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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Israel's biggest scandal: Sitting ducks in Sderot

Over the past three years, I have done more posts than I care to count or remember criticizing the Israeli government for its insistence on developing the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system to protect Israel's border areas against (mostly 'Palestinian' but also Hezbullah) short-range missiles instead of buying an American system. The US actually developed two systems to intercept short-range missiles. One was called Nautilus and later Skyguard; I don't know what its status is today. The other system, called Phalanx (pictured), became operational in 2006.

I didn't just criticize the Iron Dome system because it wasn't ready and the Phalanx was ready. I also criticized it because of its cost per missile shot down, and because of the swath of land closest to the border that it was unable to protect. As I summed up less than a month ago after a supposedly 'successful' test of Iron Dome:
Israel should not be developing Iron Dome. It should have bought a similar American system three years ago. It also should never have expelled all the Jews from, and vacated Gaza, and having made that mistake it should have gone back into Gaza far sooner than it did and stayed there. But the continued development of Iron Dome stands as a tribute to Israeli obstinacy and provincialism at tremendous expense in terms of lives, money and property damage.
In September 2006, I reported that Israel was considering a total of four short-range anti-missile systems, one of which was something called the Vulcan Phalanx, which was being used by the United States in Iraq.

In June 2007, I reported that the Israeli government had turned down a variant of the Vulcan Phalanx that had been offered by the United States government in favor of developing its own missile defense system, which will not be ready until 2011! In February 2008, I reported that the Israeli system in question, which is known as Iron Dome, is useless for defending against the shortest range Kassam rockets, including those that hit Sderot. In March 2008, I reported that Israel had reconfirmed that decision. And in July 2008, I reported on a test of the Iron Dome system that resulted in much less than 100% accuracy.

Now comes word that Israel's defense ministry is insisting on sticking with Iron Dome, refusing to even assess the Phalanx's performance.

...

"The Phalanx, which the U.S. has successfully used in Iraq to shoot down rockets and mortar shells, has also been rejected even though the Israel air force wrote in January 2006 that the Phalanx was 'the most prepared weapons defense systems among those inspected,'" respected Israeli analyst Reuven Pedatzur wrote in the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz on March 5.

Pedatzur said that the controversial Administration for the Development of Weapons in the Israeli Defense Ministry continues to refuse to assess the Phalanx's performance seriously, despite the total failure to bring Iron Dome online for at least another year and probably more.

"The ADW's response as to why the system has not yet been brought to Israel was: 'We're still gathering data on its performance,'" he wrote.

As another Haaretz columnist, Yossi Melman, wrote March 5, "The Vulcan Phalanx is a U.S.-made gun that the U.S. Army uses against steep-trajectory rockets and mortar shells in Iraq and Afghanistan. The system includes detection radar, tracking radar and two 20mm cannons."

This year's annual report by Israeli State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss contains a sobering description of bureaucratic foot-dragging and what even appears to have been deliberate obstructionism by the Israeli military establishment going back at least five years to prevent the Phalanx, which is built by Raytheon, from being bought by Israel as a possible rival to their own cherished Iron Dome project.

Back in 2004, Lindenstrauss documented, the Israeli air force and the research and development department of the Israeli Defense Ministry, also known as Mafat, carried out assessment tests on the Phalanx. The report concluded, "The Vulcan Phalanx system is likely to provide a solution for protecting strategic sites."

Yet years passed while Israel's southern settlements remained under constant Qassam rocket bombardment from Gaza, and no action was taken to follow up with the Phalanx.
In Wednesday's JPost, there is an odd story that has the Defense Ministry suddenly trying to buy the Phalanx system. Odd unless you saw another story I saw yesterday - but I'll come back to that in a minute. The JPost report is here. Its headline: "Israel not locked on Phalanx purchase." If that was the only headline you'd seen in the last 24 hours, your response would have to be "Huh? Israel already decided not to purchase the Phalanx." Well, guess what: The immortal excuse that every Israeli bureaucrat learns in his first week in the government is "taiti." "I made a mistake."
Israel has yet to decide whether to purchase the Vulcan Phalanx to counter the Kassam threat and will only make a decision after viewing a live test of the rapid-cannon system scheduled for this summer, senior defense officials said Tuesday.

News of the summer test came amid reports Tuesday that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had already ordered the Defense Ministry to purchase the system.

Officials told The Jerusalem Post that while Israel was interested in procuring the system and deploying it along the border with the Gaza Strip, there were still several obstacles.

Firstly, there is a question of whether the system would be effective against the Kassam rocket and mortar threat Israel faced from the Gaza Strip.

Israel had asked the Pentagon a number of times to see the specifications of the system and to watch a live test. The approval was received only several months ago and Defense Ministry Director-General Pinhas Buchris is scheduled to attend a live test of the system sometime between June and August. Following that visit, the Defense Ministry will make its final decision whether to purchase the system.

...

Each system can cover a 1,200 square meter area and costs $25 million. To protect a city the size of Sderot, the Defense Ministry would need to deploy a number of systems. In addition, the ministry will evaluate the noise levels of the system, which fires 6,000 rounds a minute.
I want to point out a few things about this article. First, the Defense Ministry's sudden interest in the Phalanx is unexplained. What happened to change the insistence on developing a 'blue and white' system to a willingness to deploy an American system? If the Post knows, they're not saying.

Second, they ask whether the system will be effective against Kassam rockets from Gaza. That ought to be a low barrier for a decision to purchase the Phalanx to surmount. Given that the government's only alternative is a system that won't be ready until 2011 and will not be able to protect the areas closest to the border, purchasing the only operational system - even as a stopgap - seems like the only sensible decision to make.

It's less clear why Israel was so insistent on seeing a live demonstration of the system (possibly as a means of protecting the Administration for the Development of Weapons in the Israeli Defense Ministry from competition, since the Defense Ministry knew the Americans were unlikely to agree to such a demonstration) or why the Americans were - it is claimed - equally insistent on not conducting such a demonstration. But that should not be an insurmountable obstacle.

Third, the question of noise is nonsense. I will guarantee that if you survey the residents of the 'Gaza envelope,' they would rather be awakened at night by the Phalanx shooting down Kassams than by Kassams raining down on them.

But here's the clinker in the Post article.
Even if the Defense Ministry decides that it wants to buy the system, the Pentagon will still have to approve the sale, and it is not certain that the US Army would be willing to give up one of the systems currently in production to Israel, instead of having it deployed to protect US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Defense Ministry refused to comment on the report.
Note that I highlighted in the previous excerpt that Israel will need a number of systems just to protect Sderot. The Americans may not even be willing to give us one.

What the Post doesn't tell you is what happened and who is to blame (and they're still better than the other English language mainstream media sites in Israel, which aren't even carrying this story). But I've had that story since yesterday afternoon (Hat Tip: Danny A) and I've been sitting on it because I don't like using DEBKA as a sole source, because their reports often present speculation as fact (and I am going to skip a paragraph that does just that in this story), and because I just didn't have time to start with this story yesterday anyway (not that I have time today, but that's a separate issue).
The population of southwestern Israel will remain vulnerable to attack after eight years should Hamas revive the Qassam missile blitz from the Gaza Strip which has slowed down since Israel's Gaza campaign in January.

Defense minister Ehud Barak, after finally accepting that the Iron Dome still under development will not be up to the task, applied to Washington to purchase Vulcan Phalanx systems worth $25 million each. Raytheon recently tested a new version fitted with a solid-state Laser Area Defense System (LADS). It outdid expectations by intercepting 60mm mortar shells fired from a distance of 450 meters. Israel's Red Color warning system works for missiles only - not mortar attack. However, Israeli cannot expect to obtain the Vulcan Phalanx any time soon; the US army ordered all the Raytheon manufacturers' product for years ahead after the short-range missile defense system proved its worth in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our Washington sources doubt, moreover that in the current cool climate governing relations, US defense secretary Robert Gates will be too forthcoming. The White House would also have to approve Israel's application.

...

Although recurring publicity campaigns boost the Iron Dome project, DEBKAfile's military experts have repeatedly maintained that the anti-missile system has not proved capable of intercepting enemy projectiles fired from distances as short as 4.5-5 kilometers, that is, from across the borders of Gaza and Lebanon at Israeli locations hugging those borders. In any case, operational costs would be prohibitive. The Iron Dome interceptors for downing a home-made Palestinian missile costing $500 would run to $50,000 apiece.
This story also presents a number of questions and I'll get to those in a minute, but I want to note the parts of the DEBKA story that the Post report confirms. The Post confirms that the Defense Ministry wants to buy the Phalanx system, it confirms that the US Secretary of Defense will have to approve the sale and that approval may not be forthcoming, and most importantly, it confirms that Iron Dome, on which Israel has spent millions of dollars of its defense budget, is a total failure.

DEBKA leaves open two gaping questions: First, where did eight years come from? Is Israel going to continue to pour money down the drain developing Iron Dome, or is there some other solution that is eight years away?

Second, and most importantly, where and what is Plan B? If the US for whatever reason refuses to sell the Phalanx to Israel, what alternative does the IDF have? The only one I can see is sending the IDF back into Gaza and having it stay there.

The other question (not addressed by DEBKA or JPost) is whom to blame? The State Comptroller (Lindenstrauss) report referred to above provides some clues. The decisions that led to this catastrophe started in 2004. In 2004, the Prime Minister was Ariel Sharon and the Defense Minister was Shaul Mofaz. In 2006, Ehud Olmert became Prime Minister and Amir "Comrade" Peretz was the Defense Minister. In 2007, Peretz was replaced by Ehud Barak. Barak remains the Defense Minister today. Obviously, Binyamin Netanyahu cannot be blamed - he became Prime Minister just two weeks ago. Some or all of Ariel Sharon, Shaul Mofaz, Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak made - and continued to endorse - the decision to continue developing Iron Dome in the face of all evidence to the contrary that the Phalanx was superior in terms of cost and capabilities, cheaper to operate and ready now. Moreover, Barak was Prime Minister and Defense Minister in 2001 when Israel terminated its participation in what was then called the Nautilus program.

Six months ago, a request to the Bush administration for the Phalanx probably would have been a slam dunk for approval (I will grant that much deference to DEBKA's implication that part of a US refusal to sell the Phalanx may be a political move by the Obama administration - see the part of the DEBKA story I skipped). Israelis are going to - God forbid - be injured or die as a result of successive governments' pigheaded refusal to drop Iron Dome and buy the Phalanx. Those Israelis' blood is on the heads of Sharon, Mofaz, Olmert, Peretz and Barak. The buck stops with the man in charge.

In a normal country with an accountable political system, heads would roll over this and political careers would come to an end. But in Israel, with our taiti political system (and its mirror image called yihyeh b'seder - everything will be alright), none of these five is likely to pay a price. With the exception of Sharon (who has been a vegetable for more than three years anyway), this scandal should end all of their careers. But it won't. Watch.

I used to end posts about this story with a reminder to all of you that Sderot and the Negev are NotInMyBackYard and that Ehud Olmert was sending in the clowns to 'protect' Sderot (accompanied by a picture of Olmert with a clown). Sadly, that's no longer a joke. It's reality.

UPDATE 5:03 PM

Arutz Sheva (Israel National News) is now reporting that Israel has decided to purchase the Phalanx system and that delivery will be made before year-end... if US Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees.

The story does not mention any Israeli observing the system in action.

5 Comments:

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Russel said...

Not locked into Phalanx, not locked into Iron Dome - wth are we locked into - years of terror and no intention of ever acting on it?!

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger Shy Guy said...

Israel is overall an impressive developer of sophisticated military hardware.

I'll bet you Israeli firms such as Refael, Elbit, etc., went back to the drawing board and are working on a better mousetrap, which will also be exportable.

This is the sort of future defensive technology sphere which Israel stives to lead in.

Can I prove what I'm surmising? No. Just intuition speaking from Israel's prior experiences.

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger kranky said...

Point the defense people to MetalStorm (http://www.metalstorm.com). Couple this to a tracking and aiming system, and you have something akin to Phalanx. Much faster and without the wait.

More to the point, you can deploy these near the border, and make an occasional example of an infiltrating terrorist. Or the bomb that they set.

Look at the videos of this thing in action.

 
At 5:06 PM, Blogger Andre (Canada) said...

When you add the rockets in southern Israel and the rockets during the Lebanon war in 2006, you are talking about more than 12,000 rockets which fell on Israel. With the Phalanx system in place, even with a 75% accuracy ratio, it would have meant that more than 9,000 of these rockets would have been intercepted.
So, I think it is fair to say that the corrupt politicians that you list in your article are responsible for doing nothing about over 9,000 rockets hitting Israel over the last 8 years.
What a scandal! But then again, Israelis keep reelecting these clowns!
Does the saying "people get the politicians they deserve" apply here?

 
At 6:18 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Israel's political system doesn't produce accountability. I would bet the same people who were responsible for the Gaza Disengagement are the same people who helped to kill the Lavi, they opposed the Arrow missile system and bad-mouthed an Israeli reconnaissance satellite as Moshe Arens pointed out earlier this week in Haaretz And even though they have spectacularly wrong they have never paid the price for their mistakes in judgment.

That is Israel's real scandal.

 

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