Security and Defense: Gaining standing

With 200,000 missiles pointed at Israel, head of Home Front Command is a desirable appointment.

HOME FRONT troops take part in a missile defense drill 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
HOME FRONT troops take part in a missile defense drill 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shortly before the end of the First Gulf War in 1991 and after Saddam Hussein had fired nearly 40 Scud missiles into Israel, the IDF General Staff convened. The discussion was focused on what to do in wake of the development of this new threat to Israel: the threat of one of missiles and rockets.A decision would later be made to establish the Home Front Command (HFC) but at that specific meeting, director-general of the Defense Ministry David Ivry issued a warning that continues to resonate in the Kirya Military Headquarters until today.
“What we are currently seeing with 40-something Scuds is nothing compared to what we will see in the future,” Ivry, who had commanded the Israel Air Force when it bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor a decade earlier, warned IDF generals.
For Ehud Barak, who was sitting in the room and was just weeks away from taking up his appointment as IDF chief of staff, Ivry’s warning continues to strike a chord today – particularly in light of the increasing threat Israel faces from the rocket and missile arsenals that surround it.
“Ivry was right and the threat today is greater than what we ever would have thought it would be back in 1991,” Barak said recently, referring to Hezbollah’s estimated arsenal of nearly 50,000 rockets and missiles.
The problem is that the threat to Israel is not just the quantity of missiles but also has to do with the change in the quality of the missiles.
Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, current head of Military Intelligence, calls this process “fire-by-6,” a reference to the six changes that have occurred to the various missile arsenals in Iranian, Syrian, Hamas and Hezbollah hands in recent years. According to Kochavi, there are 200,000 missiles and rockets pointed at Israel on any given day.
In comparison to six years ago – before the Second Lebanon War – today’s arsenals have 1) longer ranges 2) larger warheads 3) larger quantities 4) greater accuracy 5) the tendency to be launched from deeper inside enemy territory and not just along the border and 6) are in some cases even buried underground in heavily fortified launchers and silos.
To counter this threat, the IDF’s strategy consists of three primary elements: a counter-offensive aimed at impairing the enemy’s ability to fire missiles into Israel, defensive systems like Arrow, Iron Dome and David’s Sling and passive defense such as bomb shelters, protected rooms and air raid sirens.
The missile threat has in recent years turned the HFC into one of the IDF’s most important branches. This, however, was not always the case and, until the Second Lebanon War in 2006, if an officer was appointed head of the HFC, it usually meant that he was on his way out of the IDF.
That is no longer true and since the war, the IDF has appointed top officers, perceived as having the potential to one day become chief of staff, as head of the HFC. After the war, Maj.-Gen.
Yair Golan was appointed head the HFC. He is now head of the Northern Command. The current HFC chief, Maj.-Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, previously served as commander of the Gaza Division, one of the most complicated postings in the IDF.
As Israel moves closer to the point of having to decide whether it should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the HFC is now more important than ever, particularly in light of assessments that in the first days of an Iranian-Hezbollah- Hamas-Islamic Jihad retaliation, Israel could see close to 1,000 rockets a day fired into its cities.
Putting damage to infrastructure aside, there are various predictions regarding how many people would be killed in such a scenario.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak famously said a few months ago that the number would be somewhere around 500 and while the Israeli public has a hard time imagining such large casualties, the estimate is based on comprehensive studies and analyses conducted by the HFC.
For that reason, the HFC is undergoing one of the most extensive changes in its short history. On Monday, the command held its largest draft ever, recruiting hundreds of youth to fill the ranks of its two standing search-and-rescue battalions as well as the third that it is now establishing.
It plans to establish a fourth battalion by the end of next year.
In addition to establishing new battalions, the soldiers are also receiving new skills, such as becoming certified firefighters as well as learning new search-and-rescue and combat techniques.
A similar process is taking place in the command’s reserve units where reservists are being provided with with upgraded combat qualifications and equipment.
The HFC speaks of three different roles in a future war: 1) assisting the IDF in maneuvering through enemy territory 2) saving lives with searchand- rescue teams 3) and supporting local councils and municipalities so they will be capable of continuing to provide services for their constituents.
“We are better today than we were a few years ago but this is a work in progress,” deputy HFC commander Brig.- Gen. Zviki Tessler explained this week.
Tessler is an example of the change. A helicopter pilot, he left the air force a few years ago to take up one of the command’s senior positions. A few years ago, it would have been unheard of for a pilot to switch from the IAF to the HFC.
Another change, demonstrated during the recent round of fighting between Islamic Jihad and Israel, was the HFC’s ability to sound sirens only in the precise city – sometimes even the precise neighborhood – where the rocket fired from Gaza was going to land.
This is the result of two developments. The first was the establishment in mid- 2011 of a joint command center at the Hatzor Air Force Base near Gedera where IAF and HFC officers sit together to track missile launches into Israel and to sound sirens based on the radar's projections of where they are going to land.
The second development was the HFC’s decision to divide the country up into hundreds of different sections that can independently be warned of incoming missile attacks without needing to scare the rest of the neighboring towns.
In the coming year, once the IDF receives approval to begin sending warnings to individual cellular phones, people will only be required to enter a bomb shelter if they receive two warnings: hear a siren and get a text message to their phones.
These changes are critical in these uncertain times. While the performance of the Iron Dome counter-rocket defense system in the recent conflict in Gaza amazed even its operators, it is not something that Israelis can rely on as being there to protect them in the next, bigger war.
This is because there are currently only four batteries and there is a good chance that these will need to be used to protect strategic national assets or even IAF bases to preserve operational continuity.
That is why the HFC stresses that the best equation is a combination of the active defense (Iron Dome) with passive defense (bomb shelters).
With Iran not changing its course, this equation might be put to the test again sooner rather than later.