TEL AVIV | Menaced on three sides by enemies armed to the teeth with rockets and missiles, Israel is racing against the clock to develop two deterrent systems that will intercept incoming short- and medium-range projectiles before they can hit their civilian or military targets.
Due to become operational in 2010, the Iron Dome system is meant to protect Sderot, Ashkelon and other southern cities, as well as the agricultural communities that ring the Gaza Strip from the homemade Qassam rockets launched by Palestinian gun crews for the past seven years. It also is designed to intercept short-range Soviet-model rockets fired by the Hezbollah guerrillas of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah - which, like Hamas, is funded and supplied by Iran - has 30,000 such projectiles - three times more than it had at the start of the second Lebanon war in 2006. They are thought to be of Russian, Syrian and Iranian manufacture.
In 2012, the David’s Sling system is scheduled for operational deployment, its objective being to destroy medium-range Iranian Shihab-3 and other missiles in flight, regardless of whether they are armed with conventional, chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.
Both projects are being directed by the Weapons Development Authority - known by its Hebrew acronym, RAFAEL. The former project is being run by Israeli personnel only, and the latter project is being run in conjunction with American firms, mainly Raytheon.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared to have enhanced the operational capabilities of David’s Sling during his recent visit to Washington by winning the Bush administration’s consent to station U.S.-made X-band radar-tracking equipment in Israel, the same equipment earmarked for the Czech Republic.
Bearing in mind the cost of launching locally made Tamir-type rockets against incoming Qassams, Yossi Horowitz, a RAFAEL official, said, “They will go up only when a populated area is liable to be hit.”
“Those that are expected to fall into the sea or in fields will not be intercepted,” Mr. Horowitz said, adding that Iron Dome will be effective against rockets and shells fired from distances of up to 45 miles.
The most crucial aspect of the defense system’s operational capability will be its short time span. Radar detection must occur five seconds after launch, tracking must be completed after 10 seconds, and in-flight destruction after 38 seconds, Mr. Horowitz said. The capabilities are pitted against mobile as well as stationary launch pads situated in the northern sector of the Gaza Strip, especially near the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun. The Tamir, which he described as a special missile, can accomplish the mission, he said.
Commanders assigned to Iron Dome batteries will have no time to consult with superiors in the general staff or the Defense Ministry as to whether the Tamir rocket interceptors should be launched.
The David’s Sling system also puts a premium on radar discovery, tracking and optimal launch time.
Its two-stage missile, known as Stunner, can defend against Iran’s Shihab-3 as well as U.S. Cruise-type or Soviet Scud-type missiles.
The ultimate ballistic defensive shield is the Israeli-designed Arrow missile, which has undergone successful tests in Israel and in the U.S. It is the top-drawer component of the David’s Sling inventory.
The Stunner does not have a warhead of any kind. Its purpose is to knock incoming projectiles of all types out of the air. It is a solid-fuel projectile enhanced by a booster rocket capable of hitting its target within 10 to 15 seconds after launch.
The defense systems have their critics.
Reuven Pedazur, an expert in ballistic missiles and aerial warfare who writes for the influential daily Ha’aretz, teaches political science at Tel Aviv University and flies passenger jets for one of Israel’s leading airlines.
Mr. Pedazur contends the likelihood that Iron Dome will accomplish its declared purpose is “minimal.” In a wide-ranging interview, he said it takes only 14 seconds for a Palestinian Qassam rocket launched from Beit Hanoun at the northern end of the Gaza Strip to land in Sderot in southwestern Israel.
“There just isn’t enough time to get organized,” he said, noting that the distance traversed by the incoming projectile is only four miles.
Turning to the cost factor,Mr. Pedazur pointed out that the cost incurred in the operation of an Iron Dome unit defending the city of Ashkelon, eight miles to the north, is $100,000 for each missile fired. He compared this to the $50 it costs the Palestinians to produce each Qassam rocket.
“They can produce thousands of them and make us go broke trying to intercept them,” he said. “The price will be insane.”
Nor is he convinced that the Iron Dome crews will be able to pinpoint the probable site of impact without a significant and perilous margin of error.
Mr. Pedazur prefers a system based on laser beams capable of intercepting and destroying rockets and missiles, on the premise that it would cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per strike.
“Lasers also are effective against incoming mortar shells,” he said.
In an article published in Ha’aretz in February, Mr. Pedazur wrote: ” … the senior staff at the Defense Ministry’s Research and Development Directorate strongly rejected the proposal to bring into Israel the laser-based Nautilus Defense System, whose development is nearly complete and whose effectiveness was proved in a series of tests (100 percent success in 46 tests, including success in intercepting mortar shells).
“Nautilus was developed in the U.S. in conjunction with Israel, but the Israeli defense establishment ended its participation in the project in 2001.”
As for the possibility that Iran may launch nuclear-tipped missiles against Israel, Mr. Pedazur contended that there is little chance that the Arrow can be relied upon as a defense, if only because the nuclear warheads can split in flight into dozens, if not hundreds, of inherently dangerous segments the overwhelming majority of which the Arrow would be unable to neutralize.