Essay: Ballistic Blitz
Mar 31, 2009 | Uzi Rubin
Missile Defence, Gaza and the 2006 Lebanon War
By Uzi Rubin
The rocket attacks on the south of Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian organisations during Operation Cast Lead exceeded the standard of harassment fire on the area around Gaza. Although Hamas’ firepower and striking range were significantly weaker than Hezbollah’s rocket attacks during the Second Lebanon War, the strategic goals were the same. First, Hamas wished to demonstrate the sustainability of its military power in the face of Israeli strength. Second, Hamas hoped for scoring points among the Palestinian public and the world by attacking major cities deep within Israeli territory, cities previously believed to be “safe”. Third, Hamas aspired to erode the staying power of the Israeli population and apply pressure on Israeli decision makers to stop the war on terms more convenient to Hamas.
Possibly, there was a novelty during the Gaza operation: Hamas attempted to attack an Israeli Air Force base in order to weaken the air force – a dimension that did not exist, at least not explicitly, in the 2006 Hezbollah war.
The launching of improved Grad rockets with a maximum range of 40 kilometres was the main characteristic of the rocket attack during Operation Cast Lead. A standard Grad rocket was first fired at the city of Ashkelon in 2004, but the upgraded Grads increased the area under threat to include major cities throughout the south and centre of Israel – Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Kiryat Gat, Yavne and Gedera – towns once considered “safe”. A rough estimate indicates that by extending the range from 20 to 40 kilometres, more than half a million civilians fall under rocket threat.
Furthermore, the rocket-stricken areas included major national infrastructure such as ports, refineries, power stations, and industrial areas (chemical manufacturers and high-tech plants), in major cities such as Ashdod, Beer Sheva and Kiryat Gat. In this aspect, the parallel with the Lebanon war is apparent, as northern cities and ports were similarly subject to rocket threat in 2006.
Israel’s responses to the rocket attacks were essentially the same in 2006 and 2008/09, but with different results. As in 2006, there was a significant effort (however unsuccessful) to stop the firing both in the initial air strikes and during the fighting. In 2008/09, however, there was a distinct drop in the rate of rocket fire after the first week of the campaign. It is unclear whether this drop stemmed from a decline in the Palestinian ability to launch rockets or their desire to preserve their rocket reserves in case of prolonged fighting. In the final week of the campaign, the trend reversed and there was an increase in rocket fire, possibly indicating the latter. Israeli sources attribute the drop in rocket fire both to a decrease in the ability to launch rockets caused by the Israeli Air Force, and to a ground operation that seized launching areas.
The second Israeli measure, a passive defence, produced better results this time than in 2006. Then, about 4,000 rockets were fired, killing 53 Israelis (75 rockets per casualty). There is no general agreement yet about the overall number of rockets fired during Operation Cast Lead, but it is no less than what Hamas announced – about 550 rockets – and no more than Israeli media estimates – around 660 rockets. The casualty ratio during Cast Lead was 183-220 rockets per one casualty. Yet, caution should be exercised before drawing conclusions. At least half of the rockets (Qassams) fired during Operation Cast Lead were made by the Palestinians. Qassams are much harder to aim than Grad rockets and their warhead is much smaller.
Furthermore, it seems that the Israeli Home Front Command’s alarm system, together with public compliance, prevented the loss of many lives. For example, in two cases of direct Grad hits on multi-story buildings in Ashdod, residents only suffered from anxiety and minor injuries, since most successfully reached safe cover beforehand. If not for this behaviour, the consequences and casualty rates could have been much worse.
The analogy to the 2006 Lebanon War also holds true for the active defence, which did not play a part in either campaign. In 2006, the air force deployed Patriot (anti-missile weapon) batteries in the north but for unclear reasons, they were never used against Syrian-made 320 millimetre rockets, which were fired toward Afula, Hadera, and Haifa. Israel had no active response against the Hezbollah Grad rockets that landed in Nahariya, Kiryat Shmona, Safed, and Haifa.
The defence establishment recognised this critical gap, and as a result initiated the development of the Iron Dome system designed to intercept rockets fired from ranges of 4 to 40 kilometres – that is, the range of Palestinian rockets launched from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. According to the Ministry of Defence, Iron Dome will be operational by the end of 2010. Thus, in the 2008-09 campaign, just like in 2006, the cities of Israel were left unprotected.
Would things have been different had a system like Iron Dome been deployed in 2006? On one hand, some claim that it would not have changed the course of the war and its consequences. On the other hand, it should be noted that close to 40% of Hezbollah rocket casualties were killed by the impact of only two rockets (eight civilians were killed when one rocket struck the Haifa train depot, and 12 army reservists were killed in Kfar Giladi by another rocket). Even if we exaggerate and assume that two Iron Dome intercepting missiles are needed to guarantee the destruction of one Grad rocket in flight, it would have taken no more than four intercepting missiles to prevent the death of 20 Israelis, and the personal pain and national despondency brought on by their death. It is difficult to accept that saving lives, preventing casualties, and minimising damages would not have affected the course of the war and its consequences.
Some dispute Iron Dome’s ability to intercept Qassams, whose short range of 6 to 10 kilometres accounts for minimal flight time. However, none dispute that the system can intercept Grads, whose flight range of 30 to 40 kilometres gives them a fairly long flight time. In Operation Cast Lead, one battery in the area of Ashdod could have protected the surrounding towns such as Yavne and Sderot. Another battery in Beer Sheva could have protected the entire city and its surroundings.
The early and fast warning, and the location-specific alarms produced during Operation Cast Lead prove that it is possible to locate rockets almost as soon as they are launched, and to calculate in a short amount of time where they are likely to land. From this, we can deduce that a system like Iron Dome could distinguish between rockets about to land in open spaces and those whose predicted impact are in populated areas, and intercept only the latter. So far, it is unclear how many rockets were fired at ranges of 30 kilometres or more during Operation Cast Lead. According to one media source, 78 of these rockets were fired. However, from media reports gathered by the author during the war, the number appears to range from 90 to 120.
If the assumption that only 30% of Hamas’ rockets hit populated areas is correct, then only 40 rockets would have needed to be intercepted (an average of less than two per day) in order to prevent hitting population centres, thus depriving Hamas of its main achievement, as well as minimising casualties and damage to property. This obviously would have altered the results of the operation.
In both wars, infrastructure and industrial facilities were exposed to Hezbollah and Hamas rockets; the ports of Haifa and Ashdod, refineries in the north and south, and petrochemical plants and science-based industries. The fact that these infrastructures were hardly hit was pure chance. On the last day of Operation Cast Lead, a fire broke out in a chemical plant in Ashdod, leading to the evacuation of residents out of fear of a hazardous materials leak. Probably, this fire was not caused by a rocket; however this indicates what could have happened had terror organisations aimed their rockets at plants containing hazardous materials. A catastrophe such as this would have undoubtedly negatively affected the course and results of the campaign.
The 2006 Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead provided a small-scale model for future wars. Iran and its allies Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, hardly invest in “classic” weapon systems for conventional war. Instead, they build and acquire enormous amounts of rockets and missiles. In any future campaign, the entire Israeli home front will be under intense rocket assault with a force the likes of which we have yet seen. One can only hope that when that day arrives Israel will have an effective active defence in its protection, and that the citizens of the state and its infrastructure will no longer serve as sitting ducks to the rockets of Israel’s enemies.
Dr. Uzi Rubin has been involved in Israeli military research, development, and engineering programs for almost 40 years. Between 1991 and 1999 he served as head of Israel’s Missile Defence Organisation and oversaw the development of Israel’s “Arrow” anti-missile defence system. He was awarded the Israel Defence Prize in 1996. © Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.