Analyze This: Kassam defense?

What an anti-missile 'dome' can - and cannot - provide.

Kassam great 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 1)
Kassam great 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 1)
"They say the best defense is a good offense; but sometimes the best defense is a good mix of offense and defense." So says Avi Schnurr in reaction to the cabinet's decision today to authorize NIS 811 million for development of the Iron Dome short-range rocket intercepting system, which hopefully will one day bring some measure of relief to the beleaguered residents of Sderot. Who's Schnurr? An expert on missile defense systems who worked 25 years for military-industrial corporate giant Northrop Grumman, including a stint as project manager on the joint US-Israel Nautilus program. Schnurr made aliya a few years ago, and last spring helped establish the Israel Missile Defense Association, for which he serves as executive director. IMDA is a non-governmental policy organization dedicated, according to its Web site (, to "providing a forum for public education, discussion, and professional studies focusing on defense of Israel against missile and rocket threats from terror organizations and enemy states." Missile defense is nothing new in Israeli strategic planning; as Shnurr points out, this country was one the first to deploy such a system against long-range ballistic missiles, the Arrow. Yet the fact that missile defense systems now have their own local public advocacy group is a sign of just how crucial a strategic component of our national defense thinking it has become - even in the public consciousness - over just the last few years. The reasons are painfully obvious: The Iranian nuclear threat; the failure of the IDF to stop Hizbullah's Katyusha barrage during the Second Lebanon War; and the unceasing Kassam rocket attacks on Sderot and other Gaza border communities. The latter has shifted strategic priorities in dealing with the Palestinian threat, as today's cabinet decision makes clear. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has even explicitly linked any further territorial withdrawals from the West Bank to the development and deployment of an Iron Dome-type defense system against any possible rocket attacks from a future Palestinian state across the Green Line. "This kind of threat wouldn't have been contemplated earlier on, because a few sporadic Kassams, or even Katyushas, are not a strategic threat," says Schnurr. "Now, because we see the danger that a mass barrage of even small, short-range missiles can pose, there needs to be serious funding for an effective short-range missile defense system against them, and today's decision is a good start." But Prof. Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, who has done extensive research on missile defense systems, cautions that they are no "magic bullet" solution to the problem. "When politicians don't have any short-term solutions to an immediate security problem, they sometimes turn to missile defense systems that offer the possibility - or illusion - of hope. The problem is often the disparity between what these systems promise, and what they eventually can - or can't - deliver." Schnurr doesn't necessarily disagree with that premise, and insists that IMDA, whose advisory board includes such figures on the right as Dr. Dore Gold and Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, as well as former Israel Air Force commanders David Ivry and Eitan Ben-Eliahu, is a non-partisan organization with no political agenda. "Of course no missile defense system offers 100 percent deterrence, and its effectiveness also depends on its integration with other defense strategies, such strategic depth, home front shelters, and the ability to carry out offensive attack operations," says Schnurr. "But we cannot do missile defense solely by relying on attack operations, as we saw during the Lebanon War. That kind of strategy also creates political problems for the leadership. One of the things a missile defense system can provide is allow more political maneuverability for the government during war situations." All that sounds perfectly logical - although Israelis with an intact memory of the disappointing performance by the Patriot antimissile system during the first Gulf War may not share that confidence. Yet the Israeli media, including this newspaper, gave extensive and perhaps overly positive coverage to the successful test last week of the supposedly new and improved Patriot missile. Perhaps the reason for that is that there is something comforting in the thought that living beneath the shield of Patriots, Arrows and the Iron Dome, we can find a measure of personal security from the assorted Kassams, Katyushas and Shihabs, without having to grapple with the fundamental political and military challenges that might ultimately demand from us heavy sacrifices of either war or peace. Unfortunately, we might find instead is that what we have created is not much more than an aerial version of the Bar-Lev Line. Schnurr is surely right that missile defense systems for both long- and short-range missile threats are now an indispensable element of our national security planning. Unfortunately, though, we don't have the luxury here of simply living under a dome of missile defense, iron or otherwise, while the storm of Middle East politics rages all around us.