(Updated, March 28, 2:05 p.m.)
While the U.S. has been preoccupied with American and European involvement in Libya, Israel has come under fire yet again.
According to Thursday's Jerusalem Post, about a dozen rockets and half a dozen mortar rounds had landed in the southern part of the country. That was round one.
By Friday, defense minister Ehud Barak noted in the Jerusalem Post that "some 100 rockets and mortars… reaching communities further [from the Strip] than usual" were fired, with targets including Be'er Sheva, Ashdod, Sderot, Ashkelon, and Gaza border-region communities.
The Israeli Air Force retaliated with strikes into Gaza, and Israel has warned of massive ground-based retaliation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates March 25, said Israel is ready to use "great force."
One regional paper called the potential situation "the worst since Israel's deadly offensive in Gaza in the Winter of 2008-2009."
By Sunday, an Iron Dome anti-missile battery had been deployed near Be'er Sheva in the south, and the mayors of other southern towns were attacking the government for not having more batteries ready, and for failing to site them near their towns, according to Haaretz. In a somewhat cynical statement, the mayor of Sderot told his Be'er Sheva counterpart, "Don't get too excited over the system they deployed near your city. I'm not sure it's yours; it has wheels."
Haaretz added that "...The mayor of the Bedouin town of Rahat Faiz Abu Sahiban bemoaned what he considered the abandonment of Israel's Bedouin citizens in the face of Gaza fire, saying: 'We are within the rockets' range, closer in fact than Be'er Sheva.'"
There is room for irony in this situation. Despite nearly fifteen years of work and about half a billion dollars in spending, plus U.S. aid, this attack caught Israel defenseless against a threat it has faced for decades.
So far as can be determined, Israel has either developed or participated in the development of at least two short- to medium-range systems designed to deal with Palestinian stove-pipe rockets and the more sophisticated Grad/Katusha missiles now becoming available, but for various reasons, nothing was ready when this attack came.
Hamas' original unguided rockets may have carried a warhead, but they were as unsophisticated as a teenager's science project; some still are. But while inaccurate, they could kill, and they injured hundreds, according to the BBC. Best, from Hamas' perspective, they were cheap -- basically a steel pipe with fins, propellant (sugar and fertilizer) and a warhead. They were simple enough for amateurs to build in garages by the hundred and in 2008 alone Hamas fired an estimated 1,750 into Israel. More followed. More are following this week.
Now the longer-ranged Grad/Katusha is becoming available, deadlier because its warhead is professionally designed and because it can be aimed more precisely. Thus the risk increases while the defensive situation remains almost static.
Against the Missiles
The first of Israel's anti-rocket developments may have been a chemical-laser system called THEL, the Tactical High Energy Laser. THEL looks like a searchlight, but it does not illuminate, it eliminates. THEL's beam either physically destroys its target though energy transfer and thermal shock or heats its warhead until it detonates. THEL's potential range is about ten kilometers, according to missilethreat.com.
Although accounts differ, it appears that THEL could have been deployed in Israel's defense in the early 2000s, and stove-pipe rockets and mortar shells might have been regularly turned into bits of falling scrap long ago -- more to the point, this week.
The system was co-developed by America's military, Northrup Grumman, and Israel in a program begun in 1996; THEL was tested at the White Sands Missile Range in 1998. An initial operating capability (IOC) was penciled in for 1999, but THEL was never deployed. Unfortunately, it seems that few in authority put much faith in the fact that rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds can in fact be shot down with high-energy beams of light from a Deuterium Fluoride laser.
But in 2004 tests, THEL was said to approach 100% effectiveness intercepting Katusha rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds at ranges of up to five kilometers. In fact, if pursued, THEL might have been deployed as a fixed defense by 2004, protecting Israelis against the fire that triggered the current conflict.
Why isn't THEL defending Israel now? There are several reasons on the record, one being that the Israeli Defense Forces wanted a mobile version, MTHEL, and therefore decided not to deploy the fixed system. An MTHEL program was launched, but its funding was reduced. The cutback slowed development and MTHEL's operational date slid to 2010. It is still sliding, apparently.
Other criticisms included its use of corrosive fuels, and the vulnerability of their tanks, but this would seem to apply more to MTHEL than THEL which could have been placed in hardened locations. Also, critics said THEL's range was too short and, besides, it's often cloudy in northern Israel, therefore the laser might have been ineffective. Of course, it's also clear often, and it's normally clear on the Gaza border, whence most of the missiles seem to come.
At any rate, after expending more than $300 million, according to the New York Times, THEL appears to have been shelved in 2006, at least in its fixed-defense form.
Even so, some programs live on beneath the radar, and THEL may be one of them though facts are hard to come by. If so, THEL's cost per engagement may be a plus. Though hardly cheap, as defense systems go THEL's operation is not overly costly. Shooting down an incoming missile with THEL costs an estimated $3,000. That may be less than a tenth the price of a guided anti-missile, and dirt cheap compared to a human life.
Israel could have sited hardened THEL batteries at strategic locations along its borders, especially near Gaza, and soon convinced Hamas that their cheap rockets were a waste of time. Ditto for the better Grad/Katusha rockets Hamas is now receiving. Compared with the speed of light, the most sophisticated rocket is a very slow creature.
Instead, Israel's answer to the problem of incoming fire from Gaza and Lebanon has been Iron Dome, developed domestically by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems at a price which Haaretz estimates at about $250 million plus about $50 million per battery. The U.S. contributed more than $200 million to its development. The cost of its anti-missiles is not stated, but "cost of intercept" is apparently runs to five figures, according to military sources.
Iron Dome uses a missile to kill a missile. It is capable of destroying an incoming rocket in less than half a minute, though it can't engage targets much closer than about 1.7 miles.
Unfortunately, Iron Dome has two immediate problems. The first is that the Palestinians attacked before the system was deployed, and only now is a single battery active. The second, future, problem is whether firing a relatively expensive anti-missile against a stove-pipe rocket is affordable in the long run.
While there are few figures on the cost of Iron Dome's anti-missile (defensetech.org cites a price of about $50,000, but confirmation is hard to find), it must cost far more than a stove-pipe rocket built by unpaid amateur labor in a Gaza garage. Whatever the cost of its anti-missile, the Israeli military appears to think it's high, according to defensetech.org.
Tactically, it's an open question whether the Palestinians will try to saturate Iron Dome with large numbers of stove-pipe rockets, making it too costly to be practical. They could also fire a cloud of stove-pipe rockets, empty Iron Dome's magazines, then begin firing the more dangerous Grad/Katusha at undefended targets.
According to Israeli media reports, the country is thought to have just the one mobile Iron Dome battery available at the moment, according to YnetNews.com, the one sent south last week to protect the territory bordering Gaza. However while proof tests were successful, there is always some question about effectiveness until any system has been battle tested. This would be Iron Dome's first use defending against an actual attack. Hopefully, it's up to the challenge. The Israeli military, hedging its bets, is calling this "an operational experiment," adding that full operational capability lies in the future.
Even if Iron Dome performs flawlessly, there are issues of quantity and availability.
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.
Under pressure, according to UPI analyst Martin Sieff, Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided in Spring 2009 to ask America to sell C-RAM to Israel. However, then as now, the U.S. military was involved in Afghanistan, and C-RAM was reserved for use in that theater. This was rational policy for America, but an obstacle to Israel.
According to media reports, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu intended to reinforce Barak's request during a visit to Washington. Unfortunately, at about the same time, Vice President Joe Biden deplaned in Israel to be greeted by news of 1,600 new settlements in East Jerusalem, an announcement deemed to be an insult to the United States as a whole and Biden in particular.
This chilled U.S.-Israeli relations. So with an already absolute duty to protect U.S. troops, the Obama administration apparently decided that charity began at home, and continued to allocate C-RAM exclusively to U.S. forces.
Today, according to a Defense Department spokesman, and public procurement information, there is no record of C-RAM sales to Israel. Negotiations may be proceeding in the background, but no one will comment. C-RAM prime contractor, Raytheon Co.'s Missile Systems Division not only refused comment, but referred this reporter to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, a notably laconic organization.
Whatever the reason -- bureaucracy, budget, or the desire to spend defense funds in country -- if rockets and mortar shells are the cause, the latest conflict in Gaza was, almost certainly avoidable. Hamas might still have fired its rockets and mortars, but with few, or no, injuries or lost lives, this would have been an annoyance to Israel, but not a casus belli.