WASHINGTON — Israel’s ability to shoot down hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas militants this past week has been hailed as a breakthrough in missile defense. But, military analysts warn, the real challenge is only beginning.
Unlike the homemade, rudimentary rockets used by Hamas, thousands of sophisticated missiles with greater ranges and payloads are being stockpiled in Lebanon by Hezbollah, another militant group. Israel’s leaders, who consider these weapons and longer-range missiles from Iran potential threats, have turned to engineers from Waltham-based Raytheon Co. to help develop the next-generation interceptor missile.
A critical test of the system, called the Stunner, is set for Israel’s Negev Desert in coming days.
Israelis are counting on the missile to become the centerpiece of their defense shield, known as David’s Sling. US officials involved in the program and several independent specialists said the engineering challenge they face is aptly captured by the reference to the Old Testament mismatch between David and Goliath.
“The problem you run into is it is a much more difficult target, which means your missile interceptor needs to be very capable,” said Theodore A. Postol, professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former adviser to the US Navy.
David’s Sling is designed to complement Israel’s current system, dubbed Iron Dome, which destroyed nearly 400 incoming rockets from Gaza in the latest conflict. Iron Dome batteries are outfitted with a radar sensor designed to determine within seconds of launch which rockets are headed for populated areas. Only then does the system engage the most threatening rockets with a missile, known as the Tamir.
Israeli officials say they had a 90 percent success rate in knocking down such rockets from Gaza. The assertion could not be independently verified.
Hezbollah’s missiles, designed by Iran and Russia and smuggled from Syria, are capable of traveling faster and reaching virtually all of Israel — a range of more than 150 miles. They also contain a guidance system that makes them a greater threat to populated areas, according to officials.
“It is not just Hezbollah,” said Gabriel Scheinmann, a visiting fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington. “There is also the threat of Scud missiles, especially if you are looking at what is going on in Syria,” where a civil war is igniting concerns about that country’s massive stockpile of missiles and chemical weapons. Russian-built Scuds are capable of traveling hundreds of miles and can carry large warheads.
Israel’s defense industry developed the Iron Dome, with $200 million in financing from the United States so far. A US defense bill calls for spending another $600 million for additional batteries and replacement missiles. Raytheon’s role in David’s Sling has been funded by the Israeli firm Rafael, for a total of about $130 million over the past three years, according to public records.
If the system proves viable, additional funding could come from the United States.
The technology “is designed to defeat a variety of short-range ballistic missiles, large caliber rockets and cruise missiles,” according to Raytheon.
One major difference, according to experts, is that the new interceptor missile should be able to be redirected in mid-flight, to account for changes in the trajectory of the incoming weapon. Under the Iron Dome system, once the operator fires the interceptor missile, its course cannot be modified.
John B. Patterson, a spokesman for Raytheon Missile Systems, based in Tucson, Ariz., declined to comment.
“They are working hard to get David’s Sling operational,” said a Raytheon official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the project or the upcoming test in Israel. “The hope is it will be able to knock out a variety of targets.”
Raytheon has not been involved in Iron Dome.
It was Raytheon whose Patriot missile batteries — initially designed to shoot down aircraft — were deployed to Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War when Iraq was launching Scud missiles at the Jewish state. While their effectiveness was hailed at the time, later assessments concluded the system was not particularly effective.
The Patriot system has been upgraded and is in the arsenal of several nations, including Israel, though it is not considered ideally suited for the country’s close quarters with its neighbors. The response time to deflect an incoming missile is exceedingly small, requiring a more sophisticated system.
Israel is also working with Boeing on a more sophisticated system known as Arrow 3, designed to intercept missiles that can travel hundreds, even thousands of miles. It is feared that Iran or North Korea could someday mount a nuclear warhead on such missiles.
The success of the Iron Dome system has energized missile defense advocates, who contend its success rate validates the decades-old vision of being able to shoot down a missile with another missile.
That vision, first elevated by President Reagan during the Cold War, has been controversial. The United States has spent hundreds of billions trying to achieve success.
Max Boot, a defense policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a widely read column in Commentary magazine this week that “the latest Gaza war is only a few days old, but already one conclusion can be drawn: missile defense works.
“This is only the latest vindication for the vision of Ronald Reagan,” he added.
Talk radio host Neal Boortz has posted about the Iron Dome system to his more than 100,000 followers on Twitter. “That’s the Star Wars technology developed under Reagan that the left absolutely HATED. Thought you ought to know.”
But technical experts called such statements misleading, pointing out that the most sophisticated missiles that can travel across continents and rely on satellite guidance systems are generations removed from the low-tech rockets that have been screeching into Israel.
For example, the next level of missiles, such as those designed to be intercepted by the new Raytheon weapon, travel “about four and a half times faster” than Hamas’s rockets while an ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile, “is 13 or 14 times faster,” said Postol, of MIT. “We are not even close to being able to hit those in combat. We don’t know how to tell the difference between real missiles and decoys” — an assertion that was recently backed up by an official Pentagon study.
Kingston Reif, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington, agreed the comparisons are more than a little stretch.
The Gaza rockets “don’t operate outside the atmosphere, which eliminates a potential huge stumbling block,” he said.
But the more immediate threat to Israel is seen as something in between the superpower-type missiles being developed by Iran and North Korea and the makeshift ones in Gaza. And for that reason, a lot is riding on the new Raytheon-built missile.
As one Israeli commentator, referring to the pending test in Negev Desert with a dummy missile, put it, “very many eyes in Israel and the US will be glued to the monitors.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org