Needed ASAP: A shield against rockets

The defense establishment is working on projects to counter missile threats following the Lebanon war.

October 13, 2006 00:53
Needed ASAP: A shield against rockets

spyder air defense 88. (photo credit: Courtesy photo)


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When the Katyushas started landing in Haifa during the past war, government agencies began raising concerns about the chemical plants there. What would happen if rockets struck them? What type of disaster could occur? The Rafael Armament Development Authority, one of Israel's leading defense contractors, was contacted and work hurriedly began at its Haifa headquarters to modify an existing system to see if it could also function as a Katyusha rocket interceptor. At the time, the company tried making modifications to the Barak missile system, used on Navy ships to intercept incoming missiles. But this emergency effort proved unsuccessful and the oil refineries, not to mention the rest of northern Israel, remained vulnerable to the almost 4,000 rockets and missiles that Hizbullah rained down on Israel during the month of fighting. Since the war, Defense Minister Amir Peretz has stated on a number of occasions that in the absence of a missile defense system, the inexpensive and primitive Katyusha rocket in Lebanon and the homemade Kassam rocket in the Gaza Strip have turned into "strategic weapons." These primitive rockets, for now at least, can influence government decision-making processes; they forced one million people to flee or sit in bomb shelters during the war, and Israel's inability to thwart them is central to the post-war sense of dismay here. Defense Ministry director-general Gabi Ashkenazi was recently appointed to head an internal committee charged with speedily finding the appropriate technological solution, which Peretz declared would "provide us with more maneuverability both militarily and diplomatically." Under threat from Iranian Shihab missiles with ranges of thousands of kilometers, Syrian and Hizbullah missiles with ranges of hundreds of kilometers and Kassams and Katyushas with ranges of dozens of kilometers, Israel has actually developed or is in the midst of developing defense systems for all three groups. But the short-range rockets are the hardest to thwart, and Peretz's confidence that the answer is less than two years away is disputed by key officials in the defense establishment. Long range - Iran For the first group - including the long-range ballistic missile from Iran - Israel has developed, in conjunction with the United States, the Arrow missile, the only missile defense system currently operational worldwide. According to defense officials, the Arrow, which has undergone successful testing, is capable of intercepting and destroying Iranian nuclear missiles fired at Israel. The Arrow-2 also undergoes continuous upgrades and improvements to meet the concurrent upgrades the Iranians are making to their missile array. Most recently, the Arrow was recently improved so it can now detect a missile carrying a split warhead and armed with decoys meant to fool the anti-missile system. The Arrow 2 was last tested in December and succeeded in intercepting an incoming rocket simulating an Iranian Shihab at an altitude higher than ever before tested in the previous 13 Arrow launches. While the Arrow is Israel's first line of defense against an Iranian-launched missile, Air Force Patriot-2 batteries - known for their action during the first Gulf War - also follow incoming missiles and serve as the country's backup interception system for incoming ballistic missile threats. Medium range - Syria and Hizbullah For the medium-range group - Iranian-made Fajrs and Zelzals known to be in Hizbullah's arsenal - Israel has yet to develop an answer. Recognizing the medium-range missile threat, the Defense Ministry's Research and Development Authority (MAFAT) issued a "kol koreh" or call for proposals from Israel's defense companies four years ago. Two proposals reached the finish line and recently the Defense Ministry awarded a tender to Rafael and US-based Raytheon to develop a Short-Range Ballistic Missile Defense (SRBD). Two weeks ago, the US Congress approved a $500-million aid package for the development of joint defense systems with Israel, including $20 million for Rafael's SRBD system. Called David's Sling, the system uses radars to detect and intercept incoming medium-range missiles and rockets as well as targeting their launchers. Israel Military Industries (IMI) is also in the midst of developing its own system, Magic Shield, which works on a similar platform to David's Sling. Officials in both companies say their defense systems will be operational within the next two years. Short range - Hizbullah and the Palestinians The third group is the trickiest of them all. With Katyusha rockets that cost just a few hundred dollars and Kassam rockets that are primitive and homemade, defense officials say it does not make sense economically to overspend on intercepting and destroying inexpensive threats. If each Arrow missile costs several million dollars and each medium-range interceptor several hundred thousand, for the short-range rockets the Defense Ministry is looking for a system that would be effective and just as importantly economical. In other words - cheap. 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 and began development of a chemical laser cannon - then-called Nautilus and now-called Skyguard - in conjunction with the United States Army. According to Israeli defense officials, Israel was told that the development of the system would take 2-3 years and would cost $80 million. Now, eight years and $400 m. ($100 m. provided by Israel) later, the project is still incomplete. One problem with the Skyguard is the potential damage to the environment caused by its chemical laser. Each system also covers an area between only 3-10 km, according to Israeli defense officials, meaning that if Israel wanted to protect its entire northern border it might have to purchase dozens of systems, each costing $50-70 million. Israel, however, has not lost interest in the laser cannon. Now owned by Northrop Grumman, the developers of the Skyguard claim that it has been improved. Given another year-and-a-half, and another $150 million, it could be operational and deployed along Israel's northern border with Lebanon and southern border with the Gaza Strip. Northrop Grumman is currently waiting for Pentagon approval to present the newly improved product to the Israeli defense establishment. But Israel is somewhat skeptical of the Skyguard. Officials here interpret the year-and-a-half as more like four years and the $150m. as closer to $300m. That is why MAFAT has commissioned one of the leading Israeli defense firms to develop its own laser system although based on a solid laser, and not chemical. An Israeli company is also in the midst of developing a missile that, like the Arrow, would intercept incoming Katyusha rockets with a kinetic warhead. While Peretz announced in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post that such a missile defense system to thwart Katyushas could be operational and deployed along the northern border within two years, defense officials claim that the minister was wrong and that a strong lobby put together by the company was leading some officials, including Peretz, to false conclusions. Instead, these officials say that a defense system against short-range Katyusha rockets would be ready only within four years, at best. "Nothing will be ready in two years," said one senior military official this week. "Peretz was mistaken." In response, the Defense Ministry's spokeswoman Rachel Naidek-Ashkenazi said: "The defense establishment has been working throughout the years to find a solution to different threats, some long-range and some short-range. The THEL [Tactical High Energy Laser - also known as Skyguard] is one of these programs, which deals with the short-range threat. At the same time, the defense establishment is looking into alternative proposals."

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