shihab 3 test launch.
(photo credit: FARS)
The evolution of the crisis in Gaza is a stark reminder that the fundamental nature of war in the Middle East is changing: Our enemies are stockpiling ballistic missiles that can reach every city in Israel. It is long past time to begin taking this threat seriously and to make the decisions and investments that will raise comprehensive missile defense to the level of a critical national priority.
The Gaza conflict is a turning point that is helping clarify a new and larger reality. Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran now confront us with what is, collectively, the largest ballistic missile fleet in the world. It is essential that active missile defense begin taking its place as a much larger element of our national military strategy.
What are the options, and the opportunities?
Israel's Iron Dome rocket interceptor program should be given the highest possible priority. Other rocket interceptor options should also be explored to provide additional layers of defense for a more robust, integrated capability. We should challenge developers of anti-rocket guns or lasers to meet today's new requirements.
We should also consider upgrading existing medium-range interceptors, or even acquiring off-the-shelf interceptors that could defend our home front while we await vital missile defense systems now in development, like David's Sling. Passive defenses (bomb shelters), civil infrastructure and preparedness should also be reviewed.
Along with reevaluating our hardware options, it is certainly time to overhaul our missile defense doctrine so that response tactics are clearly spelled out as part of a comprehensive plan, with emergency decision-making pushed to the lowest possible command levels.
This is not to say that attack operations and deterrence are not vital. They are. But missile war cannot be fought without both sword and shield. Asymmetric warfare is no longer geographically containable, and the rapid proliferation of missile technology has expanded the zone of conflict to include homes, factories and schools. With the distinction between battlefront and home front fast disappearing, the sword, by itself, is not enough.
HOW DO offense and defense fit together in today's conflicts?
Minimizing smuggling of rockets and the material to make them will reduce the problem in the long term, though this requires a serious, extended political commitment. When war breaks out, finding and destroying rockets and missiles on the ground is important. But with any storage room a potential rocket armory and any back alley a potential launching pad, this approach cannot provide a complete answer.
Attack operations also help strengthen deterrence, and in Gaza, with hundreds of Hamas facilities destroyed, the price for rocket attacks has been raised substantially. However, this approach is a double-edged sword. While physical damage weakens them, terrorists whose power base, pride and ideology depend on violence need to show they are real soldiers in a real war - soldiers who can continue to hurt their enemies, launching rockets even while they absorb punishing blows. In this regard, the war actually helped them.
This is where missile defense fits in to complete a comprehensive, successful strategy. If most of the rockets are simply shot out of the sky, they will become, increasingly, more an embarrassment than a symbol of pride. Terrorists will be unable to crow that they are "winning the war" when their infrastructure lies in ruins and few, if any, rockets or missiles are getting through robust defenses. Active missile defense cancels out the downside of attack operations. It puts the teeth back in deterrence.
The Gaza war cannot, unfortunately, be considered an isolated event. The actions of Hamas and the massive missile buildup by Hizbullah, Syria and Iran show we are now in a new period in history. Terrorists and rogue states are racing to acquire power and political leverage by deploying missiles and rockets that cannot be fully eradicated, which can terrorize our communities.
There are no easy answers. But while active missile defense is no panacea, it is a critical element of a comprehensive solution. Good offensive strategies are built on a solid foundation of defense, and successful attack operations require that our people, our factories and our key assets be actively defended.
Like the Second Lebanon War, the recent conflict in Gaza and in our southern communities is a turning point, and a warning for the future. Our strategies and our capabilities must adapt, and quickly. Shield and sword must enter battle together, each playing its essential role.
We no longer have the luxury of fighting the war-before-last.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Herzl Bodinger, a former commander of the Israel Air Force, is chairman of the Israel Missile Defense Association (IMDA), and Avi Schnurr is the executive director. IMDA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to leading an urgent, informed dialogue on Israel's missile defense needs and options.