Missile defense for the Gaza periphery

Why hasn't the government purchased the Nautilus/SkyGuard laser system yet?

Kassam Sderot 88,224 (photo credit:)
Kassam Sderot 88,224
(photo credit: )
I am an inveterate Middle East news junkie. As such, I have spent at least four to five hours a day on the Internet and e-mail trying to make sense of the overabundance of often confusing news that this troubled region generates daily. In particular, one human interest item caught my eye last December. A mother in Kibbutz Nir Am, which lies between Gaza and Sderot, could not locate two of her young children when the Tzeva Adom (Color Red) alert went off, signaling the launching of a Kassam rocket by Palestinian terrorists. A few seconds later she heard a thump, and when she raced to her backyard, she found her two boys there, meters from an unexploded Kassam. It only failed to detonate because it had landed in very muddy ground thanks to earlier downpours. Since this near-tragedy occurred on the second day of Hanukka, she called this her family's personal miracle of Hanukka. I was so intrigued by the story that I decided to contact the mother to find out why we do not hear more about some of the communities in the Gaza periphery that get hit with rockets and mortars on a regular basis. She told me that the communities "only" have a few thousand residents in total and therefore do not seem to warrant coverage. But her community of Nir Am, alone, has absorbed more than 750 Kassam hits! A FEW days later I made aliya and decided to take a number of trips to Sderot and its environs in my new position as director of the Zionist Organization of America's Israel office. I quickly learned that often the open area in which a Kassam is reported to have fallen is actually a community; replete with homes, kindergartens and, yes, people - people who suffer all the symptoms of post trauma stress disorder, injuries and deaths that you would expect them to suffer, under the circumstances. I opened a part-time ZOA office in the Gaza Periphery community of Netiv Ha'asara in the hopes of drawing more media and government attention to the plight of the Gaza periphery communities. Soon after I was invited to attend a meeting at Nir Am where two highly placed security officials, Yossi Arazi and Oded Amichai, gave a compelling presentation about the Nautilus/SkyGuard laser system. Without getting too technical (due to space considerations, I have omitted a host of Nautilus/SkyGuard advantages), Nautilus employs a high energy laser that focuses on the incoming projectile - whether it be a mortar, artillery shell, Kassam or Katyusha - and destroys it long before it reaches its target. Nautilus has been successfully tested at White Sands, New Mexico and was found to have a 100 percent kill rate when 46 projectiles were fired. Under actual battle conditions, it is expected to achieve a similar success rate. The unfounded concerns regarding Nautilus - such as reload capacity and chemical toxicity - have been debunked beyond question. At a subsequent meeting in Tel Aviv, Yossi, Oded and an additional expert, Ofer Lavie, patiently explained to me why the new Northrop Grumman SkyGuard, an upgrade of the original Nautilus prototype, is the system of choice hands down. The most obvious reason is that it is fully developed (having cost 400 million US taxpayer dollars) and is ready to be deployed; it can be operational shortly after authorities give the green light. YET THE prototype is sitting in plastic in New Mexico even as I write this. Last time I checked, Pancho Villa's progeny were not about to threaten the residents of New Mexico with rocket attacks. The Nautilus could be sitting in the Gaza periphery, just as well, protecting innocent citizens who are under threat. Other systems currently under consideration are beset by schedule, cost and range problems. For example, the Iron Dome system, which uses missiles to shoot down rockets, won't be ready until 2011 at the earliest and costs approximately $100,000 per threat destruction, as opposed to the $1,000-$2,000 of SkyGuard/Nautilus. This does not even take into account that Iron Dome's threat destruction probability is less than SkyGuard's, so it could take multiple shots to destroy one $500 Kassam. Add to that R&D, operational costs, current need for fortification and damages, and we end up with a system that is prohibitively expensive and does not even offer the same level of protection - not from Kassams fired in the typical four km. to six km. range; nor from mortars, which have already taken three lives; nor from artillery shells. Similarly, the solid state laser system called LADS, as well as the Phalanx rapid fire systems, are short-range solutions that simply do not provide the coverage needed. I AM no expert in anti-missile technology, but I do know that the first priority of any government is the safety and security of its citizens. We are not sure how long the current period of relative calm will last - perhaps as long as it takes Hamas to rearm and ready itself for the next round. Based on the latest intelligence reports, Hamas continues to smuggle and arm itself at a steady pace. Most Israeli residents in the area are resigned to the fact that it is not a question of "if" but "when" this calm will end. From my comfortable Jerusalem apartment 20/20 hindsight is easy, but I cannot help but wonder how radically different the home front picture might have looked in the North during the Second Lebanon War had the Skyguard/Nautilus systems been in place. This time Hizbullah is said to be armed with 40,000 - compared to 12,000 - rockets. I shudder to think what Iran's proxies might be called upon to do should their Iranian patrons want to divert attention in order to relieve pressure on their nuclear weapons programs. Not a single one of the experts I have spoken to can understand why the Defense Ministry is ignoring Northrop-Grumman's formal January 2007 proposal to deploy Skyguard/Nautilus systems in the Gaza periphery. I am calling upon the government to explain why we cannot, at the very least, take the one Nautilus system sitting in the New Mexico desert and place it in the Sderot/Gaza periphery region. After all its wonderful people have been through the past seven years, don't they deserve a little piece of mind? It only makes sense. The writer, previously a pro-Israel advocate on Capitol Hill, is now the director of the Zionist Organization of America's Israel Office.