Iron Dome - Tal Cohen
An Iron Dome battery on the outskirts of Ashkelon. Photo by Tal Cohen
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Israel plans to have a third Iron Dome anti-missile defense system ready for use within six months and three more ready by the end of 2012, due to military officials' fears that the country could be facing fighting on two fronts within the next few years.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems was not initially expected to be able to manufacture the additional anti-missile batteries within 18 months at the earliest, but in recent days defense officials working with Rafael have come up with a plan to speed up the process.

Israel Defense Forces officials have recently been saying that it is becoming increasingly likely that in the coming years the army will have to face Hezbollah, and possibly the Syrian army, in the north and Hamas in the south.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz recently attributed the increased likelihood to the recent upheaval in the Arab world and what he said was the strengthened radical alliance among Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

In such a case, security officials expect enemy forces to fire thousands of surface-to-surface missiles to wear out the civilian population and create an image of victory even if the IDF wins on the battlefield.

But the civilian population will not be the first to be protected by Iron Dome in the north of the country, Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said yesterday.

"First of all, we will protect the Israel Air Force bases, so that the air force will be able to operate," he said during a visit to Kiryat Motzkin, near Haifa. "It's only a partial solution and no more than that, and it is meant to allow us to exercise our might in the most suitable fashion."

Vilnai would not commit to deploying missile defenses in the Haifa area if there is rocket fire on the north, saying the positioning of Iron Dome would be based "on our considerations about what needs to be protected."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced this week he planned to allocate funding immediately for four more Iron Dome batteries, rather than waiting for the more than $200 million recently approved by the U.S. Congress for missile defense.

IDF officials have expressed satisfaction with the successes of Iron Dome, which has intercepted eight Grad rockets in the Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva areas, but they are concerned that the two anti-missile systems are not enough. Though they can protect two mid-size cities, they cannot cover all of the south, much less the north and the south if needed.

The air force estimates that up to 13 anti-missile batteries are needed to provide maximum protection in the north and the south.

In another element of preparations for a possible two-front war, the IAF is preparing alternative plans to compensate for the expected two-year delay in receiving a squadron of F-35 stealth fighter jets. They are not expected to arrive until 2016, and possibly not until two years later.

The IAF is considering training pilots and technical crews in the United States to shorten the time it will take to have the planes operational when they do arrive, but in the meantime the air force also needs to find an interim solution to the increasingly outdated F-15s and F-16s, which have been in use for more than three decades.

One possibility is to upgrade the oldest planes, which have already been upgraded several times and are supposed to be grounded by the middle of this decade. The IAF appears to prefer getting a squadron of used F-15s from the U.S. Army, but it's not clear whether they are available and if so, under which conditions.

 

Revital Hoval contributed to this report.