Debate grows over how to defend Sderot

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 19, 2008

An intense political, financial and media battle is raging within the Israeli defence establishment over what system should be bought to counter the missile threat to Sderot and Ashkelon.

According to one senior defence ministry official, a number of retired Israeli generals are on retainer as consultants of American defence firms, interested in selling their system to Israel.

“Some of these generals are acting as lobbyists,” the source told the JC, “being paid hefty retainers by American companies who want to sell their system, and not only make money, but also get the stamp of approval of the IDF which will help them sell it to other countries.”

According to the source, the general-lobbyists include at least one former commander of the air force.

The Israeli Defence Ministry announced on Sunday that a successful preliminary test took place last week of the Iron Dome system, by the Rafael Armaments Authority. The integrated system includes radar, tracking computers and interceptor missiles.

But over the last few weeks, the Israeli media have been inundated with stories highlighting the Iron Dome’s shortcomings: that it would only be ready in two more years, each interceptor missile costs tens of thousands of dollars, and the system is only effective from a range of four kilometres upwards, while many of the Kassams are launched from around the town Beit Hanoun, much closer than four kilometres. These reservations have been sourced to senior IDF officers, both serving and retired.

The main competing system is the Nautilus laser interceptor system, offered by the Northrop-Grumman American defence giant. Israel cooperated in developing this system as a counter-measure to the Katyusha rockets that shelled the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, but the programme was discontinued. Nautilus’s proponents claim that a new version, called Skyguard, could be ready in 18 months and cost less than Iron Dome.

The Defence Ministry has hit back, claiming that Iron Dome was selected by experts after serious deliberation and that the system was being attacked by “sources with financial interest” who were trying to force Israel to purchase Skyguard.

“The American system is based today on outdated technology,” said the Defence Ministry source, “and the new system they are offering in the future is based on technology that still doesn’t exist.”

Even so, the ministry had to acknowledge such pressures. Its director-general, Pinhas Buchris, travelled to the United States this week to examine the Nautilus once again.

Last updated: 8:34am, June 3 2008