March 18, 2011 | 180 comments
It’s come under fire again from Gaza. Why weren’t its defense systems ready? (Updated, March 28, 2:05 p.m.)
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In mid-February, Haaretz reported that Iron Dome would be declared operational “within a few weeks.” The Israeli Air Force, responsible for its deployment and operation, estimated then that approximately thirteen batteries would be needed to protect the country as a whole, and Israel may be some time away from having that many. The number of completed batteries is unknown.
Whatever their number, about a year ago, the government appears to have decided to warehouse rather than deploy Iron Dome, according to the Jerusalem Post: The “anti-rocket defense system will be located in center of country, [and] be deployed only in cases of extreme rocket fire from Gaza or south Lebanon.” A difficult decision to understand since the system was designed to defend against surprise attacks.
However since new mortar rounds cost between about $500 and $1,600 depending on type, firing a $50,000 anti-missile to knock one out seems uneconomical, and given the quantity of old Soviet mortar rounds available, unsustainable. Stovepipe rockets cost about the same, so the same math applies.
Iron Dome may work perfectly, but can a nation smaller than New Jersey afford to use it? Could Iron Dome’s cost of intercept be the reason Israel didn’t deploy it? Nobody will comment.
So, What Now?
Obviously it’s too late to deploy THEL or MTHEL, but there is another system that could begin defending Israeli civilians within weeks. It would be based on Phalanx, also known as the Close In Weapon System (CWIS) or “Sea-whiz.”
Something of a super Gatling gun, and based on the 20-mm Vulcan cannon, Phalanx has been mature for decades. First Phalanx deployment was in 1978, but Vulcan has been used in aircraft since the 1960s. The weapon is used in forms tailored to air-to-air combat and ground attack, and by more than 20 navies as a last-ditch defense against supersonic anti-ship missiles, some of which maneuver wildly. As Phalanx, it’s used by the Navy on every class of surface-combat vessel, in effect defeating incoming fire by hanging a curtain of metal in front of the threat. The original airborne Vulcan is famous for its destruction of Iraqi tanks.
This is mature technology and its development costs have long since been paid. Even better, procurement and operational costs could be low compared to any other defense.
Phalanx/Vulcan/CIWS already is available in a compact land version called C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery, Mortar). C-RAM grew out of a 2004 request from then U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Peter Schoomaker, who wanted a means of defending U.S. troops in Iraq. It was deployed on the back of flat-bed trucks, and worked well as a mobile defense against incoming fire, using its self-contained Ku-band radar and infrared sensors to track targets.
C-RAM is a system with a range of about five kilometers, and while not originally designed for use in urban areas, it uses special ammunition which either hits the target or self-destructs to minimize ground damage. Used in a border defense role, C-RAM would be aimed outward, away from one’s citizens and toward the adversary. Also, C-RAM and can be moved as needed; the U.S. Army does this now.
C-RAM technology could probably defend against any short-range Hamas or Hezbollah missile, mortar, or artillery threat, and against hardware neither group has gotten its hands on yet. THEL could be better, but the relatively inexpensive C-RAM has been mature and available for years. Israel could have bought Phalanx-based systems at any time in the past decade for a relatively small outlay, perhaps deploying them at many locations across its southern border.
Interestingly, the Department of Homeland security is studying a C-RAM derivative for use in defending airports against man-portable surface-to-air missiles, according to en.citizendium.org. Phalanx/Vulcan/C-RAM seems to be one of those weapon systems so useful it simply continues to evolve.
Unlike Iron Dome C-RAM can engage targets closer than two miles — much closer — making it a good point-defense weapon, and one suitable for deployment in towns near the border — within mortar range. And because (unlike traditional counter-battery fire) it destroys the incoming missile rather than attacking its source, it would create almost no collateral damage.
So if war and bloodshed are abhorrent, and the safety of innocent civilians, Israeli or Palestinian, is important, why hasn’t Israel deployed any of these systems? Or all three? Colliding priorities? Budgetary problems?
In fairness, Israel may have tried to buy C-RAM, and apparently purchased one battery for evaluation. Then about three years ago an article appeared in an obscure Finnish international-affairs journal, describing Phalanx/C-RAM and wondering why Israel wasn’t using it. With this information available, pressure began building from Israeli citizens, backers, and media. The article may have been noticed by military-affairs analyst Yossi Melman, who wrote in Haaretz that Israel already should have purchased C-RAM.
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