Arab Rockets, Iranian Missiles, and Israeli Air Defenses

Rocket and ballistic missile attacks against the home front presently constitute the most potent threat to Israel’s national security. Consequently, Israel has invested heavily in both active and passive defenses against rockets and ballistic missiles, to the point where it now possesses a formidable defensive shield against such weapons. Indeed, the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which has been in action on numerous occasions since early 2011, has already proven itself quite capable of destroying short-range rockets, even when the latter are fired in salvos. Israel’s defenses against rockets and ballistic missiles provide important strategic benefits to the state, and they may change the face of Middle Eastern warfare in the future.

Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the threat to Israel posed by conventional warfare—that is, warfare waged against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) by the armies of the country’s foes—has dwindled to a considerable extent. Concomitantly, the threat posed by unconventional warfare—that is, attacks against the Israeli civilian populace by both state and non-state foes—has risen dramatically, particularly since the turn of the twenty-first century. Currently, the most potent non-conventional threat to Israel is the one posed by large-scale rocket and ballistic missile attacks against its home front.

Indeed, Israel has fought two wars in recent years—the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hizbullah and the 2008–9 Gaza War (or Operation Cast Lead) against Hamas—in which its non-state foes’ main mode of warfare consisted of intensive rocket fire against its civilian populace. And, in late 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas, Israeli villages, towns, and cities were again subjected to intensive rocket fire. The arsenals of ballistic missiles in the hands of Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria represent an even greater potential threat, as at least some of these missiles could be armed with chemical, possibly biological, and, in the not-too-distant future, possibly nuclear warheads.

Predictably, then, active and passive defenses against rockets and ballistic missiles today occupy a rather prominent place in Israel’s national security doctrine. Not only do they enhance Israeli deterrence against potential Arab and Iranian aggression, but they also reduce the amount of death and destruction inflicted on the Israeli home front when deterrence fails. Furthermore, these defenses provide Israel with a freer hand to pursue—or not to pursue—specific military options in support of vital national security interests. Anti-rocket and anti-ballistic missile defenses, in other words, might well become a strategic “game changer” for Israel.

Anti-Rocket and Anti-Ballistic Missile Defenses

Israel has at its disposal a combination of offensive and defensive means with which to protect the home front against rockets and ballistic missiles. The category of offensive means includes such measures as air strikes to destroy rocket and ballistic missile launchers and stockpiles, like the series of strikes that knocked out most of Hizbullah’s long-range-rocket arsenal at the outset of the Second Lebanon War, and ground incursions into enemy territory to seize known launching areas, like the one that occurred during Operation Cast Lead. Though the present discussion restricts itself to a consideration of defensive means only, it must be kept firmly in mind that the most effective defense against rockets and ballistic missiles depends upon a combination of offensive and defensive means.

That said, Israel has developed a formidable array of defensive means, both active and passive, with which to protect the home front. Active defenses are those that are intended to shoot down rockets and ballistic missiles in flight, before they can hit Israeli territory. Passive defenses, to the contrary, are those that are intended to mitigate the effects of rocket and ballistic missile hits on Israeli territory.

Israel’s active defenses against rockets and ballistic missile are based on a multilayered integrated air defense system (IADS). On the top tier of this network sits the Arrow anti-ballistic missile interceptor system, whose development began in the 1980s. The system was still in a very early stage of development at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, when Israel came under ballistic missile attack from Iraq. Hence, Israel had to rely on hurriedly deployed American-built Patriot anti-aircraft missiles, which allegedly also possessed the capability to intercept ballistic missiles. Manned by a mixture of American, Dutch, and Israeli crews, Patriot batteries were initially credited with destroying many of the 40 incoming ballistic missiles; however, a thorough postwar evaluation showed that they had not, in fact, shot down a single missile.[1]

Spurred on by the harrowing experience of ballistic missiles slamming into its undefended cities, Israel sped up the development of the Arrow interceptor missile—along with its associated Green Pine radar and Golden Citron fire-control units—in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Following numerous successful tests, the Arrow system reached initial operational status in 2000, with the first battery deployed at an air force base in the center of the country.[2] Over the past decade, the Arrow system has been upgraded in the form of the Arrow 2 system. An Arrow 3 system—equipped with an even more capable interceptor missile, radar unit, and fire-control unit—is at an advanced stage of development.[3] The Arrow 3 system possesses the capability not only to engage the most threatening incoming ballistic missiles first, but also the capability to shoot down entire salvos of missiles far from Israeli territory. What makes the Arrow 3 interceptor missile so effective is its capability to fly to a specific location in outer space and then wait there to be directed to an incoming target.

The middle tier of the Israeli IADS is today occupied by a combination of Patriot and Improved Hawk surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, as well as anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries. Many of these SAM and AAA batteries—perhaps most of them—defend vital point targets throughout Israel, such as air bases and the nuclear reactor at Dimona. While this segment of the Israeli IADS has a robust anti-aircraft capability, it cannot defend the country against rockets and cruise missiles (the latter are also in the process of becoming a threat to Israel). This situation, however, will change for the better in the coming years, as the David’s Sling—sometimes referred to as the Magic Wand—system becomes operational. This system, whose interceptor missile has already successfully passed its initial test, possesses the capability not only to engage aircraft, but also, first and foremost, the capability to shoot down long- and medium-range rockets and cruise missiles. Based on state-of-the-art technology, it can operate in all weather conditions and will eventually protect the whole of Israel from these threats.[4]

The lower tier of the Israeli IADS is occupied by the now well-known Iron Dome system, which is capable of shooting down short-range rockets (usually defined as rockets with ranges of up to 75 kilometers) and, possibly, long-range mortar shells. Insurgent organizations like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hizbullah have bombarded Israel with short-range rockets for decades; however, it finally took the thousands of rockets that hit northern Israel in the Second Lebanon War to convince Israeli defense planners to authorize full-scale development and deployment of a system capable of knocking down short-range rockets. In the past, to be sure, Israel had sporadically investigated—but ultimately rejected—anti-rocket systems based on high-energy lasers and rapid-fire guns. Once it settled on an anti-rocket system based on a missile interceptor, it took the Israeli arms industry only a few years to design and manufacture this system, with the IDF deploying its first batteries in the early months of 2011.

Of the three anti-rocket and anti-ballistic missile systems, the Iron Dome is the only one that has thus far “seen action.” In a number of rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas (as well as its allied organizations, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees), the Iron Dome system has acquitted itself quite well, completely justifying the time and expense involved in its development and deployment. In three limited rounds of fighting in April, August, and October 2011, as well as at least two more in March and June 2012, Iron Dome—which only intercepts rockets headed toward populated areas—achieved a “kill rate” of 75–93 percent.[5] While the Iron Dome did not prevent every last rocket from striking urban areas in southern Israel, it did minimize the amount of death and destruction visited upon the country’s civilian populace and property.

Iron Dome’s greatest triumph to date, however, occurred in the November 2012 flare-up in fighting over the Gaza border, which Israel dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense. During eight days of fighting, Hamas (and its allies) launched about 1,500 rockets against Israel, including a handful at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Of this total, about 150 never made it to Israeli territory, coming down somewhere in Gaza itself. Of the 1,350 or so rockets that did reach Israeli territory, about two-thirds fell in “open areas,” and, therefore, they were not engaged by Iron Dome. Of the hundreds of rockets headed toward Israeli population centers that Iron Dome could engage—not all urban areas could be covered all of the time, because there simply were not enough batteries in service—it destroyed the vast majority of them, maintaining a kill rate of approximately 90 percent throughout the conflict.[6] Equally impressive, the system managed to deal very efficiently with salvos of rockets, not just single launches: Hamas (and its allies) managed to fire about 200 rockets per day against Israel, a higher tempo of launches than the one maintained by Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War. Furthermore, none of the six Israelis killed in the fighting died as a result of rockets penetrating Iron Dome. The system—including one upgraded, more capable battery hastily pressed into service—passed its first major operational test, in short, with flying colors.

No combination of active anti-rocket and anti-ballistic missile systems, however, will ever be able to insulate fully Israel’s citizenry against rocket and ballistic missile attacks. For this reason, Israel has not neglected its passive defenses, which are very extensive, certainly in comparison to those maintained by other countries. All private dwellings must contain a “fortified room” where residents can take shelter during attacks. Israeli villages, towns, and cities also have fortified municipal spaces where residents who are away from their homes can take shelter during bombardments. The IDF’s Home Front Command has a comprehensive system of warning sirens to alert the populace to imminent attacks. And these measures are backed up by a highly trained cadre of first responders who evacuate the wounded and contain the property damage. These passive defenses proved themselves in action during Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense, after serious cracks in the civil defense system were revealed during the Second Lebanon War.

Strategic Ramifications of Anti-Rocket and Anti-Ballistic Missile Defenses

The IDF initially opposed the development and deployment of active anti-rocket and anti-ballistic missile systems on the grounds that such systems are purely defensive in nature. Battles and wars cannot be won, the IDF reasonably pointed out, by purely defensive means. Weapons systems that can take the fight to a foe—that is, weapons systems with offensive capabilities, such as aircraft and tanks—are necessary for victory. Hence, the IDF feared that investments in purely defensive systems would harm investments in offensive systems, though it eventually changed its position as a result of governmental and public pressure.

With its focus on offensive versus defensive weapons systems—that is, with its focus on the tactical level of warfare—the IDF did not at first adequately consider the strategic benefits of anti-rocket and anti-ballistic missile systems. These systems, however, confer at least three major strategic benefits on Israel: (1) they bolster Israeli deterrence; (2) they offer considerable protection to the Israeli home front in case of a deterrence failure; and (3) they provide the Israeli government with greater freedom of action to engage—or not to engage—in particular military moves.

The success of the Iron Dome system, especially during Operation Pillar of Defense, will surely give pause to Hizbullah and Hamas with respect to locking horns with Israel in the future, whether on their own behalf or on Iran’s behalf, whatever they might say to the contrary in public. The threat of rocket attacks on the Israeli home front, after all, is the main threat posed by these organizations to Israel. If they believe that the Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems, coupled with passive defense measures, can largely neutralize their capability to inflict death and destruction on the Israeli home front, they might well conclude that the potential costs of taking on Israel (in the form of the death and destruction certain to be visited upon them by the IDF) would outweigh any potential benefits of attacking it. As more and better Iron Dome batteries enter the Israeli arsenal—and as the David’s Sling system comes on line—the longer and harder Hizbullah and Hamas are likely to think about confronting Israel.

Still, deterrence is never foolproof, and a deterrence failure is always a distinct possibility, especially when dealing with ideologically driven organizations like Hizbullah and Hamas, whose primary stated objective is the destruction of Israel. If fighting does occur in the future, the Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems will offer effective protection to the Israeli home front. In those areas covered by Iron Dome in previous rounds of fighting during 2011 and 2012, the civilian populace incurred very few casualties and the amount of property destruction was similarly minimal. Moreover, both the quality and extent of coverage of the Israeli home front will steadily advance over time.

The combination of effective active and passive anti-rocket defenses also provides the Israeli government with more options to respond to aggression on the part of Hizbullah or Hamas in the future. Numerous Israeli defense analysts have already concluded that the IDF was able to dispense with a ground incursion into Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense, instead making do mainly with air strikes, because the Iron Dome system prevented heavy casualties and property destruction in Israel. The same scenario could be played out in a future conflict with Hizbullah or Hamas. On the other hand, if a ground incursion were to be deemed necessary in a confrontation, the Israeli government might have fewer qualms about ordering one if it can efficiently defend the home front. Likewise, the Israeli government might have fewer qualms about attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities secure in the knowledge that, if Hizbullah and Hamas do decide to act as Iran’s proxies and retaliate against Israel, their rockets would not cause major suffering and damage.

The same sort of reasoning applies in the case of anti-ballistic missile defenses. The Arrow system will surely give additional pause to Iran and Syria with respect to engaging Israel with these weapons in the future. Even if Iran and Syria remain unconvinced that the Arrow system could hermetically seal the Israeli home front against ballistic missiles armed with chemical, biological, or nuclear warheads, they would at least have to be concerned that this system could protect vital point targets, such as air and naval bases, permitting Israel to respond with a crushing “second strike” with its reputed arsenal of air-, sea-, and land-based nuclear weapons. Neither Iran nor Syria would likely be very quick to employ weapons of mass destruction against Israel if its own annihilation were assured in consequence. The Arrow system, in short, bolsters Israeli deterrence against attacks by ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

If missiles were nevertheless to be fired against Israel during a confrontation with Iran or Syria, the Arrow system, in combination with passive defenses, would most likely be able to minimize the effects on the home front if these missiles were to be armed with chemical or biological warheads. The Arrow system, it is only prudent to assume, would be unable to shoot down every incoming missile, particularly if large numbers were fired in coordinated strikes; but, it might well be able to destroy enough of them so that Israel’s passive defenses could contain the suffering and damage caused by the ones that got through. Ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads are, of course, a different story, as the death and destruction visited upon the Israeli home front would be catastrophic if even a single missile penetrated the Arrow system.

The Arrow system also gives Israel more leeway to decide on appropriate military moves in a confrontation with Iran or Syria. The knowledge that the Arrow system could contain the damage from ballistic missile strikes (so long as the missiles are not nuclear-armed) might make it easier for an Israeli government to order an attack on, say, Iranian nuclear facilities or Syrian chemical weapons depots should such military action be deemed crucial to protect Israeli national interests.

Conclusion

Israel already possesses formidable active and passive anti-rocket and anti-ballistic missile defenses, which are set to grow further in capabilities and scope in the coming years. These defenses provide Israel with important strategic advantages. Whether they will change the very face of Middle Eastern warfare in the twenty-first century, though, is something that will only be known with certainty as the years unfold.


[1] The Patriot’s ineffectiveness in the Gulf War is examined in Theodore Postol, “Lessons of the Gulf War Experience with the Patriot,” International Security, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1991/2), pp. 119–171.

[2] Uzi Rubin, The Missile Threat from Gaza: From Nuisance to Strategic Threat (Ramat Gan: The Begin–Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 2011), p. 41. The author had an opportunity to visit this battery during a tour of Palmachim Air Force Base, Israel, on June 23, 2008.

[3] Yael Livnat, “The Future of Air Defense: Magic Wand and Arrow III Systems,” Department of Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson, July 8, 2012. See the official IDF web site, www.idf.il, for this press release.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For various interception rates in different rounds of fighting, see Yaacov Katz, “Iron Dome Successful in Downing 75% of Rockets,” Jerusalem Post, December 31, 2011 (accessed at www.jpost.com); Uzi Rubin, ‘Iron Dome’ vs. Grad Rockets: A Dress Rehearsal for an All-Out War? (Ramat Gan: Begin–Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 2012), p. 4; and Rubin, The Missile Threat from Gaza, p. 69.

[6] The number of rockets fired at Israel, as well as the number shot down by Iron Dome, can be found in Barbara Opall-Rome, “Experts: Gaza War Changed Face of Mideast Conflict,” Defense News, December 9, 2012 (accessed at www.defensenews.com) and Eitan Shamir, Operation Pillar of Defense: An Initial Strategic and Military Assessment (Ramat Gan: The Begin–Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 2012). See also Uzi Rubin’s December 18, 2012 remarks at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which can be found at www.washingtoninstitute.org.

 

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