials also dismissed the claims made by supporters of the Nautilus - such as laser expert and former Rafael employee Dr. Oded Amihai - that the Iron Dome was incapable of protecting Sderot due to the short distance between Gaza and the Negev city.
The officials said that the Iron Dome had recently been updated and was capable of hitting incoming missiles that were fired at a range of 4.5 kilometers from their target - more than enough to intercept the Kassams, which are usually fired 6 km. from Sderot.