Israel’s missile defense conundrum: size and geometry

By Angelo M. Codevilla

Successful ground-based missile defense means destroying the incoming missile or warhead far enough away from the target to protect the target. If the warhead is chemical/biological, or nuclear, that distance must be great. For interceptor rockets to intercept missiles/warheads incoming at high speeds (the longer the distance whence they come the higher the altitude they must reach, and hence the higher their speed of arrival) at significant distances from the target, the interceptor rockets must be launched as early as possible after the offensive missiles were launched. This can happen only to the extent that the interceptor rockets are programmed with accurate information about the incoming missile’s trajectory – information that is acquired by instruments that can “see” the offensive missiles immediately after they are launched.

All ground-based missile defense systems everywhere must deal with the primordial problem of getting that information as quickly as their geography and political access to territory may allow. The essence of the problem arises from the earth’s curvature and from the fact that radars cannot see accurately except on a straight line tangent to the horizon. Therefore, a vast country like Russia, which can place radars at borders far from its centers of population and place its interceptor rockets near those centers and other valuable targets, can count on those interceptors receiving fire-control information in time sufficient for the interceptors to meet the incoming far enough away to erect the targets.

In this fundamental regard, Israel is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Lack of size matters. Radars located anywhere in this tiny country have scarcely any time to see and track missiles coming at slow speeds from nearby before it is nearly too late for interceptors to meet them far enough away. That is the principal reason why the PAC-2 missile defense of the 1991 worked as it did.

The “Iron dome” defense is another matter, since the “incoming” were artillery rockets, short range and very slow. It would be useless against SCUDS, never mind anything faster. Timely information is the problem. The Arrow system deals with it – insofar as co-located radar can – by the radar’s impressive power/aperture product. That makes the system adequate for incoming missiles of a certain speed, and hence range (anything from Syria, for example). But, for anything faster and from farther away, geometry trumps the Arrow radar. Hence, the system would have to depend on radar info from US ships in the Mediterranean or from those ships themselves with their SM-2 interceptors.

This basic problem endures. A generation ago, the technology for interceptor guidance exact enough to pick out the SCUD’s warhead from the whole missile did not exist. Now it is routine. Then, interceptors’ terminal guidance had some difficulty dealing with late mid-course maneuvering re entry vehicles. Not now. But technology can never overcome the fundamentals of ground-based defense. That is why, for all countries but especially for Israel, shifting information systems to orbit is essential.

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