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Defense Minister Ehud Barak attributes great importance to speeding up the development of technological defenses against rocket fire on the home front, as he considers this a precondition for any significant withdrawal from the West Bank.

Such a withdrawal would put Israel's main population centers in Qassam rocket range of the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, Barak believes, Israel must first develop and deploy an effective anti-missile system - a process that is expected to take three to five years.

Though Barak has declined to say so explicitly or to point an accusing finger at anyone, he has been unpleasantly surprised by what he has discovered about the Israel Defense Forces' preparedness in the weeks since his return to the Defense Ministry. At a meeting Tuesday with reservists from an armored brigade, one tank gunner told him that his current reserve duty is the first time he has seen an actual shell in five years. "No one will wait five years before the next exercise," promised Barak, who believes that live-fire exercises are critical, as they are the closest thing to real combat.

Last week, Barak met with a group of brigade commanders and was surprised to hear some of them say that during last summer's Lebanon war, they had faced difficult dilemmas when they weighed the "value of their missions" against the danger to soldiers' lives. Barak, like other former generals, has been critical of some units' failure to stick to their missions during that war, and he told the brigade commanders that this is not an issue they should even consider during wartime. A single brigade commander, he explained, lacks a clear picture of the entire front, and must therefore act on the assumption that his superiors have good reason for their orders.

Each commander, he added, must behave as if the outcome of the war depends on his actions alone.

Barak has also met recently with several of the retired officers who led the army's in-house probes into the Second Lebanon War. Based on these meetings and his studies of the material, he has concluded that the biggest problem was the enormous difference between a real war and counterterrorism activity in the territories, coupled with the lack of an "institutional memory": Israel's last real war occurred 24 years ago, and the IDF no longer has any officers who remember what that was like.

Operations to arrest wanted terrorists, for instance, are often halted in the middle if a soldier is wounded, as evacuating him is considered to take priority. In war, however, such conduct would be beyond the pale: An assault must continue even if the unit suffers casualties.

On the more practical level, Barak's main conclusion from the war is the need to improve the home front's defenses against rockets. He envisions a multilayered system capable of intercepting anything from Iran's long-range Shihab-3 missile to the short-range, relatively primitive Palestinian Qassams. Such a system would include an improved version of the Arrow anti-missile system, which is designed to intercept long-range missiles; the "Iron Dome" system designed by Rafael - the Armaments Development Authority, which is aimed at short-range missiles; and perhaps a laser-based system as well.

In the offensive realm, Barak considers it critical to improve the IDF's maneuverability. He has already proposed to the cabinet that two new reserve divisions be created. These would include armored brigades, but would not require the purchase of many new tanks, as several units have been disbanded in recent years, and their tanks are still in IDF warehouses.

In addition, all tanks must be protected against the advanced antitank missiles now owned by Hezbollah and Syria. Spending $150,000 to armor a tank that costs $3 million is a good investment, Barak says.

Some of Barak's proposals would require massive expenditures, so he is banking on the promised increase in American military aid