Brig. Gen. Shahar Shochat (Israel Defense Force)
TEL AVIV — In just six months as commander of Israelís Air Defense Forces, Shahar Shochat presided over the largest joint drill with the US, led Iron Dome defenders through eight days of high-intensity rocket attacks from Gaza and is poised on high alert to defend against possible retaliation from early May airstrikes against Syrian-based missiles destined for Lebanese-based Hezbollah.
At the same time, Shochat is managing an unprecedented buildup of the fastest growing arm of the Israeli military. Within a year, he expects to deploy additional Iron Dome batteries and debut Davidís Sling to strengthen Israeli defenses against tens of thousands of rockets and missiles threatening beyond Israelís borders.
An air defense professional of nearly 29 years, Shochat bears scars from Israelís inability to defend against Iraqi Scud-class missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as the pride ó 15 years later ó as commander of the Arrow, the worldís first operational active defense system.
Q. You started the job with four Iron Dome batteries scoring 100-some intercepts over an 18-month period. Whatís the tally now, after last Novemberís operation against Gaza-launched rockets?
A. We started the Pillar of Defense operation with four batteries, and during the fighting we deployed the fifth battery. Over the eight days, 1,506 rockets were fired from Gaza. The system identified and intercepted 421 rockets that were projected to hit people or property; and Iím proud to say after meticulous after-action analysis that approximately 85 percent of all rocket targets were successfully intercepted.
Q. What lessons are you applying as you work to triple the Iron Dome force in the coming few years?
A. First, I must credit lessons learned during AC12 [Austere Challenge], the extensive exercise conducted here with US European Command in the weeks preceding the operation. Aside from the professional, joint task force coordination and enhanced personal ties that will prove critical in prospective contingencies, we implemented several lessons from this exercise during combat.
Q. Such as?
A. Honed coordination with the Home Front Command. We provided very close to 100 percent accurate and precise early warning on time, which saved lives.
If you compare to the first Gulf War in 1991, when each Iraqi el-Hussein missile forced citizens to stay in shelters with gas masks for hours, today we can pinpoint alerts sometimes even to specific neighborhoods.
Q. Three civilians died in the rocket attacks last November. Did they ignore the warnings?
A. Regretfully, we suffered three civilian deaths during the last operation, maybe because they didnít hear or understand the warnings. But weíve greatly improved since the second Lebanon War . Thanks to our doctrine, the increasing robustness of our air defense system and opportunities for exceedingly realistic drills with our US allies, weíll continue to improve for next time around.
Q. What lessons were learned from actual combat? Did they apply to rules of engagement or to technical performance of the system?
A. Both. Every day, we had a combined briefing about the dayís performance aimed at adjusting and shaping our rules of engagement as well as the technological calibrations needed to optimize the system. More than twice during the fighting, we installed new algorithms into the system, which we then tested the following day under very extreme combat conditions.
Q. Were representatives from Rafael, Elta, M-Prest and other Iron Dome industry partners supporting your forces during combat?
A. Some were invited to the daily briefings and others were key elements of the reserve force. Thatís the unique connection here in Israel between industry and war fighters. Many are operational people in the reserves. We all gain from the close and symbiotic relationship.
Q. What about rules of engagement? Are you still insisting on having a man in the loop?
A. Itís sacrosanct for us to keep the man in the loop and not allow any of our active defense systems to operate completely automatically. Judgment, human experience and unexpected things cannot be written into software and decided by computers. We must retain the ability, when necessary, to override the system.
Q. Even with the highly autonomous Iron Dome, when response time is often much less than a minute?
A. Because of the very short reaction time and Iron Domeís extraordinary capabilities, the commander often needs only to approve the recommendation of the system.
But there have been times when the system classified a target as debris or determined that it would land in an open area while the commander thought otherwise. In those cases, he wonít risk not launching the interceptor. My orders are, if there is a doubt, there isnít a doubt. Go for it.
Q. So what happened April 17, when Iron Dome failed to engage Sinai-launched Grad rockets that landed in Eilat?
A. All I will say is that it wasnít a system error or an operational error, but a decision-making issue Ö meaning myself and others at this level. One of our biggest strengths is our obligation to debrief honestly and professionally, and I can assure you, we will draw the appropriate conclusions from this event.
Q. Looking ahead, how many more Iron Dome batteries do you plan to deploy?
A. We still donít have a clarified budget for 2013, but our current five-year plan provides for another eight to 10 batteries.
Q. The US has already committed $486 million to Iron Dome, with another $220 million requested in 2014. Thatís on top of the $100 million or so in annual support for joint programs like Arrow and Davidís Sling. Isnít it time for Israel to open up this program to US-based co-production?
A. I understand the American desire to go to a joint co-production program, given their considerable investment and tight economic situation. But Iím a general working in the operational sphere, with enough on my plate training and organizing the force for defense against escalating threats. Fortunately, I donít deal with funding and am not empowered to give anyone a green light for co-production.
But that said, if co-production will bring me the needed systems in less time, as an operator, I would welcome anything that best supports my requirements.
Q. Whatís the next major milestone toward deployment of Israelís planned multilayer active defense intercepting network?
A. Weíre constantly upgrading our early warning system and working along parallel paths to integrate our higher-level, long-range systems like Arrow and our shorter-range systems like Iron Dome.
Within five years, we will have a fully interoperable national network that is flexible enough to work holistically or to be broken down to battery level, depending on threat scenario.
But probably from a public perspective, our next major milestone is certification and deployment of the first operational unit of Davidís Sling. Thatís the next big wow!