Israel seeks to ensure its invulnerability via a strong focus on missile defence. But the search for an “iron dome” to protect the country is an evasion of its true interest.
A little-noticed item in the military press reports that Israel has integrated all its missile-defence forces into a single air-force command. Wing 167 is located at the Palmachim air-force base near Tel Aviv and brings together three groups of anti-missile weapons: an upgraded version of the United States’s Patriot Pac-2 system, Israel’s own Arrow-2, and the new “iron dome” system, an Israeli-developed weapon for countering short-range rockets deployed in southern Lebanon and Gaza (see Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israel Creates Active Defense Wing”, Defense News, 18 July 2011).
Wing 167 integrates the missiles with data from early-warning and targeting sensors. It will be progressively upgraded with two further Israeli anti-missile weapons, the planned Arrow-3 and David's Sling systems. In the coming years, a joint US-Israeli programme will see advanced infrared sensor systems fitted to high-altitude drones that can loiter at altitudes of 40,000 feet to track incoming missiles (see Barbara Opall-Rome, “U.S., Israel Pursue Two Anti-Missile Sensor UAVs”, Defense News, 18 July 2011).
Wing 167 will, according to defence officials, “be one of the [Israel air force’s] fastest growing organisations, with staffing growing three- or four-fold to manage billions of dollars worth of technology”.
Israel’s focus on missile defence is part of a longstanding pattern. But much of the current integration stems from two earlier conflicts in particular.
The first is the war that followed Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in January 1991. The United States started a huge aerial bombardment of Saddam Hussein's forces on the evening of 16 January, amid a widespread view that the vast coalition forces ranged against the Iraqis would ensure a quick capitulation. Within twenty-four hours the near-euphoria roused by that air assault turned to alarm as Iraqi Scud missiles landed on Israeli cities; a moment with deep-rooted resonance in Israel.
The second is the war with Hizbollah in July-August 2006, which caused Israel severe problems. The worst of these was the ability of the Lebanese movement to fire hundreds of short-range missiles into northern Israel in barrages that continued to the last day of the war (see Zaid Al-Ali, "'Whatever happens, Hizbollah has already won'", 9 August 2006).
The three risks...
Israel now faces three further developments that cause renewed concern - to the extent that the authorities are obliged to sell the public a narrative of guaranteed security via missile protection. The very term “iron dome” is intended to convey an assurance of invulnerability.
The first development is that the Arab awakening in Egypt is having the effect of making the Egypt-Gaza border far more porous, making it much easier to transfer a range of weapons into the strip. These are reported to include anti-tank missiles and high-trajectory rockets, perhaps even an anti-aircraft missile that could seriously constrain Israeli reconnaissance and strike-operations in the event of another war (see Amos Harel, "Israeli sources: Arab Spring let Palestinians ramp up Gaza arms smuggling", Ha’aretz, 25 July 2011).
The second is a report that Hizbollah is acquiring the Scud-D surface-to-surface missile (see Yaacov Katz, “Syria increasing arms shipments to Hezbollah”, Jerusalem Post, 16 July 2011). The Scud-D, like earlier variants of the missile, is 1950s-era Soviet technology, but its 700-kilometre range bring the whole of Israel within range from launch-sites deep in Lebanon and thus distant from the Israeli border. This, moreover, follows reliable accounts that Hizbollah has since the war of July-August 2006 hugely expanded its arsenal of short-range missiles and now has tens of thousands at its disposal (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "The Hizbollah project: last war, next war", 13 August 2009).
The third development is fresh deployments of medium-range Iranian missiles. Two are particularly relevant: the liquid-fuelled Shabab-3 and the much newer solid-fuelled Sejil-2. Both are reported to have ranges close to 2,000 kilometres, easily exceeding the range required to target Israel. They were test-fired from northern Iran into the Arabian Sea in covert tests conducted since October 2010 (see Alon Ben-David, “Expanded Reach”, Aviation Week and Space Technology, 18 July 2011).
As many as 500 Shabab-3 missiles are reported to have been deployed, some on mobile launches. There is scarce information about their accuracy and reliability. Indeed, Both sides have an interest in exaggerating these: the Iranians to demonstrate their national prowess, Israel defence sources in order to ensure increased spending on defensive systems.
In practice, both are probably overrating the Shabab-3, which is liquid-fuelled and based partly on fairly old North Korean technology. The Sejil-2 is another matter, since storable solid-fuel missile-motors allow for much greater readiness. But here too there are questions over capability. One recent report suggests that Revolutionary Guard units have already deployed a handful of Sejil-2 missiles at Khorramabad, northwest Iran, but others suggest that it is still under development, and that a test in October 2010 ended in failure.
...and the fourth
None of this means that war is imminent, but it is part of a complex set of developments across the region where each side is seeking military advantage. The Iranians are intent on developing a powerful missile force (whether or not they also opt for nuclear weapons): they see such systems as deterrents, principally against the United States, as well as being symbols of power in a regional competition with - among others - Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hizbollah in Lebanon has expanded its capabilities to deter Israel; and some of the more radical elements in Gaza, even if largely held in check by the Hamas leadership, also want to increase their military resources.
Israel too is determined to remain “impregnable in its insecurity”. It has hugely powerful armed forces backed up by as many as 200 nuclear weapons, and its strike-aircraft and ballistic missiles can range across the region. Yet it also has a deep enduring perception of vulnerability that it thinks can best be countered by a protective “dome” over the whole country. This amounts to little more than benign reassurance of an insecure population that allows the genuine situation facing the country to be evaded (see "Israel's security: beyond the zero-sum", 26 August 2010).
Israel simply cannot come to terms with the idea that it is impossible to build walls hundreds of kilometres high - and that it must deal in peace (see "After Gaza: Israel's last chance", 17 January 2009). There is little sign of that recognition at present. As a result, and in the context of this semi-integrated and multifaceted arms-race, the risk of another war in the region increases.