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ISN Security Watch September 13, 2006

Israel rethinks laser cannon

Israel reconsiders a three-tier missile defense system to protect against long-range missiles from Iran and short-range rockets from Hizbollah and the Palestinian territories, as the Israeli prime minister is pressured to act.

Commentary by Dominic Moran

Hizbollah's month-long rocket barrage of northern Israel and the failure of Israeli ground operations in Lebanon to end the threat posed by the Shi'ite movement's rocket arsenal has led Israeli military planners to reconsider controversial anti-missile defense systems.

With conventional short-range anti-missile systems bedeviled by developmental difficulties and questions regarding their utility, attention has again turned to Northrop Grumman's Nautilus anti-missile laser.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz and leading figures in Israel's defense establishment decided in a September last year to move towards the development of a three-tier missile defense system.

The outer tier would be designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles fired from Iran. Though the Islamic Republic is believed to be years away from developing a nuclear weapons capacity, the possibility of a future "dirty" nuclear, chemical or conventional warhead attack is of concern to Israeli military planners. The Shahab-3 missile is believed to have an extended operational range of 2,100 kilometers, easily capable of reaching Israel.

Israel has responded to this threat by doubling spending on the Arrows anti-missile system to US$2.5 billion, with the US funding half of the joint venture.

The proposed second tier would intercept short- and mid-range missiles launched from Syria and Lebanon. For the second tier, Israel has set aside US$500 million for developing new counter systems. The third tier will address the firing of short-range Katyusha and Qassam rockets by Hizbollah and from the Palestinian territories.

Israeli defense leaders decided in their September meeting to ask Northrop Grumman to provide clarifications on Nautilus' operational capabilities and effectiveness and ongoing development and operational costs.

Israeli defense analysts and industry specialists are largely skeptical of the project, pointing to the exorbitant development costs of the Nautilus (US$400 million so far) and the failure of the company to fully demonstrate its effectiveness. These concerns were apparently borne out by the US Army's decision to cut its funding for the project last year - a decision subsequently followed by Israel.

The joint US-Israeli project was initiated in 1996 and involves a weapon and radar guidance system capable of firing highly concentrated chemical laser beams that can destroy low-flying missiles and artillery and mortars rounds. According to Northrop Grumman, the Nautilus is able to fire 60 times without reloading and is cost-effective at US$3,000 a "kill."

Though a prototype has yet to be built, Peretz was reportedly convinced to revive the project by a Northrop Grumman delegation that visited Israel in May.

GlobalSecurity.org says that 25 Katyusha rockets were successfully intercepted by an earlier version of the technology in 2000 and 2001, though it notes that atmospheric smoke and dust and "thermal blooming" are thought to defocus the beam, rendering the weapon ineffective. Development was also hampered by a need for greater mobility and the impractical size of early versions of the system.

Two alternative short-range missile projects are also reportedly under development at the moment, with Israeli defense company RAFAEL working on an air-to-air missile. The third involves ground-to-air artillery and includes a rapid-fire cannon developed by Lockheed Martin and the Vulcan Phalanx, currently used by the Israel Navy.

Israeli analysts not linked to the competing companies told Ha'aretz that, while capable of dealing with limited strikes, the proposed systems would be overcome by the simultaneous firing of a large number of missiles.

Peretz' decision to prioritize and champion the setting up of an anti-missile defensive shield came in response to the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel on the wake of the August 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

There has been repeated speculation in the Israeli media that the Labor leader, who lacks high-level security experience, has been led in his decision-making both by the military and by prominent figures in the Defense Ministry.

However, political expediency also played a part in the decision to pursue the laser cannon and the other anti-missile systems. It is no accident that the revival of Nautilus was promoted publicly at a time when the army and government were under extreme pressure over their handling of the Lebanese war.

With the political survival of Peretz, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israel Defense Forces chief Dan Halutz in question throughout August, the pressure to be seen to react with sufficient gravity and speed to the possibility of a resumption of hostilities with Hizbollah was overwhelming.

With Peretz currently facing an internal party rebellion over planned cuts to social services and widespread media criticism of his concurrent advocacy of a billion dollar boost for the defense budget, Nautilus may be moved to the back of the political agenda in the short-term. But with the pressing nature of the missile threat and the public fear this engenders, the government may well be encouraged to press on with costly short-range anti-missile systems of questionable utility.

Ultimately, the threat of short-range missile strikes can only be averted through a long-term decision by Hizbollah to cease firing into northern Israel and by a ceasefire agreement brokered by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the leadership of the armed wings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.

Israel can play its part by seeking an agreement with Hizbollah-ally Syria over the return of the Golan Heights and re-engaging with the PA through the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in a determined push for a negotiated peace settlement.

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Dr. Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).


Copyright 2006, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, Switzerland