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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was surprised to learn last Sunday that the Iron Dome defense system, which was approved last year and was supposed to protect Israel's citizens against Qassam rockets, is not capable of alleviating the distress of Sderot inhabitants. "Recent tests found the system to be effective against rockets fired from more than four kilometers away, but not against those fired from closer range," Haaretz noted that same day in its lead story. Because Sderot is less than two kilometers from Beit Hanun, from which the rockets are being fired, Iron Dome will be helpless against them.

The upshot is that the prime minister, who just two months ago declared that "we will not fortify ourselves to death," was compelled to approve recommendations to fortify 8,000 homes in Sderot and the communities of the "Gaza envelope," to the tune of NIS 300 million. Such protection is necessary because these homes lie within 4.5 kilometers of the Gaza Strip.

But a mere day later, it turned out that the plan was too ambitious and that budget shortfalls meant that only 3,600 homes in Sderot and the Gaza envelope can be fortified within the next two years. The solemn declarations to fortify the homes, revoked only hours later, are just the latest chapter in a gloomy saga replete with deception, lies, concealment of the truth from policymakers, groundless promises to Sderot residents, the unexplained rejection of the arguments for examining additional defense systems other than Iron Dome, and bizarre decisions made in the Defense Ministry.

The decision to focus on the development of Iron Dome raises so many questions that an examination of the process that led to it is in order. The questions include, for example, whether the decision was influenced by considerations relating to commercial bodies, the likely implications of a deal to export this defense system to a foreign country which is not located in the NATO continents (America and Europe), and the motives of some of those involved in the process. It may well be that nothing concrete lurks behind these questions, but we must not ignore the need to find satisfactory answers for them.

The fact that Iron Dome is not effective against short-range rockets and therefore cannot protect Sderot was long known to the system's developers and to the Defense Ministry officials who chose to focus on it. For some reason, they decided not to go public with their information. When the Defense Ministry officials, led by the defense minister, promised that the residents of Sderot would be protected after the installation of the Iron Dome system, they knew they would not be able to deliver on this promise.

One need not be privy to classified information in order to understand that Iron Dome is not the solution to the Qassam rockets. The data are public knowledge: The Qassam's speed in the air is 200 meters per second. The distance from the edge of Beit Hanun to the outskirts of Sderot is 1,800 meters. Therefore, a rocket launched from Beit Hanun takes about nine seconds to hit Sderot. The developers of Iron Dome at Rafael Advance Defense Systems know that the preparations to simply launch the intercept missiles at their target take up to about 15 seconds (during which time the system locates the target, determines the flight path and calculates the intercept route). Obviously, then, the Qassam will slam into Sderot quite a number of seconds before the missile meant to intercept it is even launched.

But besides not being able to protect the border communities, Iron Dome will also not be able to cope with rockets that are launched much farther away. According to data available from Rafael, the average flight time of the intercept missile to the point of encounter is another 15 seconds. In other words, to intercept a rocket using Iron Dome requires at least 30 seconds. This is the time it takes a Qassam to cover six kilometers.

The disturbing question is why no one bothered to apprise the prime minister of this simple calculation, to make it clear to him that Iron Dome, in the development of which his government decided to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, will not be able to protect Sderot. The questions multiply when it emerges that on January 13 an urgent personal letter was sent to Defense Minister Ehud Barak by the head of the Sha'ar Hanegev Regional Council, Alon Schuster. He referred to the Qassam's short flight time, noted that the reaction time of Iron Dome is too long to cope with the rockets, and added that the system is incapable of protecting Sderot and many of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip.

The reply of the Defense Ministry was sent to the council head on February 10. The letter is signed by attorney Ruth Bar, the defense minister's assistant. "The analysis [done by the Defense Ministry] found that in regard to the threats that were identified by the warning system during April-November 2007, one Iron Dome battery has the ability to cope and cover an area far larger than that of Sderot. The capability of Iron Dome to cope with mortar shells has not yet been examined in depth. I will add that the issue of the flight time cannot be detailed in this letter, owing to security considerations."

The money issue

An examination of the economic aspect also casts grave doubts on the decision to choose Iron Dome. The cost of each intercept missile will probably be about $100,000. (Rafael claims the cost of a missile will be about $40,000, but given the cost of similar missiles, that does not seem reasonable.) In contrast, the cost of making a Qassam rocket is well under $100,000. So, if the Palestinians produce thousands of Qassams, the Israeli defense establishment will have to respond by manufacturing thousands of Iron Dome missiles, at a prohibitive cost of hundreds of millions of shekels. On the assumption that this information is known to everyone involved, it must be asked, again, how it came about that Iron Dome was chosen as the preferred solution to the Qassam rockets while other options were vehemently rejected.

The decision was made, seemingly, via a proper, orderly procedure. The Defense Ministry set up a professional committee to look into the matter, headed by Yaakov Nagel, the deputy chief for scientific affairs of the ministry's Directorate of Defense R&D. The committee examined 14 proposals for anti-rocket defense systems and chose Iron Dome. Two defense ministers approved the choice - Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak.

However, the impression of an orderly decision-making process is upended when it turns out that the senior staff at the Defense Ministry's R&D 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 United States in conjunction with Israel, but the Israeli defense establishment ended its participation in the project in 2001. The Americans went on with it, improved the system and changed its name to Skyguard. Northrop Grumman, the company that is developing the missile, promises that it can be delivered within 18 months at a relatively low cost. The Nautilus system itself, devised to protect Kiryat Shmona against Katyusha rockets, can be installed in Sderot within six months. By comparison, the development of Iron Dome will take another three years.

The major advantage of Skyguard is its use of a laser beam for interceptions. The beam travels at the speed of light, allowing the system to intercept short-range rockets like the ones aimed at Sderot. The cost of implementing the laser system is also far lower than Iron Dome. The cost of launching one laser beam will be between $1,000 and $2,000. On February 6, 2007, Mike McVey, vice president of Northrop Grumman's Directed Energy Systems business area, sent a letter to Ehud Olmert, with copies to the defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, and the then director general of the Defense Ministry and present chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, undertaking to install in Israel an operational system within 18 months and at a fixed price ($177 million for the first system). As far as is known, McVey has not received a reply to this day.

Asked why Israel rejected the laser system, the Defense Ministry's spokesman replied: "The Nautilus system is defined as exemplifying technologies and not as an operational instrument. Bringing the Nautilus system into Israel today will cost about $100 million, and it might take up to two years for the system to become active. The Nautilus system is operationally inferior to the Iron Dome system, is far more costly and does not provide an answer to volleys of missiles, as Iron Dome is meant to do. Tests of Nautilus did not achieve the goal of 100 percent hits but far less, and even that under optimal conditions, which, regrettably, do not exist in the western Negev." The reply is studded with inaccuracies, to say the least. The Nautilus / Skyguard will not be "far more costly" than Iron Dome, but probably "far less costly." Nor is it clear what the Defense Ministry spokesman is referring to when he states that Nautilus "did not achieve the goal of 100 percent hits but far less." For his part, the IDF Spokesman, who was also asked to comment on the decision not to acquire the laser system, copied the reply of the Defense Ministry spokesman. Former air force commander Major General (res.) David Ivry is one of those who favors adopting the laser system, but the ministry's R&D directorate did not accept his position. Another former air force commander, Major General (res.) Herzl Bodinger, also tried to persuade the ministry to purchase the laser defense system, again to no avail.

Buy blue-and-white

Part of the explanation for the opposition to the laser system may lie in remarks made by Shimon Lavie, from the R&D directorate, who was the officer of the Nautilus project in the United States, on the "Fact" TV program, broadcast on Channel 2 last December. "We in the directorate are responsible for developing blue-and-white [Israeli-made] systems, which the Nautilus was not. We had hoped for intense cooperation with Israeli firms. If that had happened, it might have had an influence [on the decision about whether to acquire the laser system]."

Another question concerns the extent to which decision-makers were influenced by an export deal with a foreign country not among those under the jurisdiction and protection of NATO. Under the deal, said country was to purchase the Iron Dome system and share in financing the project. Also worth looking into is the influence exerted by MK Isaac Ben-Israel (Kadima), a professor and retired major general, who was formerly head of the R&D directorate, on the decision to choose Iron Dome. Until not long ago, Ben-Israel was an enthusiastic advocate of the laser-based system, explaining his position in detail in an interview with the newspaper Makor Rishon in December 2006. "The limited range between the launch site and its target allow a very short time for intercepting efforts," he said, and stressed the high cost of rocket-based interception systems. "Those the issues decide in favor of the laser weapon," he added. What made him change his mind?

In a conversation this week, Ben-Israel denied that he had changed his mind regarding the anti-rocket defense system. He says he continues to advocate the laser-based defense, but believes that the technology by which the laser beam is produced in Nautilus / Skyguard is obsolete. A little more than a year ago, Ben-Israel still believed that the laser system was preferential and efficient. It would be interesting to know what caused him to consider this system obsolete not long afterward. When asked if he serves as an adviser to the Singapore government, he said that being an MK does not allow for it. When asked if he had served as an adviser to the Singapore government in the past, he said: "I don't have to answer that question."

It is possible that some of the answers to these questions will be forthcoming in court. This week, 50 Sderot residents petitioned the Jerusalem District Court against the defense minister, requesting that the court instruct the minister "to install and operate in the city of Sderot, within six months from today, the laser-based intercept system (known as Nautilus) to provide an immediate solution to the shelling of Sderot by Qassams; to instruct the completion of the laser-based intercept system in its full operational version, known as Skyguard, and to order deployment of Skyguard systems for defense of all Western Negev settlements ... within two years from today."

Sderot inhabitants continue to wait for fortification of their houses and installment of a system that will stop the Qassam barrages. In the time that has elapsed since the decision to develop Iron Dome, they could at least have had their houses fortified. Will the public again require the help of the court to figure out what is really going on in the corridors of the Defense Ministry, because the policymakers, who are supposed to supervise it and examine the peculiar decisions made there, are not doing their job?