They cost just €70 to make, but Hezbollah rockets have forced some Israeli towns to be abandoned. So Israel is building Iron Dome, an anti-missile shield. If it works, it could change the pace of diplomacy in the region and beyond.
From his office window on the 19th floor high above Tel Aviv, Yossi Horowitz can see clear across the city at sunset, through the tangle of antennae and barricaded bunkers of the Israel Defence Forces headquarters, to the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean. It’s a peaceful scene, and Horowitz’s job is to keep it that way. As head of business development for air defence systems in the missile division of state-owned arms manufacturer Rafael, he is producing “Iron Dome” – a new €347m defence system that will intercept and destroy short-range rockets and mortars fired across the border at Israel’s cities.
“You are not waiting for the threat. You are trying to engage it before it comes,” says Horowitz. It sounds like science fiction, but the implications for Middle East peacemaking are very real. Announcing the project this summer, Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak said an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank in a peace deal with the Palestinians could not be implemented before Iron Dome is operational.
Horowitz’s project has the potential to change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, hasten the creation of an independent Palestinian state and end a century of bloody conflict. It’s a heavy responsibility. For now, Horowitz, a former commander of Israel’s air defences, is concentrating on the practical, technical and economic aspects of Iron Dome rather than its diplomatic and historical implications.
Tel Aviv has been attacked only once, in January 1991, when Saddam Hussein launched 40 Scud-B missiles at Israel’s cities and the population donned gas masks and huddled in bomb shelters, petrified they were about to be sprayed with chemical weapons. Hastily assembled batteries of American Patriot PAC-1 missiles were deployed around Israel’s cities and tried to engage the incoming Scuds. But they failed to stop a single missile.
Now the threat is back on Horowitz’s doorstep. Just an hour’s drive south of his office, the city of Sderot has been under almost daily attack from crude Qassam rockets fired across the border from Gaza by Hamas and Islamist jihadis. Qassams have a range of only 10km and carry a fistful of explosives in their tiny warheads – enough to wreck a room but leave anyone else in the house unscathed – but they have killed 14 Israelis, injured dozens more and reduced Sderot to a ghost town. Since the 1970s, the northern border towns of Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya have been subjected to similar attacks from the PLO and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Until the summer of 2006, the Israel Defence Forces did not view short-range rockets as a strategic threat and hardly took them into account when planning the Second Lebanon War. During more than a month of fighting, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, destroying Hezbollah bunkers and long-range missiles. But Hezbollah showered up to 300 rockets a day on northern Israel, killing at least 43 civilians, destroying dozens of homes, shutting down a third of the country and forcing more than a million people to dive for the safety of underground shelters or head south. Among targets was the Western Galilee Hospital, the largest building in Nahariya. It was forced to move patients underground after a direct hit by Hezbollah destroyed the eye department on the fourth floor of the surgical wing.
Despite Israel’s total air supremacy ever since the 1967 Six Day War, it could not stop the rockets.
“It was a total failure,” says Herzl Bodinger, former commander in chief of the Israeli air force, who says he has been urging the development of an active missile defence system for the past decade. The Hezbollah debacle forced military chiefs to re-think their entire military doctrine, and grudgingly accept that Israel must protect itself against rocket attack.
Bodinger knows the high price of the traditional Israeli doctrine that offence is the best means of defence. It was during the 16-day Operation Grapes of Wrath under his command in April 1996 that Israeli warplanes mistakenly bombed a UN compound in Qana, killing more than 100 Lebanese civilians.
“Our enemies went to missiles because it was an efficient solution to the threat and activities of the Israeli Air Force,” says Bodinger. “Our enemies are investing increasing resources in building thousands of missiles. This means that in the coming years, in any conflict, they are going to use them. It will be the first time since the birth of Israel in 1948 that they can actually attack any point within the borders of Israel.”
As Israel revives peace talks with the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, there are fears that a West Bank withdrawal will lead to more Qassam attacks on Israel’s largest cities. “We came out of Gaza and we are being bombed,” says Bodinger. “So if we want to get out of the West Bank we must be sure we are not in the same position from the eastern side, and in areas that are more vital – Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion Airport, all the heavy industries. I believe that having Iron Dome operational should be a precondition of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. You can’t take more risks.”
Israeli scientists have responded to the burgeoning threat with a blossoming array of hi-tech hardware. The result is a three-layered missile defence shield against the vast stockpile of rockets and missiles aimed at the country by the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Iron Dome will protect against short-range, unguided rockets and mortars launched from up to 40km away. Next the David’s Sling system will protect against Katyushas with a range of 40km to 250km. The latest version of the Arrow is ready to destroy ballistic missiles launched from up to 2,000km away. Nautilus, a cutting-edge laser system dropped in 2004 because of budget cuts, proved 100 per cent effective against medium-range threats but could not function in bad weather. It also required the equivalent of a small power station to fuel the laser beam.
Horowitz says an Iron Dome prototype will be tested by early 2008 and could be operational in less than three years. He says the main challenge is not technology but price. The numbers are staggering. A Patriot PAC-2 anti-missile interceptor, used successfully to protect Kuwait against Iraqi attacks in 2003, costs €1.7m. An upgraded PAC-3 costs more than €2.8m – per kilo, that is more expensive than platinum.
Each Israeli Arrow interceptor costs from about €700,000 to €1.4m while each David’s Sling projectile should cost around €175,000. Horowitz must keep the cost of each Iron Dome interceptor below €35,000, but even so Israel’s military spending will soar. On the other side of the border, the cost of a home-made Qassam rocket is probably less than €70.
“When you are talking about an interceptor, every projectile costs a lot of money,” says Horowitz. “People ask what the price of the Qassam is against the price of the interceptor. But this is not real life because if you are living under this threat you cannot work, you cannot live. How much will that cost?” The economic damage caused to northern Israel by the month-long 2006 Lebanon War was estimated by the Bank of Israel at around €2.4bn – much more than the cost of developing Iron Dome.
Uzi Rubin, who headed the development of the Arrow, says that Iron Dome could have been deployed years ago if not for Israeli army “complacency”. “In 1996, 10 years before the Lebanon war, we had 750 rockets, the same phenomenon,” says Rubin. “The northern Galilee shut down. Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona became ghost cities. The perception that these weapons were also a strategic threat was seen by analysts but the military were lagging behind.” Even today, many army officers remain unconvinced.
“It will be impossible for economic and technical reasons,” says Yaacov Amidror, a former senior land-forces commander. “If the rockets continue from Gaza, we may have no choice but to go in and control the territory.” But supporters of the active defence strategy insist that Israel must complete the multi-tiered system. Only then, they say, will there be room for political manoeuvre.
“A system like this will help to take decisions,” says Amos Yaron, a former director general of the Defence Ministry. “When you have this kind of system it will help to convince the Israeli public to make a political move regarding withdrawal from territories.” And if the system is effective, they will no doubt recoup development costs through export sales to Israel’s friends.
Each Iron Dome battery consists of four components: Radar, Launcher, Interceptor and Command & Control.The launch of a mortar or low-level Qassam rocket is detected and tracked by an Elta Multi-Mission Radar. The Radar establishes the direction, speed and trajectory of the missile and confirms it will not hit open fields or land in the sea. The Radar alerts the Launcher via the Command & Control system, enabling human oversight of a process which is largely automated. The Command & Control determines the number, direction and trajectory of Interceptors to be launched. There will generally be more than one per target.
The Launcher deploys the required number of Interceptors, each one guided by a tandem system combining signals relayed from Command & Control with its on-board tracking and seeking devices. The Command & Control is simultaneously linked to Israeli air traffic control and real-time aerial situation pictures to avoid hitting friendly aircraft by mistake. At any time, the officer commanding the battery can order the Interceptor to bypass an object determined to be friendly, or abort the mission.
The Interceptor successfully engages the missile as high as possible, with the aim of destroying it in mid-flight over enemy territory. A Qassam rocket fired from Gaza at Sderot will reach a maximum speed of 300m per second, covering the distance of 10km in less than a minute. The expected time from Iron Dome’s radar acquiring the target, through tracking and launch to the final destruction of the missile, will be about 30 seconds.