Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last Friday to deploy a fifth Iron Dome antimissile battery in the Tel Aviv region was quite a gamble. The battery was scheduled to become operational only in a few months. This one is significantly different from other batteries and did not have a full team of officers and soldiers. The Air Force’s Air Defense Corps had to appoint a temporary commander and bring in reservists and instructors.
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On the eve of Operation Pillar of Defense, the four existing batteries were deployed near urban areas of the southern coastal plain and northern Negev within rocket range of Gaza. In the 20 months since the Iron Dome became operational, much experience had been gained in intercepting short-range missiles up to a 45-kilometer range. However, there was little experience in dealing with longer ranges or in defending a large metropolis.
The possibility of missile launches toward Tel Aviv had been taken into account, but the defense establishment hadn’t considered deploying the fifth battery. “It just wasn’t ready and it didn’t seem like an option,” says one security source. “But from the moment the operation began, even before the first rocket was fired on Tel Aviv, MAFAT [the Defense Ministry’s research and development directorate] and Rafael [Iron Dome’s main contractor] began a crazy 72-hour push to prepare the battery.
“It was a huge risk,” the source continues. “When you connect such a complex system of thousands of advanced components under pressure, the chance of something going wrong is much higher. Just imagine if we failed to intercept a missile over Tel Aviv live on TV − it would have been a great boost to Hamas’ morale.”
Yair Ramati, head of the Homa (Wall) project at MAFAT, is responsible for the development of the army’s entire multilayer missile defense project, and tries to minimize the scale of the Iron Dome gamble. “There was an element of risk,” he says, “but I said we should do it. We had a great deal of confidence in the system, as only two weeks ago we completed a whole series of test launches against a wide range of targets. The decision was correct. What was the alternative? For Tel Aviv to be vulnerable?”
The gamble paid off. For MAFAT, Rafael and especially Elta − which developed the radar system − this was a double success. One of the main components of the system is the new MMR (multi-mission radar). The first four batteries use a mini-MMR, while the fifth has a full-sized one with greater capabilities; it was designed to be used in two years’ time for the David’s Sling (aka Magic Wand) system. The Sling is supposed to intercept longer-range threats at all altitudes, and the plan is for two or three batteries to cover all of Israel. The early success of Elta’s radar mechanism yielded the first proof that the entire urban area of central Israel can be covered.
The story of the hasty deployment of the fifth battery encapsulates the whole regional arms race, with Hamas and Israel challenging each other with new weapons systems. Over the last decade, Israel has faced rocket threats from Lebanon and Gaza that, in addition to casualties and widespread damage, have also crippled daily life for millions. At the height of the operation, Hamas tried to change the way it fires missiles.
“They are constantly trying to change their tactics,” says an officer in the Air Defense Corps. “This isn’t a bunch of individuals but an organized military which is trying to challenge us. We have to stay a step ahead.”
The defense establishment will not detail Hamas’ attempts to challenge the Dome, but among other things the group tried firing larger salvos.
“Hamas is learning the system,” says a senior MAFAT official, “and constantly improving its rockets with the Fajr-5 and now 8-inch missiles. They are testing new tactics and trying to identify the Dome’s weaknesses. There is no system without weak spots, but for now they are failing.”
MAFAT is aware that Hamas, and to a large degree also Hezbollah, is now going back to the drawing board − not only in an effort to improve its rockets, but also in search of new ways to threaten Israel.
Israel’s bombing of most of Hamas’ Fajr rockets at the start of this offensive was similar to Operation Specific Gravity in the Second Lebanon War, when the IAF destroyed most of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles. Hamas will undoubtedly try and replenish its arsenal, as Hezbollah has, but it will be more difficult this time around. The Israel Defense Forces and intelligence services are much better now at interdicting the smuggling routes. Also, the ties between Hamas and its main supplier, Iran, have weakened in the wake of the Syrian civil war, which led Hamas to distance itself from the Assad regime and grow closer to the new government in Egypt.
No one is predicting that the Palestinians in Gaza will stop using rockets, but they will probably seek new forms of weaponry. What will they choose? The incursion of a Hezbollah drone over Israel two months ago could indicate a new direction. They may also expand their use of tunnels, as we saw two weeks ago when the IDF destroyed an attack tunnel on the southern Gaza border. Another option could be launching missiles from Sinai, to detect, though the Egyptian government would have something to say about that. Whatever course they choose, developing Israeli countermeasures will be costly.
One of the arguments against Iron Dome which most angered the system’s developers is that it is not economical. One interceptor rocket (assumed to cost around $50,000) is hundreds of times more expensive than a Hamas missile. The standard answer: The real cost is the damage in life and property that a missile can cause.
But there is a more fundamental argument in favor of Iron Dome. Yaakov Nagel, former deputy head of MAFAT, chaired the committee that selected it as the IDF’s active defense system. He noted that “a ‘smart’ border fence costs billions, and you don’t compare its cost to that of a suicide bomber’s explosive belt. In asymmetrical warfare, the sophisticated side always invests more − that was true as far back as the Yom Kippur War. Israel, as a strong state, must invest more in all these things so it won’t get fired upon.”
Nagel was one of the senior officials severely criticized for insisting on the development of Iron Dome, especially by executives in the defense industry whose proposals were turned down. Lobbies and websites challenged the committee’s decision and Nagel was accused, along with others, of neglecting the safety of Israel’s citizens. Today, he is deputy head of the National Security Council. While he is satisfied with the system’s success − “after three years of being vilified and lied about ... we shouldn’t go overboard with joy at Iron Dome.”
In his opinion, “the objective is that they won’t fire on us to begin with, to convince the other side that this is not a good strategy. The meaning of deterrence is to take your enemy to a place where he cannot face you. While they are firing at us we want a system that will give the best results, but the strategic aim is that they won’t fire.”
Many in the defense establishment see the missile defense systems as a lever that could provoke the Palestinians, and even some Arab states, to enter the peace process with Israel. “When Ehud Barak asked for American support for the Dome,” says an official in the Defense Ministry, “he told [former Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates there could be a diplomatic process only if Israel had an active defense system.”
Iron Dome also bolstered Israel’s strategic relations with the United States − which has known some low points recently over the debate on Iran’s nuclear program. The American support for the Dome − $204 million authorized in 2009 and an additional $680 million this year − are for purchasing additional batteries. Unlike the regular U.S. military aid, which is used to purchase American weapons systems, nearly all the Iron Dome money is spent in Israel. (The only return for the United States is the know-how resulting from Israeli development of the system.) Iron Dome even served Barack Obama in the presidential elections when he mentioned his administration’s support of the system, in the last debate with Mitt Romney after being accused of hostility toward Israel.
While Israelis were fired up this week over the successful interceptions, MAFAT and the Air Defense Corps know they face a much larger challenge on the northern front: the missiles of Hezbollah and the shaky Syrian regime. Hezbollah has at least five times the number of missiles of Hamas, with longer ranges and greater accuracy.
When the first Iron Dome battery became operational in March 2011, local council leaders in the south competed among themselves and pressured the government to deploy it in their region. If and when missiles fly up north, there will be new conflicts over deploment, especially since Hezbollah’s more accurate missiles will be launched not only against civilians but also at “critical strategic assets.”
Senior IAF officers have already said they will fight to have their bases get priority over civilian areas in deployment of batteries − so as to allow the fighter planes to take off and bomb the missile launchers. Warplanes, they argue, can’t hide in bomb shelters.
In five years, the Defense Ministry hopes to have 13 to 15 operational batteries, along with a couple of David’s Slings, which will provide cover for all the targeted areas in Israel. But if war breaks out in the north before then, Israel’s leaders will be faced with a tough dilemma where to deploy the available batteries.
These are good days for Amir Peretz, the much-maligned former defense minister who authorized the first budget for the development of Iron Dome. This week he received praise by the bucketful, but there are many others clamoring for recognition. Rafael chairman Ilan Biran recalled this week that his company took a financial risk when it invested NIS 20 million in the system when there was no certainty the IDF would buy it.
As a former IDF general and director general in the Defense Ministry, Biran is familiar with all aspects of the debate. “There was major opposition in the IDF and outside,” he says. “Part of it was for legitimate reasons and part was from private interests.” He is still angry with business rivals who lobbied against Iron Dome, but says IDF opposition was a natural reaction. Biran also remembers how in 1991, he and his colleagues were against establishing the Home Front Command. “It was Moshe Arens’ decision,” he recalls. “He was total civilian [i.e., not army-oriented] defense minister and we had a huge argument with him. No one in the army wanted a home command, and he forced it on us because he knew that all the civilian bodies were too weak to carry it out. Today everyone knows he was right.”
The IDF doesn’t like being forced to make changes, especially when civilians impose weapons systems on it. The former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi − who, in his short term as defense ministry director general, backed Iron Dome − announced in June 2007 that the IDF would not purchase the system from its budget. This meant that without an external source of funding, there would be no Dome.
A month later, Ehud Barak − who’d replaced Peretz as defense minister − overruled Ashkenazi. He shared the view of new director general Pinchas Buchris: that NIS 811 million from the IDF budget be allocated to funding the program and purchasing the first two batteries. Barak was also the key figure in securing U.S. funding for most of the six additional batteries.
For security reasons, the names of many key managers and engineers in MAFAT, Rafael and Elta have not been mentioned, though they worked for the last four years, often 24/7, to make the system operational in record time. Thanks to these people, for once the government isn’t being urged to set up a commission of inquiry following a major military operation.