(photo credit: Northrop Grumman Artwork)
The defense establishment plans to make an official decision in the coming days to invest $300 million in an anti-Kassam and anti-Katyusha defense system under development by Rafael - Israel's Armament Development Authority, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
According to the plan, a combination of a laser and an anti-Kassam missile interceptor will be operational for deployment outside the Gaza Strip within a year and a half.
According to a high-ranking defense official involved in the decision-making process, despite heavy public and international pressure, a committee led by Defense Ministry Director-General Gabi Ashkenazi has decided not to invest in the Skyguard anti-missile laser system, developed and manufactured by US defense contractor Northrop Grumman.
Last week, representatives from the Israeli Air Force, the IDF Ground Forces and the Defense Ministry's Research and Development Authority (MAFAT) met to decide which branch of the military would receive the funding and be in charge of the new system. Despite fierce resistance by the Ground Forces Command, the IAF was given control of the project, including its development and integration into operational use.
"The IAF said that they need to be in control of everything that flies in the air," said one senior defense official who was present at the meeting. "The Ground Forces argued that if that is the case, then the IAF should also be responsible for shooting 155 mm artillery shells." The defense official pointed to the US Army's role in funding and developing the Skyguard anti-missile laser until two years ago. "This is an army issue since the troops on the ground are the ones who need the protection from the short-range rockets and mortars," the official said.
The scheme that the defense establishment plans to develop is based on two anti-missile systems under development by Rafael - one involving a solid laser that will have the ability to intercept Kassams in mid-air, in addition to a small and cheap anti-rocket missile with a kinetic warhead. According to defense officials, Northrop Grumman's system, which operates a chemical laser, is dangerous to the environment and can also malfunction in cloudy or rainy weather.
While the development of a short-range rocket defense system has picked up speed since the war in Lebanon, the Israeli defense establishment actually began expressing interest in such a system in the late nineties in conjunction with the US Army which was, at the time, funding the development of a chemical laser cannon - then called Nautilus and now called Skyguard.
According to Israeli defense officials, Israel was told that the development of the system would take two-three years and would cost $80 million. Now, eight years and $400 million ($100 million provided by Israel) later, the project is still incomplete.
The system also only covers an area of three kilometers according to Israeli defense officials, who said that the optimal system would have a range of at least 10 kilometers.
Northrop Grumman has claimed that Skyguard has been improved and that with a $150 million investment it could be operational within a year-and-a-half.
The Israeli MOD has, however, not been allowed to confirm the claims of improvements since the Pentagon has until now refused to allow Northrop Grumman to present the product to the Israeli defense establishment.
Earlier this week, the MOD refused to meet officials from Northrop Grumman claiming that until the company had new findings to present, there was no point in meeting.