Battle in the skies

Chinks remain in Israel’s air defense armor, despite Iron Dome

Analysis: Success of rocket interceptions this week should not obscure Israel’s vulnerability to other Iran-related missiles, flying at different speeds on different trajectories

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A successful missile interception by Iron Dome (photo credit: Ministry of Defense/Flash 90)
A successful missile interception by Iron Dome (photo credit: Ministry of Defense/Flash 90)

Iron Dome, deservedly celebrated, has the capacity to defang part of the Iranian projectile threat. But Israel has too few batteries — and the defense establishment’s longstanding failure to recognize the severity of the threat from curved-trajectory weapons has left the country with wide gaps in its coverage. These are unlikely to be filled before Iran, if it so chooses, charges or clandestinely slithers across the prime minister’s red line.

An Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear sites would trigger some combination of mortars, rockets and missiles on Israel. These weapons travel at different speeds and on different trajectories, and therefore require different responses.

Israel has two operational systems. Iron Dome targets curved-trajectory weapons that are fired from four to 70 kilometers away. Arrow has a range of 300 to 1,700 kilometers. That leaves Israel vulnerable to close-range mortar attack; mid-range rockets, which Hezbollah possesses in abundance; and certain Iranian ballistic missiles that, allegedly, can be fired from up to 2,000 kilometers away.

Israeli leadership was late to recognize the strategic nature of the ballistic threat it faces. The first to put his finger on the severity of the danger was former Israel Air Force commander and director-general of the Defense Ministry during the Gulf War, David Ivri. According to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Ivri analyzed the results of the Iran-Iraq War and found that Iraq’s missile attacks on Tehran, despite Iran’s horrific willingness to sacrifice human life, were what ended the war.

“At the time I was very circumspect about the need for developing the Arrow, because I felt that the Americans would invest billions in research and development and that, since we only had a few tens of millions, we would get beat around the bend. But in hindsight, David Ivri was right. We should have done it. He saw this development take shape 15 years ahead of time,” Barak said in a lengthy interview with Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom for a 2008 book.

There are now two systems in the works to fill the gaps in Israel’s defenses, Magic Wand and Arrow 3. The former, co-developed by Rafael Advanced Weapons Systems, which produced Iron Dome, should address the mid-range threat. According to some reports, it will be operational by 2013. But that is mere conjecture because it has yet to be tested in the field. The Arrow 3, an Israel Aerospace Industry project, is due in 2014.

Unfortunately, there is also bad news regarding the now-beloved Iron Dome. Thirteen batteries are required to provide adequate protection from mid-range threats, according to a report submitted by a Knesset subcommittee headed by former defense minister Amir Peretz and Kadima MK Otniel Schneller to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Thus far Israel has three, with a fourth on the way in the coming weeks. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced Tuesday that the ministry would fund the development of three additional batteries, bringing the total to seven.

Worse, in a full-scale war, those batteries may not be used to protect civilians.

“No one should delude themselves [into thinking] that someone is going to open an umbrella over their heads. These systems were meant to protect air bases, naval bases and draft centers — even if it means that during the first days of a campaign it will be uncomfortable for the civilians,” said Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the OC Northern Command at the time, during a 2010 conference on national security at the University of Haifa.

Chaim Yellin, the head of the Eshkol Regional Council in the south, strongly disputed the assertion, according to reports. “Last I checked on Google, we still live in a democracy, and the army is obliged to act according to government decision,” he said, referring to a cabinet decision to protect the towns and cities near the Gaza border.

Iron Dome provides bubbles of protection. Without providing exact figures, each bubble is roughly the size of Ashdod. The bubbles are movable — but the military’s priorities are not. According to Uzi Rubin, the former director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization within the Defense Ministry, the first priority is to allow the army the ability to wage war. The second is to protect national infrastructure and highly sensitive sites. Protecting civilians is only third on the priority list.

“It’s a cruel logic,” he said.

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