During the January 1991 Gulf War, Brig. Gen. (res) Nachman Shai, at the time the army’s chief spokesperson, told the gas mask-clad residents of Israel to relax, loosen their masks, and take a sip of water. In so doing, he saved more lives than the new and untried missile defense system that was rushed to Israel’s shores during the early days of the war.
The Patriot air defense system, during the winter of 1991, faced 39 al-Hussein Scud missiles, launched in 19 salvos. The commander of the Israel Air Force at the time, Maj. Gen. (ret) Avihu Ben-Nun, told former IAF pilot and military analyst Reuven Pedatzur after the war that, according to Pedatzur’s testimony before the US Congress, “only one al-Hussein warhead was evidently hit by Patriot missiles.”
Reports about the Patriot’s success, Pedatzur added, citing Ben-Nun, “should be viewed within the realm of psychological warfare.”
The defense minister at the time, Moshe Arens, later told Israel’s Channel 2 that the number of successfully intercepted missiles “is minuscule and is in fact meaningless.”
For the following 23 years, the system, in Israel, was dormant. This summer, though, after a system-wide upgrade, improving the Patriot’s ability to detect, track, and discriminate between targets, Israel’s Patriot batteries, known locally as Yahalom, or diamond, were called into action four times. In July, during the course of the 50-day Operation Protective Edge, it downed two Hamas-operated drones sent into Israel from Gaza; in August it shot down a Syrian drone over the Golan Heights and, in September, it intercepted a Syrian Sukhoi SU-24 warplane that had crossed into Israeli airspace near Quneitra.
In future conflicts, as Israel completes its multi-tiered missile-defense system, the Patriot batteries will likely shift away from missile interception. The system, built by the US firm Raytheon and tactically deployed for the first time in 1984, covers the mid-range missile threat, much like the David’s Sling system, which is expected to be made operational in 2015. The Patriot, to which the US and Israel have introduced upwards of 30 improvements in recent years, an IDF officer told the IAF quarterly magazine in 2013, will likely be shifted back to its original goal: defending against manned and unmanned aircraft.
This will be necessary in a future war with Hezbollah. The next engagement with the Shiite force, Israel’s most armed and immediate enemy, will likely begin with a “shock and awe” campaign on the part of Hezbollah, including waves of UAVs, rather than a tit-for-tat escalation, a senior military officer told The Times of Israel recently.
“I don’t think attrition is their takeaway message from this summer,” he said. The first days of a future conflict, he added, will be “difficult, even very difficult.”
He described missile salvos on Israeli army bases and strategic sites; a limited ground incursion, either via attack tunnels, which he said Israel had to assume exist despite the lack of evidence, or above ground by a Syria-hardened attack force; and, as during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, increased drone traffic.
A recent visit to a Patriot battery, perched up above a flat blue Mediterranean Sea, fleshed out the challenges that an air defense unit must deal with, facing months of monotony followed by occasional bursts, often not more than a minute long, of frenzied action.
“We are like marathon runners who sometimes have to sprint,” said Lt. Col. Eitan Biran, the deputy commander of a Patriot-based Air Defense Wing.
The mixed-gender soldiers of the IAF’s Patriot batteries live in the field, in temporary structures, and man command-and-control centers attached to the various batteries. As defensive warriors, they can neither plan nor initiate attacks.
The newly updated American radar installed into the system identifies a hostile aircraft or missile and delivers the size, speed, and bearing of the incoming threat. The data is then sent up the chain of command, further verified, and, if found to be a legitimate enemy threat, delegated to the appropriate response team.
The skill required, amid increased air traffic on account of war and premeditated deception by the enemy, “is to be able to know what you see, to be suspicious on time, to sound the alarm, and to operate the system in the best possible way,” Biran said.
The “curved trajectory” threat of rockets and missiles, he added, have a starting point and ending point; the arc of the threat is known. Aircraft, in contrast, can shift and change course. “The threat can come from anywhere,” he said, “that’s the beauty of the skies.”
The July 14 and July 17 drone attacks near Ashdod and Ashkelon, respectively, found the Patriot operators prepared, despite the system’s lengthy hiatus in combat engagement.
The August 31 and September 23 infiltrations came entirely by surprise. The Syrian-piloted Russian warplane crossed into Israeli airspace at 8:57 in the morning. Sixty seconds later, the IAF said in a statement at the time, it was shot out of the sky.
Biran, speaking from his Haifa office, said the air force is acutely aware of the rise of the UAV threat from Hezbollah and Hamas, calling it a challenging, complex, and dangerous threat that “is hard to defend against” and one that Israel’s enemies are constantly upgrading.
The Iran Aviation Industries Organization has in recent years unveiled a series of drones, including the Yasir, a small and difficult to detect version of the US Scan-Eagle. Several days ago, Iran reportedly confirmed delivery of the UAV to Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, the Shiite militia group in Iran with ties to the Lebanese organization, meaning that it is only a matter of time until Hezbollah is operating the aircraft near the Israeli border.
Iranian jets striking Israel are an extremely unlikely scenario. But the Patriot, which showed such limited success during the Gulf War that IDF commander at the time, the late Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, once called it “a myth,” has proven itself as an immovable part of Israel’s air defense reality.