Preparing for the next missile onslaught

An interview with the man in charge of Israel's comprehensive anti-missiles umbrella.

Light streaks and smoke trails are seen as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel July 23, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Light streaks and smoke trails are seen as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel July 23, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
From his office at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Brig.-Gen. Zvika Haimovich has a clear view of the skies he is charged with protecting.
With the Middle East skies more crowded than ever and with Israel’s enemies acquiring new and advanced weaponry, the Israel Air Force and Haimovich, the Aerial Defense Division commander, are facing challenges they’ve never faced before.
Haimovich joined the IAF in 1985. He served as head of the command field in the IAF Air Defense School, head of the Training Branch in the IAF Aerial Defense Division, commander of the Active Defense Wing and commander of the Sky Defense Wing.
“In the last few years the Aerial Defense Division has been going through an evolution,” he told The Jerusalem Post, adding that he’s “been part of this evolution from the beginning.”
Haimovich can name dates and exact moments in the division’s history.
“On Thursday, April 7, 2011, at 6:16 p.m. – that was the first time the Iron Dome was used,” Haimovich said. “It brought us, Israel and our enemies, into a new era. For the first time our enemies realized that Israel has systems that are able to bring down their rockets.”
Since that day, etched so clearly in Haimovich’s memory, the Aerial Defense Division has obtained breakthrough air defense systems, which provide Israel with a comprehensive protective umbrella able to counter the growing missile threats: There’s the Iron Dome, designed to shoot down short-range rockets, the Arrow (Arrow-2 and Arrow-3) system, which intercepts ballistic missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The newly operational David’s Sling missile defense system is designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets, as well as cruise missiles fired at ranges between 40 km. and 300 km.
Hezbollah is known to have a massive arsenal of advanced weaponry given to it by its Iranian patrons, and the technological advances along with battlefield experience gained by the group in Syria have made it Israel’s most dangerous enemy, more than Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
According to Haimovich, it was Israel’s last war with Hezbollah, in 2006, which was the catalyst for production of the Iron Dome.
“During the Second Lebanon War, we [Israel] didn’t have an early warning system and all the systems we have now,” he said, adding that he can “say with certainty that the Second Lebanon War was a trigger for Israel to get more effective defense systems.... The war made officials understand the need for them.”
Hezbollah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has warned it is able to hit “the entirety of occupied Palestine with missiles.”
During the monthlong 2006 war, Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, and it is believed that Israel faces the threat of thousands of rockets pounding the entire home front in the next war with the Shi’ite terrorist group.
“It’s very easy to deal with one rocket, but to deal with 100 or 200 rockets in one salvo [heading] to one specific place at one specific time is a major challenge,” he said. “There’s also no meaning to geography anymore. You cannot say any longer that the threat is only on our northern or southern border.
It’s also now Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Jerusalem – you name it.”
But it’s not only a large salvo of Hezbollah rockets that concerns Haimovich. Even if the air force manages to destroy a large number of rockets, there will likely remain a significant number, posing the risk of the interceptor systems being inundated, if either group – Hezbollah or Hamas – launches large-scale barrages of rockets of varying ranges simultaneously.
“The operational concept of Hamas has changed from April 2011 to July 2014,” he said, referring to the last conflict between Israel and the Gaza-based terrorist group. The group has escalated its capabilities to launching not one rocket at a time but salvos. “We finished the last war with rocket salvos on Jerusalem, Zichron Ya’acov in the North and Mitzpe Ramon in the South,” Haimovich said.
During the 2014 war, a total of 4,594 rockets were fired from the Strip toward Israel, and toward the end, Hamas focused on short-range mortar fire, with deadly results, killing both soldiers and civilians, who had little or no warning of incoming projectiles.
According to Haimovich, Israel’s enemies have understood that it is not enough to launch 4,500 rockets, but that they need to have more lethal and precise rockets. Hamas has boasted about its growing arsenal, testing it on an almost regular basis since the conclusion of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.
A report by Army Radio in March said that Hamas has recently developed a short-range rocket with a range of up to 10 kilometers that can carry a heavy explosive load of dozens to hundreds of kilograms apiece, similar to Hezbollah’s short-range Borkan rocket, which weighs between 100 kg. and 500 kg.
The IDF has warned that Hamas has restored its military capabilities to their pre-2014 strength, and it expects that in the next war the southern communities bordering on Gaza would be incessantly pounded with rockets and mortar attacks.
In the event of a future war in the area, the IDF’s Home Front Command has a contingency plan to evacuate residents who live in border communities, Ashkelon Coast Regional Council head Yair Farjoun told Army Radio in March.
“We are prepared for every scenario, and if we need to evacuate, we will evacuate.
Civilians do not need to be on the front lines,” he said.
Haimovich told the Post that Operation Protective Edge was one of the most challenging conflicts, with 4,500 rockets launched by Hamas during a conflict that targeted about two thirds of the country.
“I remember one Shabbat during the war I was near Ashkelon, and I met a religious family with three kids. I asked them what they were doing there, as it was very dangerous. They told me that they trusted the ‘kippot,’ and I said to them that it wasn’t enough to trust in God. But it wasn’t God that they were talking about, it was Kippat Barzel [Iron Dome].”
According to Haimovich, while the protective umbrella provided by his division’s systems has a statistically high success rate, civilians cannot rely solely on them for protection.
“I am in charge, and I must say there is no hermetic solution. It doesn’t matter if it is Hamas or Hezbollah rockets which will fall in Israel. There is a need for the active defense of the Iron Dome, but there is also a need for passive defense by civilians going to shelters.”
Haimovich said that while there is no doubt that Israel’s enemies “will challenge us” in the next conflict, he has confidence that the IDF “has solutions to all the problems we face.”
“In the next war Hezbollah and Hamas will find the IDF and the air defense as prepared and ready as ever. We have upgraded our systems and we have gotten new ones as well,” he said.
But despite all the technology, Haimovich points at many concerns.
“What is keeping me up at night is how to be as prepared as we can. I don’t have the privilege to say ‘we were good in Operation Cast Lead’; we have to be prepared for the next time. And we are learning and growing, and we make sure that everyone is safe,” he said.
“There’s a line I really believe in: ‘Every day that passes brings us closer to the next operation.’”