Inside the IDF’s air defence program
“Victory begins with defence,” says Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav, commander of the IDF’s air defence program.
“It’s not the victory itself, but that’s where it begins. My role is to allow the captain to stay calm while making decisions – not to attack based on public opinion or casualties, but calmly. The air defences have racked up some 2,000 interceptions. Imagine what would have happened if those missiles had fallen and each one of them had killed someone. We would have been at war long ago.”
Yoav Limor: Have we become addicted to defence?
Brig.-Gen. Kochav: “The division and brigade commanders are angry with me. They say that I’m the reason they aren’t on manoeuvres. I think they’re wrong. We should [undertake ground operations] in the Gaza Strip for every rocket fired from Gaza? We should head to Damascus over every missile fired at Mount Hermon? If missiles are fired from Iraq, should we deploy there? The courage in launching an action isn’t in the action itself, but in making the decision.”
Perhaps your phenomenal success has freed the captain from having to make a decision.
“The fact is, in Operation Protective Edge [in 2014] we launched an offensive. This year, too, with Operation Black Belt [in the Gaza Strip]. But we decided when we would launch the attack, and we were well-prepared, and we succeeded. That’s proof we aren’t addicted.
“Defence is the base. You can’t win in soccer or basketball without defence. It’s the starting point that allows for victory.”
You are aware that the populace are convinced that the next war will take place above Iron Dome, which will intercept everything, and they can go about their lives as usual.
“That won’t happen. We’ll need to set priorities, like we do with a thousand other things, because at the end of the day, in theory, I’ll have to decide whether to defend Kiryat Shmona or Eilat. I don’t have enough for both places. These are the decisions we’ll have to make.”
Who makes them?
“The senior military echelon makes some, and the government makes others.”
Managing the public’s expectations
Israel’s multilayered air defence includes Iron Dome, designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells; David’s Sling, which counters medium- to long-range rockets and missiles; the Arrow 2 short- and medium-range ballistic missile interceptor, and the Arrow 3 long-range missile interceptor, which is one of the most advanced of its kind in the world.
What do you need for better defence?
“More batteries, more interceptions, more people, and maybe to be more efficient. I need a good defence because if someone wrecks a battery, there goes a city’s protection. We also need variety. When I’m asked why we need so many different systems – Iron Dome, Patriot, David’s Sling, the Arrow, and soon lasers, the answer is that we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. We need variety, we need to spread out. We mustn’t be dependent on one system or one industry.”
How do you envision the [potential] third Lebanon War?
“As very challenging in terms of the amount, variety, and extent of defences that will be required. We’ll be asked to do more from moment to moment. We are preparing for 1,000 missiles a day, maybe more, and we think that we’ll be well-equipped to respond, but it [the war] won’t be like Gaza.”
“That people won’t be able to do their shopping as usual. They’ll have to go into shelters, and know how to behave, and understand that in the next war people will be killed and there will be property damage. And that’s not because we didn’t do the work, but because nothing is perfect. Even with Gaza, I can’t promise that we’ll see the same rate of success. My job isn’t to make promises, but to look at all this modestly and do the maximum to meet people’s expectations of me.”
The public might not understand that.
“I’m convinced the public is intelligent, but that’s why I’m giving this interview and saying, ‘air defences aren’t everything.’ There is also how the public handles itself, there is the Homefront Command, there are shelters, there’s luck – and yes, there will be hits and people could be killed. I’m not saying that to cover myself, but to manage expectations. And aside from all that, we also have intelligence and offence and additional capabilities.
“I don’t want to get into statistics and models, but I want to hand the dilemma over to the other side. He should decide whether, given these rates of interception, it’s worthwhile for him to start a war, knowing that most of the rockets he fires won’t hit their targets.”
You’re saying that Israel’s air defences have become a deterring factor.
“Yes. It’s not a question of capabilities, because last May we saw Hamas fire nearly 800 rockets in a day. It’s a matter of making decisions because it’s forced the other side to weigh every incident carefully.”
One of the main challenges facing the IDF today is Hezbollah’s precision missile project.
“They want to be able to hit any point in Israel within 10 metres,” Kochav explains. “That’s a significant threat, which Israel is trying to eradicate in any way it can.”
Will you be able to handle it?
“We have a response, mainly in David’s Sling system, but there are certainly challenges – for example, knowing which missile out of a volley is the precision one that can hit us.”
People before machines
Kochav loves military history in general and the history of air defences in particular. His eyes light up when he talks about the changes in the program he oversees since the time he became attached to the IDF’s Artillery Corps.
“It took Israel time to decide to invest in defence, and maybe reality dictated that decision,” he says.
“Building shelters, erecting fences. There are still arguments in the General Staff about where to invest stray shekels – in defensive or offensive capabilities. The answer, like always, is both. It’s all a question of amounts.”
Kochav says that for years, Israel worked on finding solutions to problems. “Was the Al-Hussein missile posing a threat? We’d bring in the Patriot. Scuds? We’ll develop the Arrow. Katyushas in the Second Lebanon War? We’ll invent Iron Dome. Precision missiles? We’ll make David’s Sling. Does Iran have Shahab missiles? We’ll build the Arrow 3.”
But he wants to pioneer a systemic solution, one that focuses on the nation as a whole. “It would be multilayered integrated defence, with a single uniform infrastructure… with a uniform management of interceptions. That way, we can add one and one and get three. Today, we get to two, at best.”
Kochav also knows that such an initiative would demand sweeping changes. Infrastructure, systems, people, and countries would have to be integrated. And a lot of money would have to be invested.
“People say to me, even here at home, that I’m crazy. They ask why we need it. That if I ended the year with a 94% interception rate, why make changes? And I say that if we don’t change and don’t adapt ourselves, we won’t meet the challenge.”
“To win. There is a lot of discussion of defeats. I think the word ‘victory’ is more appropriate. For that to happen, my mission is to protect the nation’s skies.”
Kochav says that everyone talks about the role of air defence in intercepting rockets. He stresses the role it plays in deterrence.
“That saves more lives than interceptions, because it allows people a chance to get to shelters. Our job is to see that we issue the correct warnings, and avoid false alarms.”
He gives credit to the personnel first, and then to the systems. “My mom is sure that the Colour Red siren [warning of an incoming missile attack] is automatic, and so is Iron Dome. She really thinks that. I go nuts when I hear on the radio that Iron Dome intercepted something. What is Iron Dome? There are soldiers behind it. It’s not automatic.”
“Do you remember the mother in Beersheva who ran into a shelter with her kids in the middle of the night, a moment before a rocket hit their house [in October 2018]? It was someone named Lt. Romi Nativ who saved her life. He made the decision to sound an early, slightly longer alert in Beersheva. They are in the 40 second range, and he gave them 57 seconds, and that’s apparently what saved them. Incidentally, he also decided not to wake up the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area, even though they were targeted, too.”
Still, it’s quite some technology.
“No doubt. Every one of the systems is a wondrous creation. This summer, I went to Alaska to take part in the test of the Arrow 3. I used to command the Arrow program, and here they intercepted at a distance of hundreds of kilometres, in space, and it wasn’t a fluke because they had three successful interceptions. It’s like you’re watching a movie. It’s incredible. Still, it all comes down to people.”
In January, there were reports of successful tests of the Iron Dome. What were they?
“Another upgrade to the system that will allow it to rapidly intercept low-level targets – short-range, as well as rocket volleys – because our goal is to intercept as many as possible over enemy territory to avoid sirens and people being wounded by debris – not to mention [founding Israeli PM David] Ben-Gurion’s concept of bringing the fight to the enemy’s territory.”
Another major breakthrough reported last week was lasers. Israel is now capable of intercepting rockets using a laser. The laser system will undergo a series of tests over the course of this year, and should become operational in the next few years.
“Lasers are our future,” Kochav says. “For years, we’ve been talking about them as a cheaper, available solution. The technological model that has been developed uses electricity, not chemical fuel, and that’s the breakthrough. But in its early stages, the laser will provide localised defence. In any case, it won’t supplant the existing systems – it will add to and complement them.”
Ten or 20 years from now, do you envision a laser screen that intercepts everything fired at us?
“There will be a screen, but it won’t be comprised of just lasers. There will be physical interceptors, and it will cover almost everything and force the other side back to the problem of whether it’s worth their while to invest in a battle that won’t achieve its goals.”
In 2019, Israel’s air defence program found itself facing new challenges. Hamas was constantly trying to test the systems with rockets fired from different ranges, at different heights, and in different numbers. Rockets were fired at one target from a few directions simultaneously, or from one point at several different Israeli towns. Still, the interception rate was impressive – nearly 500 interceptions with a rate of 94.2% for the year and 94.7% during Operation Black Belt, which came after the targeted killing of senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata in November.
“The results were fantastic, but I can’t rest on my laurels, and that won’t always be the case. The fact is, in 2018 we intercepted less than 90% of the rockets.”
“We improved the systems, as well as the training, the level of integration, and our ability to work together. We improved the time from identification [of a rocket fired] to the alert, and we also have more advanced interceptor missiles. Yes, we’re better, but the threat is more dangerous. We’re in a race, and my job is to always be ahead.”
To do that, the nation’s air defences are always on alert. In 2019, they were the most used program in the IDF, and an integral part of every situation assessment and operational plans. Whether it was preparations for attacks from Gaza or secret strikes in Syria, the importance to the home front demanded that the air defence program be looped in on the decision-making process, not to mention usually being the first to put a plan into action.
“It sounds obvious to the public. They heard on the radio that four rockets were fired on Friday evening, and Iron Dome intercepted three of them, and then they go back to dinner. It’s not obvious. We work very hard to allow people to keep living that way. This success rate is the result of hard work, both by people and technology.”
How do you maintain operational readiness in times of calm?
“A lot of training. We have simulations, including on the operational batteries. I upload a scenario into the simulator, and practice. I do surprise drills. I talk with people. We’ve established a new training unit that is based at the IDF’s air defence school, which trains our people.”
With all the operational alerts, how much do you get to train?
“All the time. We take a battery ‘offline’ and train with it, and not only interceptions. We also practise defence and supply.”
In order to fulfil all its missions, the air defence program has expanded in recent years – it manages more and more varied types of platforms and additional personnel.
Kochav fights for the highest-level people. New IDF recruits see air defences as “lightweight combat,” and many want to serve there. Some don’t realise that if they make it to an Iron Dome battery, they will be serving in the field, under fire, and others don’t meet the qualifications to operate complex technological systems.
One of his most successful solutions has been to integrate women into all roles in air defence. Over 50% of the recent recruits to the program have been women. “Everything here is 50-50. I have the most [gender]-integrated battalions,” Kochav notes.
Limited Israeli superiority
On Sept. 14, 2019, Iran used drones to attack Saudi Arabia’s national oil facilities, causing extensive damage. The incident prompted a higher level of alert for Israel’s air defences, in the event that Iran might execute a similar strike against strategic Israeli targets.
And what have you learned about Iran’s capabilities?
“In that incident, and in the attacks against American bases in Iraq last week, the Iranians showed a highly coordinated strike capability. Can we counter it? I think so. Can I promise 100% success? No way. But it’s a threat we are definitely prepared for.”
The response, Kochav says, comprises intelligence first of all, and then early detection. “The first rule of air defence is discovery. You can’t do anything without knowing, without seeing. That means I need intelligence, most of which we collect ourselves, but the Americans help with some. Air defence is the only field in which there is a signed operational directive with the Americans. Nothing else like it exists.”
What does that mean?
“That there is intelligence and operational cooperation in the field of defence. My counterpart was here recently for some practical operational-operative coordination, should we need it.”
As the IDF’s top man when it comes to missile defences, Kochav is keeping close tabs on the systems the enemy has, especially Syria. “There are countless systems there. They invest a lot more in defence than we do. In terms of size. That can be a challenge, but we have solutions.”
And when you factor in the S-300 system Syria got from Russia, and the S-400 system that the Russian military is operating in the region?
“It’s very significant. They see every target that is fired, and we need to take them into account when we collect intel or attack, which limits our freedom of operation. It limits our superiority and requires us to find solutions.”
You have been following the incident of the Ukrainian plane shot down in Iran. Can you understand how it could have happened?
“Iran was on high alert after the [US airstrike] on Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the attack on American bases in Iraq, and apparently had gotten some warning or intelligence about an American response. That creates tension, at night, and when you add lax open-fire directives and a lack of operational protocol and unprofessionalism to a target that appears to constitute a threat, this is the result.”
Could the same thing happen to you?
“Everything could happen. In terms of facts, after 72 years of operating weapons systems against aircraft and missiles, we have never fired without wanting to. The Israeli Air Force has a centralised command, a high level of professionalism. With us, it doesn’t matter if it’s day or night – we have intelligence and we have high standards. The fact is there is no other place in the world where there are airstrikes and missile interceptions in such a confined space, and civil aviation goes on as usual.”