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Israeli Public Demands Answer to Mortar Threat

Gaza War Revives Calls For Defunct US-Israel Laser

Aug. 30, 2014 - 04:30PM   |  
By BARBARA OPALL-ROME   |   Comments
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Vulnerable to Attack: A woman injured in a rocket attack is transferred from a military ambulance to a civilian ambulance on July 27 near Nahal Oz, Israel. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)
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KIBBUTZ NAHAL OZ, ISRAEL — Terrified and angry by their government’s inability to protect them from eight straight weeks of Gaza-launched attacks, Israeli residents too close to the border to benefit from the Iron Dome missile shield are demanding an active defense solution to short-range threats.

Since the start of the Israeli operation, mortars and projectiles have killed 10 soldiers and six civilians. The latest Aug. 26 attack killed two men from a nearby kibbutz, volunteer security coordinators who failed to reach shelters in time.

By the Israeli military’s count, more than 1,400 rockets and mortars have landed in the Gaza “envelope,” which includes the town of Sderot and dozens of smaller communities within seven kilometers of the border.

While most have landed in open areas, residents of the envelope are required to seek shelter at the first shrill sounds of warning sirens. At best, they have 15 seconds.

But that applies only to very short-range Qassam rockets produced in Gaza, several of which Iron Dome managed to intercept, sources here said, despite almost no warning time. With mortars, early warning comes tragically late when it comes at all.

Such was the case on Aug. 22 when mortar shrapnel claimed this community’s youngest victim, a 4-year-old boy, before his parents could whisk him to safety.

“Mortars usually come by surprise. We hear the whistle and we don’t know where it will land,” said Yaffa Natan, a resident of nearby Pri Gan.

So far, some 700 families have applied for government-funded relocation to areas beyond mortar range where Iron Dome batteries are better positioned to intercept incoming threats.

But thousands of others are refusing to flee. Each day, residents on the front lines of Operation Protective Edge are increasingly strident in demanding Iron Dome-like protection against mortar shells and short-range rockets.

“No one has answers for us. Not the government, not the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. ... But it’s their responsibility to protect us,” Natan said.

“In this operation, we lost our faith in our governmental leaders,” said Haim Yelin, head of the Eshkol regional council.

Moshe Cohen, a distraught resident here, said he refuses “to become a refugee in my own homeland.” He noted that the ongoing operation was the first time since Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War that the enemy threat was forcing families to evacuate en masse.

“They tell us they’re studying technological options for answering this threat. But ... we’ve been terrorized by the other side for 14 years,” Cohen said. “The government cannot shirk its responsibility to protect us. There’s no more time for study. We need facts on the ground.”

Rafael, developer and prime contractor for Iron Dome, is promoting an electric laser intercepting system called Iron Beam.

In February, marketing material presented at the Singapore Air Show described Iron Beam as a mobile, high-energy laser designed to destroy incoming rockets, artillery, mortars and UAVs at the speed of light. “Iron Beam destroys a target either by heating its surface to the weakening point and causing it to fail ... or by burning through the skin to destroy underlying critical components,” the company claims.

In a statement to Defense News, Rafael Chief Executive Didi Yaari said the system, still in development, would solve the mortar problem plaguing residents in the south.

Another option is Blue Shield by Israel Military Industries. In a carefully worded statement cleared by Defense Ministry security, the firm said the active defense system fires guided countermeasures that strike targets at ranges from hundreds of meters up to several kilometers, providing “relatively wide area” defense.

A third option, by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), is “totally classified,” spokeswoman Eliana Fishler said. “All we can say is that it is under development to answer the threat.”

An MoD spokeswoman said only that the ministry’s Mafat research and development directorate has invited proposals “from a number of companies,” several of which are under review.

Decade of Neglect

As the MoD evaluates developmental proposals aimed at the very short-range threat, retired officers and experts are blaming defense officials for more than a decade of neglect. They insist a solution has been available for years based on some $300 million invested in a joint US-Israel intercepting laser.

Yossi Arazi, a retired IDF colonel, assailed MoD for ignoring Northrop Grumman’s proposed Sky Guard, a smaller, mobile and upgraded version of the Nautilus, a chemical laser interceptor developed and tested by the MoD and the US Army.

Israel dropped out of the program in 2006 after the Army cut its share of the funding in favor of more compact solid-state technology. Shortly afterward, MoD accelerated funding on what is now known as Iron Dome.

“They knew then that, while perhaps technically possible, it was practically improbable that Iron Dome would defend against mortars and the very short-range Qassams,” Arazi said.

To fill active defense gaps, Arazi and others worked with Northrop Grumman to salvage investment in Nautilus with the new Sky Guard system tailored to Israeli needs. By January 2007, Northrop committed to delivering the first Sky Guard unit within 18 months at a cost of $177 million or three units within 24 months for a fixed price of $310 million.

“Northrop Grumman would be prepared to move forward at its own expense upon commitment by Israel in order to save time. We would be further prepared to accept schedule penalties (and incentives) should there be any deviations from these delivery schedules,” wrote Mike McVey, then-vice president for Northrop Grumman Directed Energy Systems, in a Jan. 16, 2007, letter to Shmuel Keren, who then headed MoD’s research and development directorate.

“Everything we warned about then is happening now, and it’s only going to get worse in the next war,” Arazi told Defense News. “And the tragic thing is that a solution was put in their hand years ago. They just refused to take it.”

But Northrop’s seven-year-old cost and schedule commitments are no longer relevant. Brooks McKinney, a company spokesman, said: “All of our laser defense concepts from that time frame were based on chemical laser technology. Northrop Grumman is no longer developing chemical laser-based systems. The laser defense technology of choice is now solid state [electric] lasers.”

Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Roy Riftin, IDF’s chief artillery officer, said the IDF is deploying new tactical radars in the Gaza envelope in attempts to extend and enhance early warning.

One is developed by IAI subsidiary Elta Systems in cooperation with the IDF Ground Forces Command. Known by the IDF as Wind Shield and marketed internationally under the name Green Rock, the mobile autonomous radar is designed to detect and calculate precise impact points of incoming rockets, artillery and mortars.

The other is the RPS-40 radar by Netanya-based Rada, optimized for detection of mortars and small rockets. Under an emergency procurement contract, the IDF has fielded three units. ■

Email: bopallrome@defensenews.com.

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