A Well-concealed Gun

There is nothing to do but express our outrage at the conduct of the defense establishment, which scorns any expression of independent ideas from outside the system.

Last week, a delegation of senior Defense Ministry officials visited the plant of the American defense contractor Raytheon. The purpose of the visit was to evaluate how Raytheon's short-range defense gun, the Phalanx, performed against mortar and rocket fire.

The Defense Ministry has placed a blackout on the visit, and its spokesman refused to confirm or deny that such a visit even took place. The ministry's secretiveness regarding this visit has nothing to do with state security. It seems that senior ministry officials - primarily director general Pinchas Buchris and the head of the Administration for Weapons Development and Technology (MAFAT), Shmuel Kern - are trying to cover themselves.

For years, those responsible for formulating ministry policy have stubbornly rejected any proposal or initiative to develop, operate or deploy a defense system against short-range missiles such as Katyushas and Qassams. Only after public pressure, and specific instructions from then-defense minister Amir Peretz, were ministry officials forced to change their approach after the Second Lebanon War. But they did so against their will.

A professional evaluation committee set up by the Defense Ministry, which discussed the issue in the past, decided to accept Rafael's bid to develop Iron Dome, a system for intercepting short-range missiles. The system's development will cost $1 billion, and it will be ready for deployment, if at all, only in three years. But there are already doubts about the system's ability to intercept Qassams.

And until then, the Defense Ministry's message is essentially that it has no counter to the Qassam and mortar attacks against Sderot and other communities near the Gaza Strip.

Yet some experts argue that a solution exists, and its cost is low. Their solution: deploy several batteries of the Phalanx gun near Sderot. The Phalanx is a radar-guided weapon that fires as many as 6,000 rounds per minute, creating a cloud of steel against which the missile crashes. In the past, Israel acquired older versions of the gun, called the Vulcan.

The armed forces of the United States, Britain and Canada are using the system with great success to defend their soldiers and bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel can make the guns already in its arsenal operational fairly quickly, or procure others from the U.S.

The experts in question include senior officers in Israel's anti-aircraft units, who are very familiar with the Phalanx, and Dr. Natan Farber, a lecturer at the Technion, who was the chief scientist for Israel Military Industries' missile department.

But the Defense Ministry refuses to listen to these experts. Dr. Farber tried to see Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, as he did Vilnai's predecessor, Ephraim Sneh, but neither had time to talk with him. He now hopes that Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with him and hear his opinion.

Defense Ministry spokesmen have made ridiculous statements about the Phalanx. For example: "the guns are too loud"; "the shells fall in residential areas"; "you need many shells to destroy a target"; and "the gun is a pinpoint weapon that barely defends itself."

Next semester, Farber intends to teach a course at the Technion entitled External Ballistics and Bullet Dynamics, which will allow him to examine these claims critically. The course will concentrate on calculating missile trajectories (Qassams, for example) and shell trajectories (such as those fired from the Phalanx), finding the point at which they meet and calculating the chances of a hit.

According to Farber's calculations, the "pinpoint" that the gun is capable of defending covers a radius of 1.3 to 1.4 kilometers. Sderot covers an area of 2.5 square kilometers. In other words, four batteries can cover Sderot completely. Is the solution also applicable to Ashkelon? Probably not - unless a decision is made to provide defense to a small number of key locations.

The question thus arises as to whether the Defense Ministry's considerations stem from hidden motives. An answer to this may be offered in a few months, when the state comptroller completes his probe on how decisions have been made on defending Sderot and other communities in the western Negev.

Meanwhile, there is nothing to do but express our outrage at the conduct of the defense establishment, which scorns any expression of independent ideas from outside the system. Unless, of course, the visit to the U.S. last week convinced Defense Ministry officials that they do have something to learn from the Americans' experience.