It's Raining Missiles

Quietly, Israel's enemies are building up an arsenal of rockets capable of striking any part of the country. Are the government, the army and home front prepared to deal with such a threat?

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Last week's report in a Kuwaiti newspaper, according to which Syria has supplied Hezbollah with Scud ballistic missiles, did not stay very long on the radar screens of the average media consumer in Israel. Juicy affairs such Holyland and Anat Kamm drew greater public interest. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the newspaper, Al-Rai Al-Aam, has uncovered a significant regional development.

In 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath, Hezbollah ended its round of fighting with Israel after depleting its stockpile of rockets. The organization fired nearly all the 800 25-kilometer-range Katyusha rockets in its possession, and had to await a new supply of rockets from Syria and Iran. In 2010, soldiers under the command of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have more than 40,000 rockets of varying ranges that can hit any target in Israel. Now, Scud missiles have been added to the picture. Nasrallah has certainly come a long way.

Does Hezbollah's arming with Scud missiles genuinely alter the strategic balance between Israel and its enemies, as Israel's top intelligence experts have warned for the past year? The answer depends on the specific type of Scud, a detail not mentioned in the report. If Damascus has armed Hezbollah with Scud D missiles, Israel faces a new kind of threat − not just because of the Scud D's range (some 700 kilometers) and the weight of its warhead (one ton, or double that of the heaviest rockets in the organization's arsenal), but also because of its accuracy.

A Scud D missile can hit a target within a few hundred meters. The meaning is clear. Hezbollah, like Syria, can fire effective salvos at specific targets, such as military command centers, air force bases, intelligence command centers, strategic infrastructure sites and Ben-Gurion International Airport. Israel has never faced such a danger in the past.

New equation

Because of its immense size, the Scud leaves behind a heavy intelligence ?signature.? This is not a Katyusha rocket, which can easily be concealed in an olive grove and fired by remote control. It is highly likely that the Israel Air Force could locate the launchpad and destroy it on the ground. Furthermore, the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system has already proved its effectiveness in intercepting Scud missiles.

The Scuds Hezbollah has received, after its personnel underwent training in their operation (according to the report from Kuwait), are, however, only the tip of the iceberg. The radical axis in the Middle East under Iran's leadership has adopted the concept of moqawama, resistance.

Whereas the enemy's aim between 1948 and 1973 was Israel's destruction, the occupation of its territory and the banishment of its citizens, today the Arabs' objective is to seize limited territorial assets in order to improve the regional balance in their favor, without having to occupy Israel's entire territory.

After 1991, the seeds were sown for the next change. They ripened in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Israel's enemies no longer aim to destroy Israel, or even occupy a symbolic land asset. Instead, they are building on prolonged attrition, which would wear down its resistance. That goal would be attained through the mass firing of rockets at Israel's Achilles' heel − its home front.

Today, Israel is threatened on all fronts − by Iran, through Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas − as its enemies steadily improve the range, destructive power and precision of their rockets and missiles. Because of the distance, Iran can launch only a few hundred Shihab missiles armed with conventional warheads; however, when Iran and its partners are considered together, the result is a totally different mass of explosives.

Missile expert Uzi Rubin recently estimated that some 13,000 rockets with warheads carrying a total of 1,435 tons are pointed right now at Israel (not including Hezbollah's short-range Katyusha rockets). Iran and its allies have created a counterbalance to the IAF's offensive might, and thus built up a deterrent against Israel.

Israel is still to formulate its response to the changing threat. In an interview with Haaretz in June 2007, shortly after returning to the post of defense minister, Ehud Barak was the first to publicly articulate the Israeli response. He spoke of the necessity of developing a multi-layered missile interception system, and even made the evacuation of additional territories in the West Bank conditional on this system's deployment, so as to prevent rockets being fired from there at central Israel. Barak understood that, in the eyes of the Israeli public, the sole Palestinian response to the Gaza Strip's evacuation in the disengagement was the firing of more rockets at Israel. (After the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah responded by abducting Israeli soldiers and, at times, firing rockets.)

Israel's home front, especially the IDF's Home Front Command, has undergone an impressive process of reorganization and has managed to recover and learn from the bitter experience of the Second Lebanon War. But there is a wide gap between fundamental policy and the picture presented to Israel's citizens, and the level of protection they will receive under warfare conditions. The root of this problem is disagreement on matters of principle, and on budgeting.

Let the army win

In a lecture in January to the Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot outlined the main points of Israel?s military stance for the next confrontation. Between the lines, one could discern that Eizenkot anticipates that, if Israeli civilians remain in their air-raid shelters and obey Home Front Command directives, the number of civilian casualties will be relatively small. In the meantime, the IDF will inflict severe blows to the enemy and effectively deal with its launching areas, some of which are located deep in enemy territory, far from the Israeli border.

During the fighting, missiles will continue to fall on the home front.

The plan's Achilles' heel is that it is unclear whether the IDF has a winning offensive solution that will prove decisive in such a confrontation.

The conclusion is that even if the IDF aims at and hopes for a quick victory, it could take several weeks to achieve. The Home Front Command's defensive perception rests on the principle of early warning. Advanced radar systems can identify an incoming missile at an early stage, analyze in advance its trajectory and transmit a quick alert to residents of the area where it is expected to fall.

During this time, civilians can remain outside the air-raid shelters and reinforced rooms in other parts of the country, but the emotional stamina and morale of Israel?s civilians will depend on the extent of their confidence in the system. If missiles suddenly fall without a prior warning siren in their backyards, that confidence will be significantly reduced.

At the same time, all the various rescue agencies must be thoroughly prepared for a prolonged, extensive missile attack. However, the IDF's preparedness level vastly exceeds that of either the Interior Ministry or the country's firefighting and rescue services. An important rule in any defense system is that the chain's strength is determined by its weakest link.

The second component of Israel's defensive perception is active protection from missile attack, namely, anti-missile missile systems. Of all the systems that have been developed so far, only the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, intended to intercept long-range missiles, is ready to go operational. The process of manufacturing the Arrow 2 version of the missiles has been completed, but an adequate quantity has not yet been ordered for budgetary reasons.

The production of Arrow 3 missiles, intended to provide a specific solution to missiles with a high-altitude trajectory, has not yet been approved by the cabinet. Although the number of missiles in Israel's arsenal cannot be publicized, it can be assumed that the high cost of each missile does not permit a level of production that matches the number of Scud and Shihab missiles in the enemy's arsenal.

The Magic Wand anti-missile system, which offers a solution to medium-range rockets, has yet to be developed. Although the Iron Dome system for short-range rockets was developed at a phenomenal pace, no decision has yet been made on the number of systems to be produced. So far, only two have been acquired and they will soon become operational; the IDF is still looking for a budget to acquire another six, even though it will probably need about 20 such systems to defend the Galilee and Negev.

In the background, agreement has yet to be reached on matters of principle: Should the Iron Dome be used only in wartime or should it be employed for ongoing security activities? Should the first systems be deployed for the protection of Sderot and Ashkelon, or should they be used to ensure that, even during wartime, air force bases will continue to function and not collapse under precision bombing by Hezbollah and Hamas? There is also the budget issue: How much, and whose, money should be spent on Iron Dome? IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi understands the importance of this issue but does not want the money to come from the IDF's budget; the IDF naturally places offensive options at the top of its list of priorities.

Meanwhile, as Iron Dome awaits authorization, billions of shekels have been allocated for purchasing individual protection kits − that is, gas masks − for the entire population, and for the construction of a security fence along Israel's southern border. A few thousand illegal Sudanese immigrants are today considered a greater threat to national security than salvos of rockets fired from Lebanon and Gaza. It is interesting to note that the question of funding the Negev's protection from rocket attacks has not yet been decided upon, nine years after the first mortar shell landed in Sderot.

It is hard to anticipate how Israel's home front will hold out in a war without an active defense system. In wartime, if Israel is bombarded in the first few days of fighting by thousands of missiles and rockets, heavy public pressure will be brought to bear on the government to come up with an immediate solution. Although the IDF's general staff is more aware today than it was in 2006 of the critical importance of the time factor, the implementation of its operational plans (assuming they will include the deployment of ground forces) will take time. An attempt to accelerate them at an unrealistic pace could lead to their collapse and huge losses of life, or to an unbridled reaction that would result in massive loss of civilian life on the other side also.

Israel's capacity for endurance is an unknown variable, nor did the last limited wars in Lebanon and Gaza help to reveal it, despite studies that are published from time to time on this issue. The message that Israel's leadership is slowly leaking to the public is that Israel has learned its lesson from the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and that in the next round, the home front will be provided an effective solution. This overly optimistic picture even borders on misrepresentation.

In a period when, according to reports in the foreign press, Israel is threatening to intercept convoys of weapons between Syria and Lebanon and is ready for a possible attack on Iran, the question of the extent of home front preparation requires the close attention of the country's decision-makers. Israel has woken up rather belatedly to the problem of an overall systemic handling of the threat of steep-trajectory rocket fire. In order to seriously weigh offensive options − excluding a scenario in which there is no alternative − Israel must first develop more persuasive answers to the question of protecting its citizens.