When a million Israelis took to their bomb shelters in the summer of 2006 defense specialists knew this would be a defining moment for Israel’s anti-missile strategy.
By the end of the fighting Hizbullah had fired nearly 4,000 Katyusha rockets with a range of more than 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) onto Israeli communities, killing 43 civilians.
The war only punctuated what some defense analysts had been saying for years – that the missile threat facing Israel was a top priority.
Hizbullah’s Katyushas are not the only missile threat lingering over Israel.
Israelis around Gaza are under constant fire from crude short-range Qassam rockets. Longer-range Katyushas have also been fired from Gaza, and there are indications that Palestinian organizations are trying to duplicate these tactics in the West Bank.
These threats, and the potential of being hit by long-range missiles from Iran, mean Israel has to counter rockets of different ranges, altitudes, capabilities and destructive potential. Israel’s failure in dealing with future rocket attacks could spell defeat in any future war and could be detrimental for the country, both strategically and politically.
The impact of a missile attack is not manifested in physical damage and loss of life alone. When Saddam Hussein launched 41 Scud missiles onto Israel in the first Gulf War in 1991 the damage was minimal, but the psychological effect and the disruption of daily routine was huge.
A substantial amount of time, money and brainpower is being poured into Israel’s anti-missiles systems, but some say the country is not keeping up with the times.
In the past Israel had small strategic gaps in which it could operate at the beginning of a conflict, says David Ivry, a former Israel Air Force (IAF) commander.
“But now, once there are rockets, there are no strategic gaps. At the beginning of a war rockets can fall anywhere in Israel.” he warns. “I think in some ways we are lagging behind.”
Israel has several systems in place or in the planning stages, in order to deal with missiles of different types and ranges.
The best known of these is the Arrow program, a joint Israeli-American designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles. But the Arrow is no solution for the smaller rockets being fired from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
For smaller rockets, other systems are being developed, such as the Iron Dome for the shorter-range rockets and the David’s Sling for medium-range missiles. Neither of these systems is operational yet.
Another program is a joint Israeli-American project called Nautilus (also known as THEL – Tactical High Energy Laser). The system intercepts missiles of different ranges using a sophisticated laser. Development began in 1996 and it was tested several times successfully. For various reasons, the program was suspended several years ago, a move that is still lamented by defense specialists.
“If the Qassam rockets were contained by an active defense system such as the Nautilus, the strategic posture in Gaza would be different,” Ivry says. “People in Sderot could live normally. We’re now paying a political and strategic price for not having an active defense.”
Most specialists agree there is no one solution to missile attacks.
Uzi Eilam, chairman of the Israel Missile Defense Association, says the answer to the threat is to find a balance between the different defense mechanisms. Contrary to Ivry, Eilam does not believe Israel is lagging behind, but he acknowledges the difficulties in finding the most suitable solution.
“Our experience shows that any weapons system, defensive or offensive, takes a lot of time and money,” he says.
Given the fierce competition over prioritizing and funding, Eilam says it will always be difficult to find a balance among the conflicting interests of defense, politics and money.
Some believe technology cannot be the solution to all aspects of the missile threat.
“In some cases, such as where short-range rockets are fired, it might not be a sufficient answer,” says Ya’akov Amidror, a researcher with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former head of the Israeli army’s research and assessment division.
Sometimes, he believes, it makes more sense for the army to conquer a limited area temporarily and allow the army to carry out its military operations, instead of countering the missiles after they have been launched.
Ivry does not agree with this notion. If you insist on fighting the missile launchers on their own territory, this comes with a political price, such as the price the Americans are paying in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says.
“In the short term it may be a solution, but politically and strategically it’s not an answer.”
An effective answer to the missile threat is, apparently, highly dependent on Israel’s ally in the White House. All the current missile defense programs have been developed with substantial financial help from the United States.
“The Arrow is very expensive and there’s no question that without help from the U.S., Israel couldn’t handle all the R&D itself,” Amidror says.
“Its always good to have the support of the U.S.,” Eilam says. “During Nautilus, the high power laser project, the U.S. army was a partner. Tens of million of U.S. dollars is worth a lot. And yet, if it’s really imperative that the system be developed for Israel’s defense, we can do it ourselves. It all depends on priorities.”
Finding a feasible and effective solution to the threat would impact the political landscape as well as the strategic balance of power, Ivry says.
Some Arab leaders won’t compromise on peace as long as Qassams are effective against Israel,” he says. “Some will say, ‘why compromise when the rockets are working?’”
Ivry believes that having a technological solution would make the peace process much less vulnerable.
But in the meantime, there is no one effective operational answer to the missile threat. Israelis can only hope the defense establishment comes up with a feasible and effective solution before it’s too late.
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