Israel Home Front Command Pushes for Upgrade to Rocket Warning System

Officials want to limit sirens to definitively endangered areas, making them more accurate and reliable. But with Israeli government planning big cuts to defense budget, it's unclear whether NIS 388 million upgrade will get go-ahead.

The Home Front Command is seeking to upgrade its rocket warning system for the Israeli public.

Officials hope a change in the computerized system will enable a more accurate warning, limited to definitively endangered areas, to make it more reliable. Such an upgrade would save the economy substantial costs because fewer people would be asked to go into shelters.

But for the state, the main obstacle to implementing the plan is, of course, financial. The upgrade would cost an estimated NIS 388 million.

The proposal for an upgrade, which was made two months ago but has yet to be approved, comes at an especially complex time, when the prime minister and the finance minister are planning significant cuts to the defense budget.

Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, the Home Front commander, told Haaretz, "When I am asked what to spend the next additional shekel on, I pick the warning system. It's the most basic system for saving lives."

Eisenberg said if he could tell a citizen with a high degree of certainty that a rocket is about to fall nearby, and if that citizen heeds the warning, he could save both a life and damage to the economy.

"If you calculate the damage to the economy, just because of the hundreds of thousands of citizens in the south called upon to stay in secure shelters during the last rounds of fighting in Gaza, we could already have funded upgrading the system three or four times," he said.

Eisenberg's claim represents another facet of the ongoing dispute about the efficiency of the anti-rocket systems. Advocates of systems like Iron Dome and the Arrow say that despite the high costs of arming them, and in particular of firing the missiles, they provide enormous savings to the economy both in preventing damage – which requires significant compensation for hits to people and property – and in decreasing the need for a ground offensive. Now, the Home Front commander is asserting that acquiring a focused warning system is likely to pay for itself over time.

During the First Gulf War, in 1991, the country was divided into six regions in which most residents had to enter sealed rooms when there was a warning of an incoming missile. The Home Front Command currently divides Israel into 146 regions, and the plan is to divide it into 3,000 and eventually 3,600 siren areas. Populated areas will be about a kilometer long by a kilometer wide.

The Israeli radar system, assisted by the American radar deployed in the Negev, enables a relatively accurate prediction of where a rocket will fall not long after it is launched. The upgraded system will make it possible to sound a siren for a specific area, such as, for example, a few square kilometers in central Tel Aviv, and spare having to warn other residents of the city and Gush Dan.

The estimated damage to the Israeli economy from November's Operation Pillar of Defense is NIS 1.6 billion, mostly from lost workdays. During the operation, when a rocket fired from Gaza landed near a Palestinian village south of Jerusalem, sirens wailed in the entire Jerusalem region and over a million citizens were prompted to enter secure areas.

Eisenberg believes most of the damage could have been spared with the new warning system, which he says can also save lives. "The ratio in the latest wars and operations was about one dead on the home front per 100 rockets," he says.

"An exact warning will amplify public faith and encourage citizens to obey directives, reducing the number of fatalities," says Eisenberg. "With the new systems, if we get into a war that affects the home front, we can even lower the fatality rate to one per 20,000 rockets."

The Home Front commander cited the July 2006 train depot disaster, when a direct hit by a Syrian rocket fired by Hezbollah killed eight workers.

"Then we could only issue a general warning," he says. "The workers ran that very morning twice to the shelter and nothing happened. The third time they didn't go down to the secure area and the rocket landed in the heart of the depot. There was no focused warning in the war and no reliability, and we shut down entire areas. We've improved since then, but we need to improve more."

Thousands of sirens have been installed since 2006, but it's impossible to distinguish between them in real time, which is why the new system is needed, Eisenberg said. 

Alex Levac