At around 11 o'clock on the morning of April 7, a Blue Sparrow missile designed to mimic an Iranian Shihab 3 was fired over the Mediterranean. The visibility was poor, and the Blue Sparrow had radar-evading capabilities the Shihab does not yet possess.
For the first time ground crews employed two radar systems in tandem - an enhanced version of the Israeli Green Pines and the American X-Band, capable of tracking a baseball 4,600 kilometers (2,900 miles) away. The test, the 17th of the Arrow system, was closely coordinated with Israel's American partners in the development of the Arrow. But there were also guests at the Palmahim base from an unnamed European power, indicating growing concern over Iran's nuclear drive and its capacity to target European capitals.
The test, says Uzi Rubin, former director of the Arrow project, was an outstanding success. "I am not only talking about the kill. Everything around it worked exactly according to plan," he tells The Jerusalem Report. The big innovation, the incorporation of the X-Band, was possible because, at American insistence, the Arrow had been carefully designed from the outset with a capacity to assimilate American technologies at every phase. So when the X-Band arrived in Israel last year, deployed mainly in the south and operated exclusively by American crews, it was easily integrated in the evolving Arrow system. "I am not at liberty to speak about this in detail, but I can say that what the X-Band was tasked with it handled superbly well," Rubin asserts.
Two weeks after the successful Arrow test, Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealed that he intended to order the Vulcan Phalanx C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery and mortar) system from the United States. If the Arrow is at the high end of Israel's anti-missile range, designed to protect the country against high-flying long-range ballistic missiles, fired, say, from Iran 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away, the Phalanx is at the very low end, meant to shoot down short-range Qassam rockets and mortar shells, fired from Gaza even less than three kilometers (two miles) away.
Made by the American Raytheon company, the Phalanx consists of a sophisticated radar system to track and target incoming rockets or shells, and a 20-millimeter multi-barreled high-speed Gatling gun, which fires streams of between 3,000 and 4,500 armor piercing bullets a minute, to shoot them down. The big advantage of the Phalanx is that unlike any Israeli system currently in the works, it is effective against mortars: it has shown in Iraq that it can shoot them down and give a 20-second warning to people about to come under mortar attack. At $15 million it is relatively cheap, and also inexpensive to operate as it fires bullets rather than costly rockets.
The disadvantage of the Phalanx system is its "small footprint": it can defend only a relatively small area. According to IDF estimates, five would be necessary to protect the small city of Sderot on the Gaza border. An even bigger snag is that so far the U.S. has been unwilling to sell the Phalanx to third parties, taking up all Raytheon can produce for its own use, mainly against insurgents in Iraq. Barak hopes to persuade U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to divert one Phalanx system to Israel for deployment this winter, and more later if it meets Israeli needs in the Gaza theater.
The Arrow and the Phalanx reflect the changing nature of the military threat to Israel.Rather than planes, tanks or suicide bombers, today an estimated 50,000 missiles of all sizes and trajectories in potential enemy arsenals could target the country. Indeed, for the Iranians, the Syrians, Hizballah and Hamas, the missile or rocket has long since become the weapon of choice. The result has been an evolution in Israeli military doctrine, ushering in "active missile defense" (AMD) systems, designed to shoot down incoming shells, rockets and missiles, as an integral part of military planning.
Barak advocates what he calls a "multi-layered" missile defense, with a combination of complementary systems affording protection against attacks from just a few kilometers to over 1,000 miles. Ideally, the Phalanx would cover threats up to around 12 kilometers; the Iron Dome, being developed by Israel Defense Industries' Rafael and scheduled for operational deployment early next year, would deal with Qassams and Katyushas fired from between 4 and 40 kilometers; the American-made Patriot Advanced Capabilities or PAC-2 already in operation, and David's Sling (a.k.a. Magic Wand), being developed jointly by Rafael and Raytheon and scheduled for deployment in 2012-13, would meet medium-range threats like the Iranian-made Fadjr 3 and 5, Zelzal 2 or the Syrian Scud-C from 40 to several hundred kilometers; and the Arrow, which could also provide cover against the Zelzal or the Scuds, would take it from there for longer-distance missiles, like the Shihab.
Barak sees the creation of an anti-projectile shield around Israel as a "strategic goal." Not only would it protect civilians and strategic installations, but the knowledge that their missiles might be intercepted could deter potential aggressors from using them.
An effective missile shield could also give Israeli policy-makers added options: For example, they might feel more confident about withdrawing from the West Bank if they believed strategic installations like Ben-Gurion Airport were adequately protected against rocket attack.
Indeed, Barak has said if peace talks with the Palestinians bog down, he would advocate unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, once a reliable system for intercepting short-range rockets is in place.
If all goes according to plan, all the AMD layers should be in place by 2012-13. But how effective will the ambitious missile shield be? Will it be able to handle multiple rocket or missile attacks? And what of the costs? Critics point out that while Palestinians can make a Qassam rocket for about $1,000, each Iron Dome "Tamir" interceptor will cost an estimated $45,000 - not to speak of the $215 million for development of the system.
The cost notwithstanding, Israel made a strategic decision to develop an active missile defense system in the early 1990s, after the 39 Scud missile hits it took during the 1991 American-led Gulf war with Iraq. The result was the Arrow. After the 2006 Lebanon war, in which Hizballah fired around 4,000 rockets at civilian targets, Israel decided to accelerate efforts to develop short- and medium-range defenses. This led to Iron Dome and David's Sling. And after last December-January's war with Hamas in Gaza, in which around 600 rockets and mortars were fired, Barak decided to complement Iron Dome with the smaller-range Phalanx system.
Rubin argues that the Phalanx-Iron Dome combination makes good sense. The Phalanx can shoot down mortars, which Iron Dome cannot. And while a single Phalanx battery could not defend Sderot, it would be enough to defend individual kibbutzim or strategic installations in the Gaza perimeter. For its part, Iron Dome, which was modified in January to handle Qassams fired from as close as four kilometers, can defend large urban areas of up to 150 square kilometers. Each Iron Dome battery will have a specially modified state-of-the-art Elta EL/M-2082 radar system, a fire control center and three launchers, each with 20 interceptors, well able to defend cities the size of Ashkelon.
Rubin dismisses claims that available Laser systems, like the Northrop-Grumman Nautilus-cum-Skyguard, could do the work of both the Phalanx and Iron Dome more cheaply. "All the stories about something in America that we just need to bring over to Israel are fairy tales. What they have is a laboratory system which would take years and millions of dollars to make operational, and the Americans have already lost interest and moved on to other technologies," he says.
It is these new more advanced technologiesthat former Kadima Knesset member Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, an expert on missile defense, believes will eventually be harnessed to defend Sderot. "For now the best answer for Sderot is Iron Dome with the Phalanx supplement. But five years after Iron Dome goes into service it will be further supplemented by an advanced laser system. Barak has already decided on this," Ben-Yisrael tells The Report. The advantage of the laser system is that each shot at an incoming rocket will be much cheaper - less than $1,000 to Iron Dome's $45,000. Iron Dome, however, will be able to function in all weather conditions, while the projected laser systems are weather sensitive.
Despite rumors of delays, both Iron Dome and David's Sling are reportedly on course for deployment on schedule. In early March Brig.-Gen. Danny Gold, head of R&D at the Defense Ministry's Weapons' Development Administration, asserted that Iron Dome was in the final stage of development, ahead of schedule, and would meet the early 2010 target date for deployment.David's Sling, scheduled for deployment in 2012-13, has the advantage of strong American input, following an Israel-U.S. "project agreement" last August. At the time U.S. Missile Defense Agency Director Lt.-Gen. Henry Obering declared that "the United States will be very interested in this for our own purposes." For 2009, the U.S. budgeted $72.8 million towards the overall cost of the project, expected to come in at about $250 million.
When complete, David's Sling, with its two-stage "Stunner" interceptor missile and highly regarded Elta El/M-2082 "ADAR" Radar system, will be roughly equivalent in performance to the Patriot PAC-3, which is in service in the U.S. but not in Israel. Each system will have four firing units, each with 16 interceptors. Rubin argues that Israel made a "big mistake" in not acquiring PAC-3 for cover during the interim period. "If something happens here we'll have to bring them in in a hurry, and we will have to rely on American systems because we won't be ready to absorb them," he maintains.
In early March, the state comptroller issued a report criticizing the Defense Ministry for spending millions of shekels on Iron Dome and David's Sling before the IDF defined its operational needs and before the projects received proper government authorization. But the state comptroller backed the decision to enhance Israel's defenses against missiles and rockets, and said that the choices of systems made in the circumstances were the right ones.
Critics of the big decision to opt for active missile defense argue that it is costly and not hermetic. Even Ben-Yisrael, a strong advocate of AMD, acknowledges that "there is no system in the world, not now or in the future, that will be able to defend large areas in a war situation in which hundreds or even thousands of rockets are being fired." But clearly for Barak and other staunch advocates of AMD the rationale for strong missile defenses is to deter potential enemies from starting a war, and if they do launch hostilities to put them at a decisive disadvantage, even if not every missile or rocket can be intercepted.
Barak's hope is that with the Arrow, PAC-2, David's Sling, Iron Dome and the Phalanx all in place, Iran and its proxies will think twice before starting new wars against Israel. •