- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel’s defense establishment has stepped up efforts in recent months to develop a weapons system capable of intercepting the short-range missiles that rocked cities during the war with Hezbollah last summer and the crude Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip at nearby Israeli towns.

Defense Ministry officials are pinning their hopes on a joint venture between Israel’s Rafael Armament Development Authority and Raytheon Co. The companies were commissioned in May to develop a missile interceptor against short-range Palestinian and Hezbollah rockets that can destroy the weapons before they touch down in Israel.

“After the lessons of the recent war in Lebanon and everything going on around Gaza, the defense establishment has re-started intensive activity to develop defense for all of the rocket threats,” said Arieh Herzog, who oversees missile defense development for Israel’s Defense Ministry.

“We’ve been involved for several years in developing a means against these threats. Obviously after the war this became sharpened, and we are hoping to finish the development even faster so there will be protection for the citizens as fast as possible.”

During the monthlong Lebanon war last summer, Israel’s army was unable to stop the 2,000 short-range Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah guerillas, which succeeded in paralyzing all of northern Israel.

Homemade Qassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants continue to hit populated neighborhoods near Gaza Strip in southern Israel.

Two rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza yesterday. On Thursday, at least six rockets hit in Israel, one of them injuring a 2-year-old boy, the Associated Press reported.

“In order to combat terrorism in Gaza we have to combine three approaches. The best known is the military approach. The second approach is political dialogue. The third approach should be technology,” said Dani Yatom, a member of Israel’s parliament.

“I am confident that by investing enough effort and enough money there should be a technological solution both to the rockets and the tunnels used by the Palestinians.”

Until now, the development of an interceptor missile for short-range rockets has languished, but defense officials hope new funds for research in 2007 will revive the program.

Israel’s Defense Ministry is hoping to split development costs with the U.S. government.

Reportedly nicknamed David’s Shield, the Rafael-Raytheon missile interceptor would at least be loosely based on the technology used by the Arrow II missile, an Israeli-U.S. joint venture deployed against long-range missiles in 2000.

“Missile-based systems have become much more cost effective than 10 years ago,” Mr. Herzog said. “If you compare the potential damage caused by the missiles to the [development] prices of today, it’s very cost effective.”

At least one other weapons system will get serious consideration from Israel.

The Nautilus chemical laser cannon developed by Northrop Grumman had proven itself in tests, but work stopped a year and a half ago because the several-billion-dollar price tag to complete the project was deemed too high.

Adding to the cost is the need to avoid polluting surrounding areas with the weapon.

Israeli defense officials are awaiting new development projections and data from Northrop Grumman executives who will make a pitch on dusting off the project.

But for all the renewed interest in short-range missile interceptors, Israeli defense specialists have cautioned that a technological response to Katyusha and Qassam rockets will take years.

“It is best not to delude the citizens of Israel with false promises,” wrote Ze’ev Schiff, a military commentator for the Ha’aretz newspaper. “Even if a miracle does take place and a decision on the appropriate technological solution is made, it will take two to three years before emergence of the first results.”

Rachel Naidek Ahskenai, a spokeswoman for the Defense Ministry, said: “No one promised a miraculous remedy. It’s not going to be in the next few months or in the next few years. But the technological building blocks exist.”

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