Every one of the 896 rockets launched at Israel during Operation Protective Edge (at time of writing) has been spotted by an air force soldier, and they’ve nearly all resulted in a warning siren, sending Israelis scrambling for shelter.

A mix of radars and electro-optic devices detect the launch, classify its size and the threat it represents, and pinpoint, in a splotch on a map, the areas that are in danger.

This process takes seconds. But for the soldiers who receive the air force’s warning, serving under the command of Lt. Col. Levi Itach, the head of the army’s early warning branch, the procedure is filled with operational dilemmas.

Itach suggested, as an example, a Grad rocket with a 40-kilometer range. His soldiers, seated beside air force personnel in a joint command center in central Israel, receive notice of a launch after five seconds. By then they have verified that the object is neither a flock of birds nor a crop-duster tracing the ballistic path of a rocket.

Lt. Col. Levi Itach at IDF Home Front Command headquarters (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Lt. Col. Levi Itach at IDF Home Front Command headquarters (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Then the air force’s electro-optic systems analyze the heat signature of the rocket and the trajectory of the take-off and provide, based on the projected kill capacity of the projectile, the Home Front Command with an initial target area.

Five seconds later, additional radars, tracking the behavior of the projectile, narrow the target area significantly.

This continues throughout the rise of the rocket, Itach said, with the stain on the map diminishing throughout, but with the response time dwindling, too.

“Operationally speaking, where do you cut it off?” he asked. “How much time do you leave the citizen? What’s enough time? A 70-80-90-year old; a five-year-old: realistically speaking, how much time do they need?”

The Grad with the 40-kilometer-range, he said, flies for two minutes. The more exact the warning, the fewer people exposed to the siren, the lesser the impact on the national psyche, the lesser the toll on the economy. In the example he gave, he said, the citizens are given 45 seconds to scurry to shelter.

That’s the automatic response, programmed into the system. During the current conflict, he said, his soldiers, sitting “shoulder to shoulder” with the air force personnel, have the authority to decide in real time whether or not to sound the alarm if, say, the projected target stain just touches the edge of a certain sector or city.

They err, though, on the side of caution: the target area, generated by computer model, is multiplied by three in order to ensure civilian safety.

The notion of sparing undue civilian fright, though, and the capacity to do so, is relatively new. On January 17, 1991, when Saddam Hussein fired missiles from Iraq at Israel, the entire populace was instructed to take cover.

In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Israel was split into only 25 different sectors. During Operation Pillar of Defense, in November 2012, there were 127 sectors. Today, as of this month, there are 235.

And yet Itach, who noted the long history of early warning among the Israelites, quoting Ezekiel 33 — “when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people.” — is far from satisfied. In the future, he said, the country will be partitioned into 36,000 cubes.

Each of those cubes will take a square kilometer. Cellphone data and cable TV converters will send personalized warnings to phones and TVs within each targeted cube.

Up until Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel lost an average of one person per 100 rockets and, during the Second Lebanon War, 200 million shekels per day of warfare. The future demands, he said, are one fatality per 10,000 rockets and only 12 million shekels loss per day of warfare.

Those are incredibly lofty goals. In a larger scale war they may be unattainable. But for now, looking back at the past six days of warfare, he said his soldiers were working very hard but that he, personally, on the cusp of retirement, “is melting” with pride.

There are, of course, the horrors of war, he added, “but the whole business [of early warning] is in tune.”