Israel has been examining the feasibility of a fast-track project to develop a system that could protect communities from short-range missile and rocket attacks.

Officials said the Defense Ministry has sought options for the fast-track development of a system that could intercept Palestinian Kassam-class short-range missiles as well as Hizbullah surface-to-surface rockets. They said the ministry would spend at least 50 million shekels, or $11 million, to determine the feasibility of short-range missile defense before deciding whether to advance to the engineering and development stage.

The ministry’s decision, officials said, marked an acknowledgement that Israel could not count on the near-term development of a laser-based anti-missile system. Officials said the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, developed jointly by Israel and the United States, would not be completed before 2010.

Officials said the ministry has issued requests for proposals from several Israeli defense contractors for an interim solution to the Kassam threat. The Israeli city of Sderot has been the main target for Kassam gunners in the northern Gaza Strip.

“I don’t want to delude Sderot residents or any other Israeli citizen,” Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron said. “The Israeli defense establishment has not made any breakthrough toward the interception of Kassam missiles during flight, and there is no intention to invest astronomical sums in the technology that would not lead to such a breakthrough.”

The ministry expects the defense firms to submit proposals by November. Officials said this would be followed by the drafting and submission of ministry requirements for the proposed system.

Officials said the focus would be on the development of a battery that could detect Kassam launches and fire a small and inexpensive projectile to destroy the missile. They said the solution would seek to utilize existing military assets, including artillery systems, or technology from the Arrow-2 missile defense system.

“The good news is that the Kassam is a slow-moving missile,” an official said. “The bad news is that it is also small and hard to hit through kinetic means.”

In September 2003, the Defense Ministry approached Israeli defense contractors for proposals to counter the Kassam threat. So far, the ministry has allocated funding to Rafael, Israel Armament Development Authority for a system to detect and provide an alert of Kassam launches. The system, deployed in Sderot, was said to have provided civilians with warning of up to 20 seconds of a Kassam landing.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has sought to resolve the Kassam threat by September 2005, when Israel plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Officials said Mofaz was prepared to request more than $100 million for a short-range missile and rocket defense system that could also be deployed against Hizbullah along the northern border with Lebanon.

Oded Amihai, an Israeli physicist and a former Rafael employee, has recommended that the Defense Ministry utilize a THEL prototype developed by Israel and the United States in the late 1990s. In 2001, Israel’s military rejected the system because it was too large for operational use.

In a letter to Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yuval Steinitz, Amihai said THEL represented a near-term solution to the Kassam threat. He cited the THEL’s interception of artillery, mortars and Katyusha rockets in tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and said that within months the system could be modified to intercept Kassams.

US Congress has approved a $46.5 million allocation for the development of the mobile, or M-THEL, in fiscal 2005.

“The defense establishment is leading us down the wrong path, while a preferred solution is within reach,” the letter said. “I find it very strange that despite the Israeli investment of more than $2 billion in the Arrow system, the defense establishment hesitates to participate in the U.S. Army’s attempt to turn the Nautilus [Israel’s name for the THEL] into an operational mobile weapons system. This, while Israel has no solution against the Kassams or Hizbullah’s long-range rockets.”

But in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz on October 19, Yaron ruled out the THEL option. He said Israel has invested $7 million a year in M-THEL, adding that this figure would not be increased.

“There is a still a long way until the system would become operational,” Yaron said. “There is no deadline for the project. And even if this system becomes operational, I would not guarantee that it will be able to intercept Kassams.”

This ran in the October 22nd issue of the Middle East News Line.
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