Pursuit of the Shield: The Case for Israeli National Missile Defense

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ian Siperco

Head of Practice, Middle East and North Africa

After two decades, several false starts, and many missed deadlines, Israeli efforts to develop an ambitious active missile defense (AMD) program are at last reaching the first stages of operational maturity. With five overlapping weapons systems scheduled to come online by 2012-13, the program carries the very real potential to change the nature of strategic decision-making in the region. But even if the missile shield is efficient in its reliability of interception, Israel must carefully consider whether it can rely entirely upon a combination of deterrence and active defense, or whether it must also stand ready to implement a decades-old policy of preemption. 

The scale of the missile threat facing Israel is well documented. Iran’s Shahab-3, Ghadr-110 and Sajjil-2 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) systems each have a range that exceeds the 700 miles (1125 km) separating Iran from Israel at the nearest point. Closer to home, the Qassam rocket has threatened communities of the Gaza envelope since the days of the Second Intifada. Dismissed as more of a psychological than a physical threat at the time, it wasn’t until the 2006 Lebanon War – when more than 4,000 Katyusha rockets rained down on northern Israel – that senior officials began to seriously discuss the nature of the short-range missile threat. 

The immediate effect of these deliberations was to produce a consensus for investment in Kipat Barzel (Iron Dome), a short-range kinetic interceptor system scheduled for operational deployment in June 2010. Because rocket flight times to Israel range from nine seconds for the typical Gaza Qassam to roughly one to two minutes for Hezbollah’s military-grade Katyushas, authorities required a weapon positioned for effective coverage with an exceptionally quick detect-to-launch cycle. Rafael’s Iron Dome system was designed with these requirements in mind, optimized to protect city-sized areas against rockets fired from a range of 2.5 to 25 miles (four to 40 kilometers) without being constrained by altitude, characteristics, or concentration of incoming salvos. 

But Iron Dome represents just one level of a multi-tier aerial shield first imagined as a response to the Iraqi Al Hussein missiles that rained down on Tel Aviv in 1991. At the very low end of these overlapping systems is Raytheon’s Centurion C-RAM super machine gun (a ground-based version of the 20mm Naval Phalanx point-defense weapon), meant to shoot down short-range Qassam rockets and mortar shells fired from less than two miles (three kilometers) away. Rafael’s Iron Dome system deals with Qassams and Katyushas fired from between 2.5 and 25 miles (four to 40 kilometres). The American-made Patriot Advanced Capabilities or PAC-2 already in operation, and the super-secret David’s Sling (a.k.a. Magic Wand), being developed jointly by Rafael and Raytheon, would intercept medium- to long-range threats like the Iranian-made Fadjr 3 and 5, Zelzal 2 or the Syrian Scud-C at distances of 24 to 150 miles (40 to 240 kilometers). Finally, at the high end of Israel’s anti-missile range, the already operational Arrow 2 high-stratospheric system protects the country from long-range Zelzals, Scuds and Iran’s high-flying long-range Shahab missiles. 

Critics of the decision to opt for a doctrinal shift to AMD are divided between two camps: those who fear that the program cannot provide a solution to nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, and those who warn that large barrages of missiles may be used to overwhelm the system or force Israel into a costly arms race. 

The first group makes the argument that no aerial shield can be made hermetic. Because even an extremely low rate of leakage would be intolerable if the incoming missiles carried nuclear and/or biological warheads, program detractors warn against abandoning Israel’s preemption option. For the moment, these arguments remain speculative. Under ideal conditions, Tehran might be able to carry out a first bomb test by 2010, but, at least under current conditions, the possible test devices would be the size of shipping containers and thus not deployable as weapons. While Iranian scientists are thought to be experimenting with technology for a “two-point implosion” device that could reduce the diameter of a warhead to a size that one of their Shahab rockets could carry, Israeli intelligence assumes the Iranians won’t succeed before 2014. 

There is also concern that countries like Iran or Syria could try to overwhelm the system by firing large barrages of ballistic missiles. This argument likewise does not stand up to scrutiny. The fire-control centers of Arrow batteries deployed near the cities of Rishon LeZion and Ein Shemer are capable of operating up to 14 interceptors at the same time and will each soon be equipped with 100 rockets, more than enough to respond to any medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile threat (as a point of reference, Iraq fired a total of 39 Scud missiles at Israel in 18 separate air raids for the whole of the 1991 Gulf War). 

Of more pressing and practical concern are the implications of employing a costly rocket-based interceptor system to interdict up to 50,000 short-range missiles buffeting Israel on three fronts. It’s true that Iron Dome is designed to provide ample protective overlap with the lower-tiered Centurion C-RAM (for use against steep-trajectory rockets and mortar shells that fall too quickly for Iron Dome to react). But, whereas the Centurion is a relatively cheap acquisition and inexpensive to operate (the system relies on fire bursts of between 3,000 and 4,500 20mm rounds per minute), an Iron Dome battery requires an initial outlay of $215 million with each Tamir interceptor missile running between $40,000 and $50,000 (some skeptics have pegged the price at double that amount). 

Detractors have seized upon the relatively high sticker price of these interceptors to argue that reliance on Iron Dome may lead to a costly arms race, with militant groups forcing Israel to spend tens of thousands of dollars a shot to target comparatively cheap, homemade Qassams (produced in the Gaza Strip for an estimated cost of $200). These critics are either disingenuous or ill-informed. Iron Dome was designed to provide both robust and selective defense, keeping unit costs low by differentiating between weapons headed toward populated areas and those that will fall into the sea and open fields. 

More important, the projected costs of system maintenance pale in comparison to the price tag of a prolonged war on the north or south front, both in terms of sustained damage and civilian casualties. The impact of this appraisal on Israeli military strategy cannot be overstated. Since at least 1967, the IDF has employed a defensive doctrine at the strategic level and an offensive doctrine at the tactical level. Given the country’s lack of territorial depth, it has been necessary to take the initiative in transferring the battleground to enemy territory to keep it from encroaching upon Israeli cities. 

The shift to an AMD option releases Israel from this tactical dependence by introducing an effective and wholly defensive alternative to preemptive/preventive military action. A missile shield not only protects civilians and diminishes the need to retaliate, but the knowledge that their missiles might be intercepted could deter potential aggressors from using them in the first place. This, in turn, has broad implications for Israeli disengagement strategy in the West Bank. 

When Ehud Barak stated in August 2009 that successful deployment of an anti-rocket system was a necessary precondition for unilateral withdrawal, he was giving voice to the security concerns of a majority of Israelis, who, opinion polls, show may be willing to make territorial concessions in return for peace. 

Given the anticipated failure of the Palestinian Authority to prevent rocket attacks from post-withdrawal territory of the West Bank, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has suggested that any settlement will require an Israeli presence on the eastern side of the prospective Palestinian state, along the Jordan Valley. This is certain to be a political non-starter for negotiations. Successful deployment of an anti-missile shield, on the other hand, could provide a hedge against the West Bank missile threat while maintaining the territorial inviolability of any future Palestinian state. 

Of course, an anti-rocket system will have to form just one part of a broad array of defenses if skeptics are to be convinced that territorial concessions will not come at the price of Israeli security. Because no system has yet been devised that can provide a watertight security guarantee, Israel will also have to take appropriate preparations for preventive military action. While Israel’s preemption option should now appear less urgent, the deterrent effect of a credible offensive capacity will always be required to underpin Israeli security. But, with militant peace spoilers and their patrons deprived of yet another weapon in a steadily shrinking arsenal, the power to start wars and influence settlement negotiations may at last be slipping beyond their reach. One can only hope that the transformative impact on regional security will provide the political space necessary to negotiate a lasting peace.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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