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BMD Focus: Barak's high-tech optimism

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   Oct. 25, 2007 at 10:52 AM   |   Comments

JERUSALEM, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is already achieving great things by cleaning up the administrative mess his clownish predecessor Amir Peretz left in the country's crucial ballistic missile defense program. But he is also betting that ambitious investment in as yet undeveloped BMD technologies will bring unanticipated levels of strategic security to his country and cement his political comeback. Israel already has probably the best and most intensely deployed ballistic missile defense systems in the world per capita and area than any other nation. But the U.S.-built Patriot PAC-3 and its own Arrow-2 anti-ballistic missile interceptors that guard the country against the threat of Iran's nuclear-capable Shihad-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles are both mature technologies in BMD terms. Earlier versions of the Patriot have seen operational deployment and use with the United States in previous wars, and they have chalked up a highly impressive record of successful test interceptions. The Arrow too has forged ahead in a series of ambitious tests over the past year, racking up successful interceptions against test missiles configured to fly like Shihad-3s.

The graph of effective and ineffective BMD defenses looks like a bell curve. Against very short-range threats, such as the Qassam low-tech rockets fired daily from Gaza across the border into the neighboring Israeli town of Sderot, no effective technology as yet exists.

A rudimentary, pioneering laser technology called the THEL or Skyguard has been developed that might be helpful against other very short-range ballistic-missile threats like the thousands of BM-21 Grad Multiple Launch Rocket Mortars, or Katyushas, that Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God, has deployed in Southern Lebanon and that it used with little military but great psychological effect during the brief mini-war in July 2006. But the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force do not want to develop it because while it may be effective to a useful degree it is extremely cumbersome to move and expensive to develop.

At the other end of the bell curve, U.S. Ground-Based Mid-course Interceptors are starting to provide for the first time some effective defense against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. But they are exceptionally complex to build, and as yet their success rate in tests is one in three -- a lot less than Patriots, Arrows and the U.S. Navy's Standard Missile-3s can boast against intermediate or short-range threats.

The reason for that is very simple: IRBMs fly relatively low in flat trajectories at speeds of around 8,000 to 10,000 miles per hour. But ICBMs fly in far higher trajectories, virtually out of the atmosphere, and far faster, at speeds of 15,000 to 18,000 miles per hour. GBIs therefore have to fly at 25,000 miles per hour to intercept them while still having sensitive electronic sensors and homing and guidance equipment that can withstand the gravitational pressures generated by their enormous velocities.

Israel does not face any threats from ICBMs at the long-range end of the BMD bell curve, but it does face, as we have noted, several very serious threats at its short-range end. Barak is therefore acting as high-tech visionary and is optimistic in expressing his confidence that cost-effective defenses against the very short-term threat can be created and made operational in a relatively short period of time under the Iron Dome program that he inherited from his predecessors and has now moved to the fast track.

Barak may be right. Israel's high-tech defense engineers and contractors have an impressive record now stretching back nearly six decades of coming up with unconventional or unexpected solutions to formidable threats that are both practical and cost effective. However, the history of BMD development around the world has so far taught the consistent lessons that while defenses are possible and can be made operational, there are almost never any miraculous short cuts to them.

© 2007 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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