Search within the section

25 Apr 2008

Israel's anti-missile hunt

As Israel pushes ahead with plans for a multilayered anti-missile defense screen, significant questions are being asked regarding its effectiveness, writes Dominic Moran for ISN Security Watch.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv

The Israeli government is pushing ahead with anti-missile system development, having announced its preferences from a range of competing technologies.

However, the importance of the primary imperative driving short and medium range anti-missile development - the political impact of the 2006 Lebanon War - is beginning to wane. The governing Labor and Kadima parties are steadily closing the polling advantage enjoyed by the Likud party since the conflict, as secret Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas on a Gaza ceasefire continue.

"There is a lot of public pressure and there are politicians who […] are either taking advantage or feel obliged to respond to that [missile attacks] by presenting solutions which they themselves don't know much about," Professor Gerald Steinberg from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel told ISN Security Watch.

The question remains: Will the political drive and attendant funding for expensive, speculative short- and medium-range missile counters survive changes in the political and security imperatives and milieu in which they were initially approved?

Yiftah Shapir from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv told ISN Security Watch that for many years the Israeli Defense Ministry, "resisted pressure to develop such a system. But the political pressure was overwhelming and basically the ministry had no choice."

Contested decision

Then-defense minister Amir Peretz, smarting from the perceived defeat of Israeli forces in the Lebanon war, decided in early 2007 to provide his full backing to the short-range Iron Dome and short to medium range Magic Wand interceptors under development by Israeli defense industry giant, Rafael.

With billions of dollars in potential Israeli anti-missile contracts up for grabs, the contest between various defense industry players dragged in major US companies such as Raytheon and Northrop-Grumman in an increasingly fierce competition for official attention involving 14 different systems.

Shapir said that "important details of all the systems have not been revealed," making it difficult to judge their relative merits.

Rafael's success in snaring the contracts appeared to have as much to do with the company's deep political contacts within the Israeli Defense Ministry, the government and among academics as the actual merits of the system – given the unproven nature of the technologies involved in all potential bids.

Domestic critics have also charged that the Ministry's motivation in choosing an Israeli firm stems from a desire to benefit from future foreign sales – with India a likely export target. The US has previously refused Israel permission to sell the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system to India.

Shapir noted that "relations between Israel and the US are influenced by commercial disputes. Sending the Arrow to India doesn't harm US interests as much as it harms the interests of Boeing and Northrop Grumman, etc."

According to Rafael, Iron Dome will be capable of intercepting short range rockets and 155mm artillery shells at a range of up to 70km, in all weather conditions.

The latter was an important selling point given that the performance of competing laser-based systems was deemed to be badly affected by poor weather conditions, including days of airborne dust and haze common to many areas of Israel in summer months.

However, Premier Ehud Olmert was reportedly shocked in February when initial tests revealed that the Iron Dome would be incapable of intercepting incoming missiles at a range of less than 4km, rendering the system useless for the defense of Gaza borderline communities.

One of the factors reportedly militating against the Iron Dome as a viable solution to the firing of Qassam and Katyusha missiles by Gaza militants is the prohibitive costs of the system's Tamir missiles, at tens of thousands of dollars each.

Nevertheless, the Israeli government appears determined to push ahead with development, eschewing alternatives proposed by champions of other interception systems – which nonetheless retain significant US and Israeli financing as both fallback and complimentary options.

Nautilus sinks

Touted as potential competitors to Iron Dome, laser-based systems have won significant support among Israeli defense officials and interested academics in recent years. Established under a joint US-Israeli development program, Northrop Grumman's Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), or Nautilus system, has garnered particular interest.

In March, as the limitations of Iron Dome became clear, an Israeli delegation led by Defense Ministry Director-General Pinchas Buchris traveled to New Mexico to view the system's new operational battery, dubbed "Sky Guard."

According to Israeli media, the ministry team was singularly unimpressed with the company's demonstration, arguing that Sky Guard had failed to demonstrate a capacity to shoot down Katyushas and Qassam rockets.

Ministry officials also complained that the company had failed to respond to their requests for cost estimates and a timetable for production of a mobile version. Northrop Grumman countered that Buchris had not sought an active demonstration of the Sky Guard's interception capacity.

"What America did with the Nautilus was to provide a certain base but it also showed the limitations," Steinberg said.

For the last two years Rafael has reportedly been working on a solid laser interceptor that uses electrical current, eschewing the chemical laser of the Nautilus.

Haaretz reports that the system - for which the technology currently does not exist - is theoretically designed to track incoming missiles at launch, destroying the warhead using heat within two seconds.

As with the Nautilus and other systems, the development time involved may prove prohibitive, with Rafael cautioning earlier this year that an operative system may not be ready within the next eight years. By this time, the technological challenges posed by missile technologies available to Gaza militants, Hizbollah and Syria and the politico-diplomatic context for development are likely to be radically different.

US funding sought

Israel has had an operational indigenous anti-ballistic missile since 2000, when the Arrow was deployed to complement existing Patriot batteries – which performed poorly during the First Gulf War.

The latest version of the Patriot, the PAC-3, is projected to be available to the Israeli military shortly, following testing in Israel in late 2007. However, the focus of current Israeli Patriot development efforts appears to be on anti-aircraft defense.

The effectiveness of either weapons system against incoming missiles remains moot despite repeated tests of the Arrow, including the successful simulated track and intercept of a "Blue Sparrow" missile, designed by Rafael to mimic the Iranian Shihab, earlier this month.

Referring to the Arrow, Steinberg said, "The tests and the R&D that has gone into it have been successful. And the main point is for the Iranians to think that this is going to have an impact on their capability.

"They [Iran] have a small number of missiles. If they were to launch those and they were to be intercepted by the Arrow then the cost for Iran would be far greater than any gain. So that changes the calculus and in that sense it is doing its job," he said.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) recently received official approval to begin work on a new generation of the missile, the Arrow-3 and hopes that Boeing will agree to manufacture the missile with, yet to be secured, US congressional funding.

"The American backing and cooperation is extremely important in going from basic R&D to operational systems, the production of large numbers of interceptors, and lowering the cost of the whole process," Steinberg explained.

Israeli officials revealed earlier this month that the US had agreed to incorporate Israel into its ballistic missile early warning system.

Wand or cannon?

The Magic Wand is also under development by Rafael in conjunction with Raytheon. This system is designed to counter medium range launchings from between 40-250km engaging such missiles as the Iranian-fabricated Fajr and Zilzal, which are purportedly an element of the Hizbollah arsenal.

Work on Magic Wand, which is to utilize Rafael's Stunner missile, is tentatively scheduled for deployment in four years – Iron Dome is supposed to come into operation in 2010.

Again the costs appear prohibitive with each Stunner missile slated to cost several hundred thousand dollars. The projected initial development costs to Israel of Iron Dome alone run to US$811 million in the first five years.

Referring to all short- and medium-range interceptor options, Shapir said, "I'm not sure about the politicians, but at least the technical level people were very well aware that this was a waste of money."

The Israeli military has so far resisted pressure from adherents for the deployment of the Phalanx, a cannon/radar system fabricated by Raytheon and used on some Israeli naval vessels.

The Phalanx destroys incoming threats through a shower of 3,000-4,500 bullets per-minute and is reportedly in use in Iraq where it protects US bases from mortar and rocket fire. Independent assessments of the system's success are not available, with concerns about falling munitions and noise factors preventing their deployment around Gaza.

Money for nothing

Given the size of competing missile arsenals, it is likely that any potential Israeli anti-missile defense would be overwhelmed by multiple firings in the event of war.

Shapir told ISN Security Watch, "There is no system that is capable of defending against short-range rockets, or mortar bombs or cannon shells. There just isn't, because these systems try to defeat a very, very cheap type of projectile […] which means that it is easy for the other side to use larger quantities."

Summing up the prospects for short and medium range interceptors, Steinberg said, "I think short of directed energy systems, where you have a laser or some other beam that can move very quickly and has a low cost in terms of firing and usage, until that kind of system is developed for short range ballistic missiles it is a very, very difficult challenge."

"The cost of interceptors is just too high and the time frame is just too short," he said.

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

License Logo

Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported