Israel's vaunted missile shield 'flawed'

Jan. 15, 2010 at 9:28 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Despite all the media fanfare and ballyhoo about the impending deployment of another missile-defense system, Israeli commentators are warning that the Jewish state's much-vaunted defense shield has a few chinks in it.

The Defense Ministry announced on Jan. 7 that Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range missiles and mortar shells, had sailed through a series of test-firings with flying colors.

The first operational battery would soon be deployed on the southern front against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to counter rockets fired by the Palestinian militants.

Iron Dome is intended to be the bottom layer in a missile defense shield, with the U.S.-financed long-range, high-altitude Arrow II interceptor, first deployed in 2001, to take care of ballistic missiles, and the David's Sling system, still at least two years away from deployment, designed to counter intermediate-range missiles.

But Rueven Pedatzur of the liberal daily Haaretz opened up with a barrage of criticism that appeared to shoot a few holes in the official line that Israelis could rest assured that they were fully protected from hostile missiles.

Iron Dome, which cost Rafael Advanced Defense Industries $200 million to develop "has brought nothing to the table," he wrote on Wednesday, "and it has not solved the inherent problems of a defense system based on missiles trying to intercept enemy rockets …

"The rejoicing and the preening in the wake of the (Iron Dome) test's success hide the far bleaker truth.

"The public relations campaign accompanying the test is full of deceptions and half-truths. It has ignored the flaws in the systems and has created illusions."

For one thing, he declared, "the stock of Iron Dome missiles is liable to run out way before the rocket barrages end.

"And in any case, because of the high cost of using Iron Dome for defense, the Palestinians in the south and Hezbollah in the north can defeat us at the bank, without even launching a single rocket."

One Iron Dome interception will cost about $100,000, he calculated, while Hamas' homemade Qassam rockets only cost at most $200 apiece.

At that rate, Israel would soon run into the red if it is faced, as most strategist expect it will be some time in the near future, round-the-clock bombardments with thousands of Qassams, Katyushas and Grads unleashed by Hezbollah and Hamas, both armed by Iran.

During the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in July-August 2006, Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets of various calibers into northern Israel at a rate of around 200 a day.

That paralyzed the north, including the port city of Haifa, for more than a month. The death toll, given the number of rockets fired, was relatively light -- 54, mostly civilians.

But the sustained bombardment, the worst ever endured by Israel's civilians, had a profound and immense psychological impact and heightened fears of the deadlier bombardments the strategists expect somewhere down the road.

In 2006 Hezbollah alone was believed to have around 12,000 rockets. These days it's reputed to have around 42,000, including some that can reach Tel Aviv, Israel's largest urban conurbation.

But Pedatzur wasn't finished. Rafael's David's Sling system, also known as Magic Wand, would be even more expensive to use than Iron Dome, he observed. "The price of one missile in this system will come to about $1 million."

All told, the overall cost of developing Arrow II, Iron Dome and David's Sling will probably eventually run to around $2 billion, although much of the Arrow's development cost was paid by Washington.

But just for Iron Dome, the defense establishment is still trying to figure out how many batteries will be needed to provide a blanket defense of the northern and southern borders.

It's not clear whether anyone has yet considered the possibility of rocket fire from the West Bank as well. But the current estimate is 20 batteries for north and south, with each battery costing $14 million.

To cover that, said Pedatzur's colleague, Amos Harel, "will either require diverting substantial funds from other defense projects or significantly increasing the defense budget."

Even with Iron Dome, "protection of Israel's home front remains far from complete," Harel concluded.

Although Arrow II and Iron Dome are being deployed, he cautioned, "in the face of a possible onslaught involving thousands of missiles and tens of thousands of rockets, this will not be enough."

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