A battleground for weapons of the future

By David Axe
November 30, 2012

More than a week after a U.S.-Egyptian brokered ceasefire brought a fragile peace to Gaza, military analysts are busily assessing the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Their goal: Apply lessons from the eight-day battle to weaponry still in development.

Israel’s frequent conflicts with its Arab neighbors have historically been proving grounds for the latest in battlefield technology. Arab-Israeli wars inspired the first operational aerial drones, radar-evading stealth warplanes and projectile-defeating armor. All are now staples of the world’s leading militaries.

Analysts now say this recent fighting could spur the proliferation of highly accurate, fast-firing defenses against rocket barrages, a threat that has long flummoxed military planners. The solution could be inspired by Israel’s now-famous Iron Dome, a rocket-intercepting missile system that shot down hundreds of Hamas’ rockets before they could strike Israeli settlements.

“Following the campaign, other nations are expressing interest in this capability,” says Tamir Eshel, editor of the Website, Defense Update, who is also an Israeli defense consultant.

The United States, however, has balked at the expense of using missiles to shoot down missiles. The Defense Department could copy Israel’s rocket-defense strategy but with a potentially cheaper twist: “directed energy” weapons, based on lasers.

“Both the Israelis and the U.S.,” said George Lewis, a senior research associate in the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University, “have considered lasers for these kinds of systems, and the U.S. is still developing them. They’re just not quite there yet.”

The recent combat in Gaza, however, could help push the technology forward. It’s happened before.

Consider, in six days of furious fighting in 1967, Israeli troops captured territory from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, massively expanding the border of the tiny Jewish state. Seven years later on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Arab forces attacked.

The 1973 Yom Kippur war was a shock for the once technologically superior Israeli forces. Soviet-supplied missiles took a heavy toll on Israeli tanks and warplanes.

The SA-6 surface-to-air missile was particularly devastating. “The SA-6 would fly out parallel to the desert floor then pitch up at you,” explained Barry Watts, a former Air Force officer now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy organization, “and it didn’t have a smoke trail. The Israelis lost a lot of airplanes to it.”

The U.S. Defense Science Board conducted a study of the ’73 war and concluded that in any future conflict, American planes would “have a real challenge getting though air defenses.” The board recommended development of a new kind of bomber that would evade the SA-6, by being essentially invisible to its supporting radar.

The result was the Lockheed F-117, the world’s first stealth aircraft. “The Yom Kippur War was the major inspiration,” said Bill Sweetman, author of “Lockheed Stealth” and “Ultimate Fighter: Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.”

Today the Air Force is attempting, at great cost, to build a frontline fleet composed almost entirely of stealth fighters and bombers — including the F-22, the F-35, the B-2 and the new Long Range Strike Bomber still on the drawing board.

Russia, China and Japan are also designing stealth warplanes.

Other radical new weapon systems that emerged from the Yom Kippur War include special “reactive” vehicle armor that explodes outward, destroying incoming projectiles. That armor, along with other Israeli-designed vehicle protection, is now standard on the most popular American- and Russian-made ground vehicles.

The first combat-grade Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, were also rapidly designed by Israeli munitions manufacturers in order to avoid exposing reconnaissance pilots to enemy defenses, as happened in ’73.

The 10-foot-long Mastiff drone was unpopular — until thoroughly proven in tests. “Air force and army intelligence adopted it with much enthusiasm,” Eshel recalls. The Americans bought upgraded versions that are still in use today.

In the late ’70s, Abraham Karem, one of Israel’s leading drone inventors, immigrated to California, hoping to tap the much larger U.S. weapons market. Using his home as a workshop, he produced the first prototype of what would become today’s General Atomics Predator and Reaper drones, perhaps the major weapons in America’s global counter-terrorism campaign.

Inside the Dome

Some analysts expect Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense to have an equally profound impact on weapons development. Each Rafael-built Iron Dome system consists of a radar and three reloadable packs of 20 missiles, plus a command trailer. The radar, a sophisticated model designed by Elta, detects incoming rockets and other low-altitude projectiles and cues a maneuverable missile to intercept.

 

Iron Dome was developed by Israel, with some U.S. funding, after the 2006 Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon. “Israel was defenseless against massive Hezbollah rocket fire,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, wrote in the newsletter, Israel Hayom. “A year later, Hamas rocket-fire on southern Israeli communities intensified and the need arose to develop a system to defend against short-range missiles.”

Eight Iron Dome systems have now been funded. Two were deployed in 2011. An Israeli official told Eshel that Hamas fired approximately 1,500 rockets during the recent fighting, of which 146 misfired or fell inside Gaza and 875 exploded in unoccupied areas. Iron Dome intercepted 421. Just 58 rockets penetrated the defenses and fell in populated areas.

Six Israelis died and hundreds were injured, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

U.S. analysts have been watching and listening. Since the beginning of the Iraq War the Pentagon has looked for ways to defend against intensive rocket strikes. As a stopgap, the military modified fast-firing naval guns for ground use. In the United States, however, purpose-designed defenses like Iron Dome have failed to get past the prototype stage.

“People have been pointing to Iron Dome,” said David Wright, a missile-defense expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “and saying it seems to show that kind of stuff can work.”

But many are concerned about the high cost.

Cornell’s Lewis estimates Hamas’ rockets cost at most $50,000 apiece. Each Iron Dome missile costs up to $90,000, according to a March report from the Congressional Research Service. “We assumed the missile approach to be too expensive,” said Lewis of Cornell University. “It’s astonishing that the Israelis are doing this with missiles.”

The U.S. has tinkered with solid-state lasers as a rocket defense that’s cheaper per shot fired — just a few dollars per blast, for some models. But Watts, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, notes that funding for the Pentagon’s short-range laser development has been declining for several years, and is now a minimal $90 million in the most recent budget. “The U.S. military,” Watts said, “is just not serious about really reaching critical mass in directed-energy technology.”

Not for a lack of options: Defense giant Lockheed Martin this week announced the first successful test of its Area Defense Anti-Munitions system, a 10-kilowatt laser meant for shooting down rockets, other munitions and enemy drones.

“Directed-energy stuff,” Watts said of these new laser weapons, “we ought to be pushing it, and the fact is we’re not.”

But Israel’s experience shooting down hundreds of rockets – and saving perhaps hundreds of lives –  could redirect U.S. technology efforts. Even if it comes at great expense

“It should,” said Watts, “have an impact on what we’re doing.”

 

PHOTO (TOP): An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the southern town of Sderot November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

PHOTO (INSERT MIDDLE): Ground crew walks near the Israeli Elbit Systems Ltd. Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle at the airbase in the Swiss town of Emmen October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

PHOTO (INSERT BOTTOM): An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern city of Ashdod, November 21, 2012. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

13 comments

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Let’s say that an Iron Dome-like system is technically successful, and even affordable.

Won’t people with a righteous complaint, but little funding, just find another method to frighten the Israeli populace? Maybe Iron Dome success could just up the anti? First, the Palestinians used rocks, then suicide bombers, then cheapo rockets. What next? If necessary (i.e., no peace and justice), Palestinians will come up with something.

Looks like a Sisyphean task to me, but good money for the war mongers, while it lasts.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Iron Dome have only one special ability – it’s cheap compared to _military-grade_ systems, but in doing so it’s definitely has drawbacks – i doubt it could intercept any current generation MLRS|”Tornado” missiles or real _military-sized_ salvoes of older missile systems like Grad. So for USA which is not under actual constant 24/365 low-scale rocket threat it’s useless.

And for energybeam anti-munition AA defense…well, old-fashioned gun-based systems with added good guidance systems have two drawbacks – first there’s no “WOW”-factor to interest politicians (how much hype there is around OPERATIONAL Raytheon Centurion Phalanx or C-RAM?), second – R&D expenses are too uncomplicated for milking.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

… along with illegal settlements and persecution of the native inhabitants yet another reason to wave the flag… leading the arms race. Well done Israel.

Posted by wombat_markt | Report as abusive

> “Cornell’s Lewis estimates Hamas’ rockets cost at most $50,000 apiece. Each Iron Dome missile costs up to $90,000, according to a March report from the Congressional Research Service.”

If only 1/3 of Hamas’s rockets are on target (so that it takes 3 $50k rockets for the Israelis to fire one $90k rocket), the cost-ratio makes this a strategic win (as well as a tactical win) for the Israelis. No wonder they didn’t stage a ground incursion into Gaza this time around! Hamas lost.

Net result of conflict: Hamas looks vulnerable and their hard-line stance looks futile and self-defeating. Doubly so, because of Abbas’ victory at the UN…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

This article and the comments are like listening to chitchat at a “feast of the centaurs”.

Civilians tend to get the brunt of modern military adventures. The cost of their long-term care for war casualties or refugees, and the destruction of property, during and after the episodes when the boys get to play with their toys, should always be added to the costs of economy building with explosive devises.

None of the military actions during the past decade seem to be able to bring definitive resolution to any conflicts either. The self-styled surgeons of nations don’t seem to be such competent professionals actually and when they make a mistake with their scalpels and gut the patient, its only worth an “oops” and maybe some band aid propaganda, some payoffs (easier if the victims live in cheap economies), and a well publicized court case, if the issue is too large to ignore. The long-term peace keeping work seems to devolve to UN blue helmets and hardly anyone mentions them most of the time. And they tend to work without the latest equipment.

Peace could land on the earth as a giant white dove, and the boys would want the latest weapons to make sure the bird is scared off as quickly as possible. They would complain about the long term destabilizing effects of bird droppings on the economic and political balance of the world’s powers. Anything to sell equipment that no one else in their right mind could afford or even use and is guaranteed to make fortunes for the manufacturers and put a huge strain on the customers, especially if they are the up an coming world economies.

State of the Art is wonderful even if those the weapons industries claim they defend have to be the guinea pigs or crash dummies to make sure the stuff works as advertised? That stuff also tends to leak onto the world black markets and high tech starts to become standard tech in all the wrong hands. The latest high tech weapons are very like Viagra for nations with fading prowess (or really bad consciences). That is certainly what it is starting to look like.

I think the rational for the armaments industry world-wide is: if the leakage of heavy arms into private and semi private hands isn’t large enough to destabilize regimes, the “really good stuff” is available for special customers to finish off the last of the poor slobs.

But remember – don’t smoke cigarettes or eat fast food – it’s bad for your health.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

the rocket that went through and hit target was Abbas going to the U.N.

Posted by OmarMinyawi | Report as abusive

@paintcan: The first 40% of your comment is excellent.

Note to Americans who complain about subsidies to the Israeli military: you’re getting your money’s worth in various ways, and on balance, this policy is saving thousands of American and millions of Israeli lives (if not also, on balance, tens or hundreds of thousands of Arab lives too, from dissuading the more militant Arab factions from going into another direct pitched battle against the Israelis with the same objectives they had in 1973).

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

@paintcan: One more thing to consider… The Arab-Israeli conflict is a microcosm of the worst parts/aspects of the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter what the Israelis do; there will always be significant numbers of Arabs and Persians who regard them as a cancerous tumor in the middle of an otherwise contiguous greater Islamic world — an aberration to be erased by “ethnic cleansing” and the like. With enemies who have a mentality like that, there’s only one possible approach:
“It’s either them or us.” — Pity the peace-loving Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Israelis, Jews… who want no part in this conflict, but to live peaceably with people of all faiths/cultures etc. It just takes a few of these people (perhaps 10–25%/population) to create a culture of survivalism…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

“Truly astonishing!”. Didn’t jews also invent oxygen? Or was that water? I know for a fact that they were the very first people to invent bull$!t even before the bulls themselves.

Posted by SchlomoGoldberg | Report as abusive

The so called iron dome, was developed using Patriot 2 techonology provided to Israel by the USA, along with 300 million dollars. Any statement that Israel developed the system is pure bovine manure. The US developed the system, then gave it to Israel along with the money to adapt it to their needs.
Just as Israel did not develop it’s nuclear weapons, aircraft, bombs, or missiles. They may have made some changes, but they are basically knock offs of weapons from other countries. The US had a working system to shoot down small rockets, mortars, and artillery shells decades ago. Attempting to portray Israelis as some type of super genius advanced civilization is absolutely ridiculous.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

“The actual speed of these Hamas rockets is in the range of 500 meters per second. Scuds that can travel 600 kilometers are traveling at 2,200 meters per second.”

The iron dome would be useless against a modern military missile. I am missing the “big story”. There are also reports from inside Israel that the iron dome actually only shot down 20% of their targets. According to the IDF, there were 933 rocket HITS on Israel during the conflict this November. That would mean Hamas would have to fire 10,000 rockets for Israel to shoot down 90% of them. Israel only has 400 missiles total in inventory (5 batteries, 60 missiles each battery, now a lot less).
And the truth shall set you free.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

@americanguy: your numbers make no sense! Read over them again!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

We need the Robot from “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, and stop all this war nonsense.

Posted by Evelio | Report as abusive

[…] esprime spesso in termini vaghi o non plausibili, come  “innumerevoli vite salvate”, “”centinaia di vite salvate”,” e perfino “migliaia di vite salvate” . Tuttavia, Iron Dome è stato dispiegato a partire […]