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Israel's Missile Defense System Is Progressing Steadily
Israel's program had its origins in the 1980s and grew out of concern about Syria's suspected acquisition of chemical weapons. It took on added urgency in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when nearly 40 Iraqi Scud missiles hit the Tel Aviv area.
The Arrow was deployed in 2000, and Israel and the United States have since conducted a joint, biennial missile defense exercise, called Juniper Cobra, to work on integrating the weapons, radars and other systems of the two countries. Israel, for example, has the advanced U.S. X-Band radar stationed in the Negev desert. Israeli defense industry officials say the country also has almost real-time access to some U.S. satellite data, an important part of its early-warning system.
The next joint exercise is scheduled for October.
As concern shifted to the threat of long-range missiles from Iran -- the countries are about 700 miles apart at the closest point, well within the known range of Iranian missiles -- it also focused on the shorter-range weapons that Hezbollah and Hamas have turned on Israel in the past few years.
The rockets fired by Hezbollah at northern Israel during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war led Israeli officials to accelerate work on a short-range-missile defense system, as did recent Grad strikes against Ashkelon, a Mediterranean city of about 120,000 people and the site of major electricity, desalinization and other facilities.
As it stands, "we have no defenses, no shelters, no public buildings being protected," said Alan Marcus, the city's director of strategic planning and architect of a plan developed to cope with the about 80 missile strikes since 2006.
"What do we do? Close the beach and tell people there might be a missile attack?" Marcus said.
Beginning next year, Israeli officials say, the Iron Dome system should provide some relief. The mobile launchers initially will be placed around towns and facilities near the Gaza Strip, but they ultimately may be deployed in locations nationwide.
The system has sparked some controversy. It has not, for example, proved effective against mortar shells and could leave the towns closest to the border areas vulnerable, including chief targets such as Sderot. Critics have pushed for other systems, including a chemical-laser one that Israel was jointly developing with the United States, or the rapid-fire Phalanx guns that can be used to protect key facilities such as power plants.
There is also concern that militant groups could try to overwhelm the system by firing large barrages of comparatively cheap, homemade Qassams -- perhaps not expecting to do damage so much as forcing Israel to spend tens of thousands of dollars a shot to knock them down.
But Israeli officials say systems such as Iron Dome are crucial to the country's military planning -- in terms of preventing damage and diminishing the need to retaliate.
Although many of the rockets fired by Hamas and Hezbollah land on empty land, "one of these times one of the Qassams will hit a bus, and then the government will have to make a decision" about how to react, said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. "There is a bigger issue here than how much it costs. It is going to give us some answers."