Concept for Defeating Short-Range Rockets Wins Out Despite Fierce Lobbying by Competitors


TEL AVIV, Israel – An Israeli Ministry of Defense (MoD) panel of experts is expected to reaffirm its initial choice of Rafael’s Iron Cap system as its preferred short-range anti-rocket solution, despite compelling and fiercely competitive attempts to swing the decision elsewhere.


Unless directed otherwise by MoD superiors, the ministry’s rocket defense assessment committee is expected to recommend initial development of the kinetic kill system, designed to bring down rockets coming in from up to 40 kilometers away.


Sources here said Rafael has promised a fully deployable capability within two years for about $60 million. At least another $100 million will be needed to produce enough interceptors to render the Iron Cap a militarily meaningful defense against the many thousands of Palestinian Qassam and Hezbollah Katyusha rockets that threaten
‘s northern and southern communities.


Recommendations from the MoD’s rocket defense assessment committee – chaired by a retired brigadier general, Jacob Nagel of the Ministry’s Research and Development Directorate – are expected to be presented to Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the ministry’s director-general, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz by the end of January. A formal announcement could come in early February, pending approval by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.


However, sources here warn the program could face additional delays due to a likely reshuffle of top MoD leaders following the resignation Jan. 16 of Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz as the Israel Defense Forces chief. Ashkenazi is considered a leading candidate to replace Halutz, who accepted responsibility for failings in
‘s summer 2006
war, while Peretz is facing increasingly strident calls to resign.


After a two-year review of nearly a dozen proposals, the MoD’s Research and Development Directorate last year selected Rafael’s Iron Cap for the ministry’s so-called Ultra-Short Range Missile Defense (USRMD) program. In late November, the MoD awarded Rafael an initial study contract for the nascent development effort to protect against threats launched from 5 kilometers to 40 kilometers away.


But public ire sparked by the
war and continued Gaza-launched Qassam strikes – coupled with fierce lobbying by local and
defense firms promising a more effective solution – prompted Peretz to reopen the competition shortly after the war.


Asked to determine whether other systems could do the job earlier and more cheaply, the committee extended its evaluation to two
proposals: the Northrop Grumman SkyGuard chemical laser interceptor and the SkyShield submunition cannon developed by Oerlikon Contraves and produced by Lockheed Martin.


The committee’s mandate expanded even further when Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), after aggressively lobbying Cabinet members and defense officials, succeeded in injecting its proposed Hotzetz (Separator, or Buffer) broad-area defense concept into the review. Based on a one-size-fits-all concept conceived by a former IAI executive who pioneered development of the firm’s Arrow anti-missile system, the proposal promises protection against a wide spectrum of threats with ranges up to 250 kilometers.


And in late November, yet another
firm threw its hat in the ring. Executives from Raytheon – partners with Rafael on a separate MoD program called David’s Sling – came to
with preliminary data on a commercial-class solid-state laser solution. While Raytheon executives acknowledge that their Laser Area Defense System has only been tested on mortars, in static scenarios and from very short ranges, they said their system should be equally as effective against Qassam- and Katyusha-type threats.


Moreover, company executives said they would like to parlay their partnership with Rafael on the David’s Sling program into another joint effort, in which the Raytheon laser would be integrated with Rafael’s USRMD kinetic kill interceptor. Rafael, for its part, remains noncommittal on a specific ultra-short range partnership, but welcomes in general expanded cooperation with the


“We are in preliminary discussions with the government of Israel on a potential solution based on our prototype solid-state laser system,” said Mike Booen, vice president of advanced missile defense and directed energy weapons at Raytheon Missile Systems in
“We think an integrated package of kinetic and directed energy [interceptors] makes sense, could be supplied rapidly, and would provide full, all-weather capabilities,” he said.


Booen declined to provide detailed schedule or cost data.


Peretz had repeatedly expressed interest in the proposed SkyGuard, a mobile, non-toxic version of the U.S.-Israeli Tactical High Energy Laser system, which was discontinued by the U.S. Army in 2005 after both countries had invested nearly $400 million in the program. Impressed by Northrop Grumman data from successful SkyGuard intercepts in dozens of tests against multiple threats, Peretz publicly criticized former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other key decision makers for allowing the program to lapse.


“There was a technological solution that was well known to those who came before me. … It could have been deployed by now, and our people would have the protection they deserve,” Peretz told
‘s Channel One in October.


According to government and industry sources, Northrop Grumman has committed to delivering a complete operational system capable of defending Peretz’s hometown of Sderot, near the
border, within 18 months at a firm fixed price of $177 million. Within 24 months of contract signature, Northrop Grumman promises to deliver three operational units at a total cost of $310 million, while 10 units would carry an acquisition price tag of $600 million.


Northrop Grumman executives estimate the cost per kill of each laser shot at $2,000, compared with Rafael’s estimated $50,000 per missile and IAI’s estimated unit interceptor costs of less than $80,000.


Mike McVey, vice president for directed energy systems at Northrop Grumman, said his firm is pioneering development of high-power solid-state lasers for force protection and precision strike missions. The firm also is working on fiber lasers, which will be more powerful than 100 kilowatts.


“Solid-state lasers for military use – as opposed to low-power commercial, off-the-shelf lasers – are not yet mature. But they’re coming, and when they’re here and can be deployed with sufficient power to deal with the type of threats faced by
, we can spiral in that technology to existing SkyGuard systems,” said McVey. “It seems the Israelis have many options on the table, but only one option has ever demonstrated its ability to destroy the type of threats that
faces. And only one option can be fully operational to handle salvo attacks in 18 months.”


As for the potential Raytheon solid-state laser offering, Israeli sources say the 20-kilowatt commercial laser will not be able to sustain power at the required ranges to defend against a salvo of incoming rockets.


“The single beam has to deal with all the threats,” a former MoD official said. “If it has to spend too much time on one target, it won’t be capable of dealing with the second, third and fourth launches.”


“There’s no doubt that lasers provide the correct solution for very short-range threats. But the questions are: which kind of laser? What is its effective defensive radius and how much will it cost to deploy enough systems to meet our requirements?” said retired Maj. Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel,
‘s former director of defense research and development.


Despite the MoD’s keen interest in Northrop’s laser proposal, defense sources said they still have not received the full package of technical data needed to sway institutional inclinations toward a kinetic shooter alternative.


“The [rocket defense assessment] committee has a problem, because in several key evaluation areas, they’re being forced to trust, or to make educated guesses,” said the former MoD official. “We know Northrop Grumman has been trying, with mixed success, to pry the requisite licenses out of the
government for months now. … and this is yet another factor that leads us back our original selection of the Rafael system.”


Northrop Grumman spokesman Bob Bishop noted that the firm received a
government marketing license in early December, which allowed the company to provide a preliminary data package to
‘s MoD. Northrop expects very soon to receive additional approvals that will allow it to provide the more comprehensive data package requested by the Israelis, he said.