Editor's Notes: The absent Nautilus

Steinitz has long been a critic of what he has perceived as complacency for the threat of terrorists.

At 9 in the morning of July 12, Yuval Steinitz was presiding over a meeting of a Knesset subcommittee. The subject under discussion: the challenge posed to Israel by Katyusha and Kassam rockets. At 10:30, in mid-meeting, word came through that, amid a heavy barrage of rocket and artillery attacks in northern Israel, two soldiers had been kidnapped by Hizbullah from the Israeli side of the border. Israel's second Lebanon War had begun. Likud Knesset member Steinitz, the former chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has long been a critic of what he has perceived as a horrifying complacency among fellow politicians and the top echelons of the IDF regarding the nature and gravity of the threats posed to Israel by an array of regional states and terror groups. He takes no evident pleasure today in what might be regarded as vindication, more than four weeks into a confrontation that has made fools of many of those who hitherto regarded him as alarmist. His long-standing assertion that the IDF scandalously neglected the challenges of conventional warfare - he specifies both the current Chief of the General Staff, Dan Halutz, and his predecessor, Moshe Ya'alon - is widely shared now that Israel is paying so heavy a price in the North. As he had warned, the mere fact that Israel's air force could claim absolute control of the skies over Lebanon did not render it immune to rocket fire. Nor, as he had feared, was the IAF capable on its own, when the moment of truth came, of drastically degrading Hizbullah's guerrilla and rocket capabilities from the safety of those skies. Repeated, unheeded concerns about the vulnerability to rocket attack of Israel's civilians and of its military installations and personnel have proven all too well-founded. That indiscriminate rocket fire could wreak such deadly havoc, moreover, only underlines how exposed to more sophisticated rocket and missile attack are Israel's easily identifiable troop concentrations, ground and air bases, command-and-control centers, ammunition stores and much, much more. "For years, I have been trying to bring home the message of the need for greater readiness," said Steinitz this week, unloading salvos of frustration. "But the army was so arrogant... Yes, we must control the air, but we also need strong ground forces. The IAF is vulnerable on the ground; its bases are easy to find. For three years, we'd been urging the IDF to react to our [committee's] report on unprotected bases. "Chiefs of staff were wrong to assert that the danger of conventional war had receded," he went on. "We should never have cut back on training for the reserves. This is a conventional war, with tanks and snipers and drones and artillery... We said that we needed a plan to cross the Litani in two days if attacked; the IDF was contemptuous. "We should have used ground forces four weeks ago - pushed through, north of Hizbullah, surprised them, given them no chance to withdraw northward," Steinitz continued bitterly. "We could have put them out of business, like the PLO after 1982, with no real ability to threaten. That opportunity has been lost now, but we could still move deep into Lebanon, past the Litani in some cases. Instead I see the government looking to the world to stop us. This is not a border conflict. This is an attack deep inside Israel, shutting down a major part of the country. What, if not to act at times like this, is the IDF for?" ONE OF Steinitz's greatest frustrations, however, relates to the subject matter of that interrupted Knesset subcommittee meeting last month - and what he says was a spurned opportunity to develop a viable defense against the rocket attacks that have set the deadly tone of this conflict. It is not his conclusive assessment that an early, proper recognition of the rocket threat and an ordering of priorities to counter it would have ensured that Israel, by summer 2006, could have developed a mechanism to intercept Hizbullah's Katyushas. It is, however, his adamant assertion that Israel could have been a lot closer to such a life-saving, havoc-thwarting, deterrence-boosting reality. If only it had continued development of the Nautilus. The Nautilus is a defensive weapons system that was being developed jointly by the US and Israel over the past decade. It was designed to intercept short-range rockets, and even artillery, with a laser gun. A radar system identified a rocket on launch, and the laser beam locked onto it and destroyed it. The US, which had been bearing the brunt of the cost (about two-thirds), was responsible for the laser technology, and Israel was producing the radar, Steinitz related. But both the American and the Israeli army had major reservations about the project, and it was intermittently halted, then restarted, over the past three or four years. At one stage, said Steinitz, a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee delegation to Washington won a renewed pledge of American funding against US Army objections - $250 million in all, with Israel putting up a much-reduced 10 percent. Operational tests showed the system working; it even got nimble enough to hit three Katyushas launched together, said Steinitz. Plainly, as Brig.-Gen. Doron Almog argues elsewhere in today's pages, were such a system in place today - intercepting a significant proportion of Katyushas even as the air force pounded Hizbullah - the current conflict would have unfolded far more beneficially from Israel's point of view and rendered irrelevant much of the agonizing over land forces. But Steinitz stressed that, even if funded uninterrupted, the Nautilus had a way to go. Weather conditions posed problems. It was unfeasible and large, and many units would be required to guarantee wide protection. "But I believed it was a critical need - so that we could keep the asymmetry" - now lost - "whereby we attack deep in their territory and they can't attack deep in ours. What's more, the laser technology was new and innovative, and had potential for wider application." Funding for the Nautilus was frozen altogether 18 months ago, Steinitz reported, because of the ongoing lack of enthusiasm in both countries' military hierarchies. "That was a dreadful mistake," he said, "again a consequence of the IDF's refusal to recognize what it was up against." Last month's meeting was proof that Steinitz hadn't given up. But its coincidental timing was also proof that years lost in military R&D cannot always be recovered.