Rocket man: Talking to the father of Israel’s missile defense program

How did Uzi Rubin become the father of Israel’s missile defense program?

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October 19, 2018 23:43
UZI RUBIN: ‘We can make [attack rockets] as well. Anything you [the enemy such as Hezbollah] can do,

UZI RUBIN: ‘We can make [attack rockets] as well. Anything you [the enemy such as Hezbollah] can do, we can do better.’ . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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Uzi Rubin, 81, is a father of four and “grandfather of many,” but he is literally the father of Israeli missile defense.

While the Iron Dome is the most famous legacy of the country’s three-tiered missile defense shield today, Rubin, who is currently a fellow with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, brought forth the first and earlier iteration, the Arrow missile system.

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Born in Tel Aviv and currently living in Gedera, Rubin was the founder and first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Defense Ministry from 1991 to 1999.

How did Rubin become the father of Israel’s missile defense program?

As he told The Jerusalem Post in a recent extensive interview, by 1991, he was already a senior official in the Defense Ministry with potentially relevant experience to get himself on the shortlist for heading the program.

But Rubin, whose default state and expressions are serious, also has a more mischievous side and impishly suggested that he jumped past the other top candidates by a combination of luck and coincidence.

Rewinding to the Gulf War in 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles started falling on Israel, he said that the US Patriot missiles provided to shoot them down could not hit anything. At the time, he got a call that he should join an emergency evening meeting at the Defense Ministry.

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In a large conference room, he joined the ministry’s Director-General David Ivri and a range of other top officials.

Some of the officials had just met with then-German chancellor Helmut Kohl and were reporting that he had committed to providing Israel with aid for developing defensive missiles.

The officials in charge of appointing someone to head the effort took a look around the room at who was at the table.

They looked at Maj.-Gen. Danny Yatom, then at another general, neither of whom had the relevant experience. Then their gaze settled on Rubin.

Rubin said he did not say anything until they said, “we’re looking at you” to take over. He called it only half-jokingly “a battlefield promotion.”

Two weeks later, he was sent back to Germany with Dan Halutz, a future IDF chief who was then in charge of weaponry in the Air Force.

Rubin said that nothing actually ever came from the Germans for missile defense aid (though they did help on some other issues like submarines and the F-35), but that from then on, he was already in the driver’s seat.

When Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister a couple years later – and Rabin reversed his own earlier opposition to missile defense in order to please the US (Rubin’s interpretation) – Rubin was already in place to lead the charge.

The father of the Arrow also complimented Rabin for having strong ingenuity and a quick grasp of the broader strategic significance of issues like missile defense, even if he did not have a special technical background.

Hezbollah threat

Maybe the most crucial question for Rubin is his view of the IDF’s morbid predictions that a war with Hezbollah could lead to as many as 1,000 dead Israeli civilians from rocket fire.

He demurred when asked if any amount of multi-tiered missile defense could be enough to stop a Hezbollah rocket onslaught, especially of its advanced precision rockets. As if lecturing a class on a point he has had to teach before, he said that the total volume – whether it was 100,000, 150,000 or whether it someday reached 200,000 rockets – was not the pivotal point. Rather, the two critical points were “the rate and the precision of the rockets.”

The reason is that no military force, including Hezbollah, actually has the ability to unleash its full arsenal at once, he stated.

In that light, the question becomes how many rockets per day an adversary like Hezbollah is capable of actually launching against Israel as compared to how many rockets Israel can shoot down when under attack by a simultaneous hail of rockets. Recalling the 2006 Second Lebanon War, he said that over 30 days Hezbollah was shooting a few hundred rockets per day at Israel – eventually firing around 4,000 rockets. Rubin was concerned that Hezbollah’s arsenal and its increased mobility might allow it to fire up to 1,000 or 1,500 rockets per day.

“That would be an insane pace,” he said.

To combat this potential onslaught, Rubin said that there needs “to be a mix of offensive and defensive and active and passive” efforts. He said that the more IDF employs aerial attacks on Hezbollah, “even if you cannot destroy all of the rockets, if you can moderate it a bit, reduce it by a few hundred per day” the situation can be better in a relative sense.

Also, he said with a solemn glare, “We cannot be in bomb shelters while they are sitting drinking coffee in cafes.”

This brought us to the issue of precision. A broader point that Rubin wanted to make about Hezbollah’s arsenal is that precision changed the very nature of the weapon that Israel faces.

“A simple rocket is a terror weapon. It is like blowing up a bus. Yes, it is a problem and you need to deal with it, but precision-guided rockets cross over into being a military weapon,” he stated. Rubin said that the precision of certain rockets meant that, absent a hermetic defense, which could be very difficult to achieve, it became virtually certain that Hezbollah could hit some key aspects of Israel’s infrastructure.

He did not want to specify any so that he was not giving Hezbollah ideas, but already in the past, Hezbollah and Hamas have threatened to target Ben-Gurion Airport, the Dimona nuclear reactor, Israel’s natural gas platforms and other critical infrastructure related to maintaining electricity, water and vital resources.

“How can you conduct a war without electricity?” he asked rhetorically, to illustrate the severity of the threat, and showing deep concern. “This changes the whole system of prioritizing what actions to take. You need to first guard your ability to be able to keep fighting, which includes the home front, and not just for national morale. Food, gas and other things come to the military from the civilian sector.”

On the positive side, he said that the state appeared to be quietly internalizing this point. He presented a recent little-noticed news report that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon had issued 11 special orders to designate 11 different infrastructure facilities as “strategic,” for the purpose of funding them to receive special protection.

Incidentally, Rubin is not bothered hearing about the reports of Iran potentially moving rockets into Iraq. Granted there could be added diplomatic complexities, but he said that from a military-technical perspective, “it is not a big deal.”

“An Iranian missile can get to Israel from Iran. That it is in Iraq is not a big deal. Wherever a rocket comes from, you need to deal with it the same way.”

Israel’s missiles finally go on the attack

Moving on to the ability of Israeli rockets to go on the attack themselves, he hailed an August 27 announcement by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that the state would be investing billions in a long-term attack rocket program for the first time ever.

According to foreign sources, Israel has for some time had Jericho missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads, and Delilah missiles since 2005. But Israel building a large number of more conventional and less expensive attack missiles, like Hezbollah has, would be a new thing.

Rubin sees major benefits to this move. “If your air force’s ability becomes limited, then you can replace it with other methods.” As if to taunt Hezbollah, he addressed attack rockets, saying, “We can make them also. Anything you can do, we can do better.”

Also, he is concerned that unless Israel makes this shift, it could find itself being left behind in an area where China, Russia and Israel’s regional adversaries are plowing ahead and changing the future dynamics of war. Asked how and why the attack rockets were finally approved now after decades of resistance from the IDF, without hesitation Rubin shot out, “Civilian defense ministers who do not come from a high-ranking IDF background can do things that the IDF is against.”

He said that from the perspective of being a career civilian, Liberman was like Moshe Arens, whom he credited with helping start the Arrow missile system, and like Amir Peretz, whom he credited with starting the Iron Dome. Rubin also did give some special credit to Rabin, whom he called an exception, as a career IDF officer who permitted the Arrow missile system to go forward. He explained Rabin’s decision by saying that the former prime minister did not actually believe in the efficacy of missile defense either, but merely approved it, as it was a pet project of the US.

Why has the IDF as an establishment so consistently been opposed to virtually every separate missile defense project?

He responded that missile defense “is against the IDF ethos. The IDF does not defend. It attacks.”

Noting that even after the 2014 Gaza War, when more of the IDF has been converted to appreciate Iron Dome because of the positive media coverage and new funding for full-time officers it helped bring, there were others still orchestrating anti-missile defense campaigns in 2015.

Attack planes vs. attack rockets

Comparing the military utilities of airplanes versus rockets is complex.

On the positive side for the air force column, Rubin said that an individual airplane, if reused many times without being shot down, is very cost effective. “One airplane can attack lots of targets. However, survivability is a problem and they are more expensive, so you have fewer of them.”

On the flip side, he said that “every time one falls, you cannot make new ones [in the midst of a war] and that one precision missile could be devastating” for either side of a conflict. For example, he noted that Egypt failed to destroy much of the Israel Air Force in 1973, despite surprise and a massive barrage, whereas now, a single precision missile could probably destroy the runway, effectively grounding the planes.

Moreover, on the plus side for missiles, they are only expected to be used once, so no thought or resources need to be invested in their survivability.

Regarding missile defense, there is a constant debate about how much farther Israel has to go. Former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich has suggested that Israel needs to double its number of Iron Dome batteries from around 10 to around 20 and to reach around 100,000 Iron Dome interceptors, even if the price tag is around $7 billion.

What does Rubin think?

“We don’t have enough Arrow missiles or Iron Dome batteries. Ask the IDF officers and they will say we have too many. Trying to be objective, you should start from where the emphasis is in war today. The strategy is not to overwhelm the IDF, it’s to overwhelm the civilian population. Until the 1973 [Yom Kippur] war, our adversaries’ wars were about trying to beat the IDF. Now our adversaries are not building themselves for war against the IDF. Maybe secondarily to go against the IDF, but mainly they are going after civilians.”

Once the “war is over the home front, you need to increase our defense. Do you increase the overall defense budget, do you have more taxes, you always need to make choices when you are under threat.”

“Only countries like Switzerland” that are not under threat, do not need to make hard decisions about which part of their security to invest funds in.

Regarding the Arrow missile defense system itself, Rubin asserted, “I have confidence that it will work, but the question is how much success it will have.”

Though around for much longer than the Iron Dome, he said that its effectiveness still has not been fully proven – not even by the first use of the Arrow in 2017.

In that case, an Arrow missile shot down leftover portions of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile that was flying through Israeli airspace after missing the IDF air force fighter it had been aimed at.

“This was not an operational situation and it still has not been used to shoot down” the kind of long-range precision rockets that it was built to take down.

He did add that the Arrow had a “100% success rate in tests,” but that real operational situations created another level of difficulty. For example, there were tests that were canceled when the Arrow might have been functioning fine in isolation, but some secondary system was offline that needed to work for it to be operational.

“I expect that it will be good enough. Its reliability is not bad. But can I sleep well at night? No. Then again, I can never sleep well. The whole world is hanging on a narrow string. And it’s naïve to think otherwise,” he stated with a bit of a smile.

Asked if the Arrow system could be hacked by adversaries’ cyber operations, he said, “At one point, interoperability was the problem how one system gets along with any other system.” Now “everything is in danger from cyber. Cyber is like the weather… Every system needs to protect itself from it.”

One less reported aspect of Israel’s missile defense is that while each layer is designed to shoot down a specific kind of rocket (the Arrow for long-range, David’s Sling for medium-range and Iron Dome for short-range), theoretically the lower layers like Iron Dome could still shoot down advanced precision rockets. He said that Iron Dome would need to adjust for speed and maneuverability of advanced rockets and could only hit them once they were at a lower altitude, but that it could act as a secondary layer of defense if the Arrow missile system missed them at higher altitudes.

Rubin added that the radar that came out with the much newer Iron Dome was far more advanced than the one that came out with the original Arrow system. In addition, Iron Dome was designed with a more advanced capability to be selective about when to shoot than the Arrow. This was because many short-range rockets wildly miss their target and do not even need to be shot down, whereas the Arrow’s designated enemy, advanced rockets, misses much less.

Did the Arrow pave the way for Iron Dome to be accepted more quickly?

Rubin noted, “Its legacy did, yes,” even as he cautioned that there was no direct technical connection between the systems and that Iron Dome had overcome an army of critics.

Having survived years of failed tests and constant criticism that missile defense was futile and a huge waste of money, did Rubin think that faith was an important component for directing missile defense?

Though Rubin is not religious, he replied unhesitatingly, “For sure. You really must believe that what you are doing is good and for a good purpose. There was a very strong sense of mission of feeling you were saving the state.”

“There is a lot of uncertainty” and attacks from all directions. In particular, he singled out the State Comptroller’s Office for missing the boat on missile defense when it attacked “the use of public funds” for such an uncertain venture. Essentially, waxing philosophical, he said that when you try to develop new experimental ideas to defend against new threats, that there are “no paths without risks,” and a lot of the road is paved based on faith.

Ultimately though, from a science perspective, Rubin said, “Anything that is not against physics, I can do. You want me to put an Israeli on the moon? It is just a matter of funding. There is no law of physics barring it, so it can be done.”

Rubin also gave credit to Israel’s unique level of “creative chaos. We have a special atmosphere. We do not think about rules and decorum. You do what needs to be done. There is a unique social network and cross-fertilization between the military and the defense industry” that supports difficult projects like missile defense.

Rubin helped lead three major defense projects that all won defense prizes. One was the Arrow, another was sending Israel’s first satellite into space and the third remains classified. “On the side,” he is currently writing a PhD diagnosing aspects of how things worked.

“There was extreme opposition to all of them, but we did them anyway. How does it happen? When there is a national need, it is clear” what needs to happen.

Summing up much of the outlook that makes him a fitting founder of Israel’s missile defense, he said that doing things “top-down can work, but when that is not working, progress can come from below.

“With all of these three projects, that is what happened – even though the IDF opposed them.”

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