Even as the United States and Israel were engaged in their largest ever missile defense exercise, life stepped in to underscore the volatility of the region and the need for continuing close cooperation between these two democracies. 1,000 U.S. Army soldiers are on the ground in Israel operating Patriot anti-missile batteries and practicing countermeasures to chemical/biological weapons. An additional 2,500 U.S. personnel in Europe also participated in various portions of the effort. U.S. defensive systems, including Aegis-equipped U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea, were integrated with the Israel missile defense architecture which consists of several variants of the Arrow high altitude interceptor system, Israeli-owned and operated Patriots and the short-range Iron Dome interceptor system.
There is nowhere in the world better suited to exercising missile defense systems than Israel which has been bombarded by thousands of missiles and rockets of varying ranges over the past twenty years. By some estimates, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza possess as many as 30,000 rockets and missiles capable of hitting Israel. Thousands of these are long-range systems capable of carrying warheads with hundreds of pounds of high explosives.
As the exercise was underway, life intervened. Islamic militants in Gaza launched some 75 short-range rockets into Israel. The Iron Dome system intercepted some and the rest were allowed to fall harmlessly into open areas of southern Israel. In response, the Israeli Air Force conducted retaliatory strikes against selected targets. It is also worth noting that just a few weeks ago, the Israeli Air Force shot down a drone of unknown origin that had penetrated that country’s airspace.
At the same time as this exercise and the events surrounding it were taking place, the annual national convention of the Association of the U.S. Army was underway in Washington, D.C. In their appearances at the convention, senior Army leaders, including General Raymond Odierno, the Chief of Staff, described a vision of their Services’ future which involved responding to the full spectrum of threats, particularly so-called hybrid adversaries similar in character and armaments to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
The juxtaposition of events in Israel and in Washington creates a certain irony. If the Army wants to be relevant in dealing with the threats of the future, it needs to invest more in air and missile defenses. Yet, the Army has been reluctant to make the commitment and put its money where its vision is. The Army is allowing the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), which was to be a highly mobile, very agile defense against ballistic and cruise missiles, low flying aircraft and even UAVs, to die a quiet death without any effort to leverage the technologies developed in this program to build a more capable U.S. defense system. The Army is cutting the number of batteries of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems it plans to deploy. In addition, the Army has refused to use money Congress specifically allocated for a field test of the JLENS, a system with two tethered aerostats that can provide long-range detection, tracking and even targeting of ballistic and cruise missile threats. When it comes to defenses against short-range rockets, the Army is virtually unarmed even though the Israeli Iron Dome system is a cooperative program with the U.S. The same is true for defenses against drones.