Last Friday, the face of war changed forever. On that date, the Hamas terrorist group launched a long-range rocket from Gaza at Jerusalem. There are also unconfirmed reports that several rockets also were fired at Tel Aviv, Israel’s main urban center and home to some 40 percent of the country’s population. The Fajr 5 rocket has a range of approximately 45 miles and a 375lb explosive warhead. The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system is believed to have intercepted several Fajr 5 rockets while one or more were allowed to land in open areas.
The missile threat to Israel is impressive. The vast majority of the 1,000 rockets Hamas is estimated to have launched against Israel since the most recent conflict began are short-range (10-12 mile) home-made Qassams. In addition, Hamas has hundreds of Grad artillery rockets with a maximum range of 25 miles and a limited number of Fajr 5s. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is estimated to have as many as 30,000 rockets, most with ranges between 25 and 50 miles but some with ranges of more than 100 miles and warheads exceeding 1,000lbs.
The use of rockets and missiles against urban centers has been a relatively rare phenomenon. There were the German V-1 and V-2 attacks during World War Two. During the last years of the Iran-Iraq war both sides used long-range SCUD missiles against each other’s major urban centers. Finally, Iraq launched a series of SCUD attacks against Israel during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, although it is difficult to say for sure what the intended targets of these attacks were.
In the future, attacks on urban centers may become much more common. Not only are rockets, ballistic and even cruise missiles proliferating among nations and non-state actors alike – and improving in their range, accuracy and lethality – but urban centers are growing the world over. At the same time, military forces and installations are becoming more mobile, more distributed or better protected. Rockets and missiles may be the next decade’s equivalent of the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. But unlike the IED, these systems can be employed offensively, across borders.
For obvious reasons, Israel has become the gold standard when it comes to missile defense. In the face of much criticism and second-guessing, it has pursued a layered defense system coupled to a robust civil defense capability. The operation of Iron Dome, which has achieved an 85 percent success rate for intercepts attempted, proves decisively and dramatically that missile defenses can work. Indirectly, it also proves the validity of the Reagan era Star Wars concept which was never intended to defeat all attacking ballistic missiles but only to deny the Soviet Union the ability to execute a structured attack against the U.S. homeland. Combining Iron Dome with the David Sling and Arrow systems will give Israel a multi-tier defense against rockets and missiles of all ranges.
The U.S. and its allies need to pay attention to what is going on in the Middle East. Threats from rockets and missiles are becoming the norm across the spectrum of conflict. The Pentagon can no longer take a lackadaisical attitude towards missile defenses. Given how much of the Israeli program has been built with U.S. money and technical assistance, our military should be acquiring similar capabilities to deploy layered defenses.