TEL AVIV, Israel, March 26 (UPI) -- Amid fears Israel faces a massive missile bombardment from Iran and its allies, former Defense Minister Amir Peretz says the country needs double the number of Iron Dome counter-rocket batteries it plans to buy to protect the home front.
Peretz's comments fueled the debate about Israel's scramble to develop defenses against what is seen as the worst threat the country has faced.
There's a certain irony in this since Peretz was defense minister during the 2006 war against Hezbollah, when the Iranian-backed group unleashed an unprecedented rocket bombardment against northern Israel.
That 34-day conflict, and the nearly 4,000 rockets Hezbollah fired at a rate of around 200 a day, forced Israel to acknowledge it faced the prospect of a sustained and missile bombardment against its cities by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Israel's military has plans to buy 13 batteries of Iron Dome, designed to shoot down short-range rockets, as the lowest-tier of a planned four-layer missile defense shield, a concept that arose out of the 2006 war.
But Peretz, who resigned in disgrace after that conflict in which Hezbollah's guerrillas fought Israel's vaunted military forces to a standstill, said Saturday, "If we want complete coverage we'll need to get between 20 and 26 batteries."
And he put his finger on a raw nerve when he stressed that Iron Dome, and indeed other anti-missile systems, should be used to defend population centers rather than strategic military bases, such as airfields, where the military has said it will deploy Iron Dome if a major conflict erupts.
"With all due respect," Peretz said, "the bases were not meant to be covered by Iron Dome. There's no way that bases will be preferred over civilians."
Iron Dome became operational in April 2011 but it underwent its most severe combat test in recent weeks when some 230 rockets were fired from Gaza. The military said it notched a success rate of intercepting 90 percent of the projectiles it engaged and Iron Dome only goes after rockets that its computer system tags as heading toward populated areas.
However, a report in the liberal daily Haaretz said the true figure was closer to 76 percent.
Even so, Iron Dome's expected to improve as combat lessons are incorporated into the system by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The state-owned company developed the concept that's currently the only operational system in the world that can shoot down short-range missiles with ranges of up to 43 miles.
Three Iron Dome batteries are deployed in the southern Negev Desert, primarily to protect the cities of Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod. A fourth is to be deployed soon, probably further to the north.
That would put it closer to Tel Aviv, Israel's largest urban area, with a population of around 2 million and a host of strategic and industrial targets.
This reflects the growing threat to Tel Aviv as the Palestinians' acquire rockets with longer range and more powerful warheads as well as from ballistic weapons.
Rafael's already developed two further batteries. Company sources say the system's success rate will likely mean greater funding will be made available despite defense budget cutbacks. That could also accelerate the development of other anti-missile systems in the works or being upgraded.
Many senior defense establishment figures oppose spending what funds are available on passive defense systems as opposed to offensive systems such as strike aircraft to knock out enemy missile launch sites.
It's worth bearing in mind that although the Israeli air force destroyed most of Hezbollah's longer range weapons in the first 36 hours of the 2006 war, it was never able to eliminate the militants' non-stop barrage.
In any new conflict, the greatest danger would come from ballistic missiles like Iran's Shehab-3b and Sejjil-2 and medium-range missiles from Syria and Hezbollah. That would put the onus on Israel Aerospace Industries' Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 high-altitude, designed to intercept enemy missiles outside the Earth's atmosphere and at lower altitudes.
Rafael's also developing David's Sling to counter intermediate-range missiles. But it's not likely to be in service until 2013 at the earliest.
Arrow-3, the upper layer of the defense shield, won't even start intercept testing until later this year. Both these remain unknown quantities.