Defense Ministry director general Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Shani says that Israel plans to invest nearly $1 billion in the coming years for the development and production of Iron Dome rocket interception batteries. Shani reveals that five countries have already expressed an interest in the system, especially following its successful operational interception of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip last month.
In his first press interview since his appointment in January 2010, Shani was keen to put the success of Iron Dome into perspective. "We need to adjust expectations in relation to Iron Dome, both in regard to the citizens but also vis a vis the political leadership," Shani said.
"We have [accomplished] a significant achievement in reaching operational capability sooner than expected, but this is not a system that can ensure the interception of every rocket in every situation," he added. "These batteries, when they are deployed, will limit the number of casualties from rockets and will provide, in case of fighting, decision-making space. But in the end, it is also a matter of physics and technology. The technology cannot stand alone."
Shani is referring to the amount of time it will take Rafael, the maker of the Iron Dome system, to produce a large number of batteries and interception missiles, and for the Israeli Air Force to train personnel in usage of the systems.
The director general said that Iron Dome is considered one of the central systems as the new IDF multi-year plan takes shape.
"We are no longer approaching this in terms of initial operational capabilities but are defining the final target for absorbing the systems, in terms of schedule and funds. We are talking about [having] 10-15 Iron Dome batteries. We will invest nearly $1 billion on this. This is the goal, in addition to the $205 million that the U.S. government has authorized," Shani said.
The U.S. grant is expected to cover four extra batteries, in addition to the two that have already been delivered to the IDF. The final number of batteries will depend on the chosen "mix" between batteries and interception missiles, which are costly.
In addition to Iron Dome there are plans to invest, over the coming five years, another $1 billion in the continued development of Magic Wand, a medium-level missile interception system (also developed by Rafael ).
"I hope that by 2012 we will have the first operational capabilities," Shani says, "but our intention is to close procurement contracts within a few months. Traditionally you first wait for the completion of development, but we now need to accelerate this process.
"Along with the third system, Arrow Mark III, whose development is done with the Americans," Shani added, "it will be the largest technological development project in the field of missile interception in the world. The success of Iron Dome has increased interest. Five countries have issued requests for information about the system."
Shani, 54, was appointed to his position by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after spending most of his career in the armored corps. He is responsible for a vast number of projects: It ranges from the infrastructure budget, to the building of the separation fence, to the new fence along the border with Egypt, to the procurement of weapons systems, and to the supervision of defense exports, which in the past two years peaked at a record $7 billion per year.
The five-year plan and the budget now top his agenda. Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz will hold a workshop this month to discuss IDF expectations for the coming years; the program will need to be approved by the Defense Minister and then the government later in the year.
"We are three and a half years into the current five-year plan. We have nearly accomplished 100 percent of it, with the exception of the procurement of new naval vessels that will not be carried out," Shani said.
Meanwhile there are delays in the production of the new Air Force fighter the F-35, and these will affect its effective entry into the IAF. The delay may be as long as three years, with the first aircraft arriving only in 2018.
"During the last visit by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Israel a month ago, we were told that the delay may be shorter than they originally thought. In any case, I am not nervous about it," Shani said.
"This [delay] may actually serve our interests. I favor an aircraft with as many Israeli-made systems as possible," he added. "We will see how they try to meet our requests over this time. In the original timetable, it was argued that there was no time [to incorporate Israeli systems into the Israeli F-35s]. We will hear their conclusions and I expect a dialogue with the Americans over the new timetable and the changes."
The idea that the Air Force will, in the meantime, acquire another squadron of F-15s in order to meet the gap that will be created "is not relevant." The delay may mean that in the future there will be more aircraft coming to Israel in a shorter period of time, and the numbers procured may rise from 20 to 30.