Israel is small and its skies are periodically packed with fighters, airliners, helicopters, unmanned aircraft, missiles and rockets. The increasing complexity is driving planners to seek ever more coordination and synchronization of air, space, land and sea operations.
“De-confliction is more complicated than you could possibly imagine,” says Col. T, executive officer of the 167th Active Air Defense Wing at Palmachim AB south of Tel Aviv. (The officer's full name has been withheld for security reasons.) The wing already operates Arrow, Iron Dome and Patriot III air defense systems. Soon they will be supplemented with David's Sling and Arrow III.
“There has been a huge transformation involved in shifting from anti-aircraft defense to active air defense,” says T. “We're now a year into the change and we're not yet at the end of the process.”
Two issues triggered the shift: A dramatic change in threats, particularly in the last five years, and the move to an operational concept of active defense combined with a new arsenal of weapons to make it viable.
“Defense has become more complicated because of the numbers and categories of rockets and missiles involved used by states and nongovernment organizations such as Hezbollah [in Lebanon] and Hamas [in Gaza],” says T. “Moreover, the threats have become multidirectional. They can come from Egypt's Sinai [peninsula], Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and maybe other directions.” Certainly there have been concerns in recent years that terrorists might try to launch missiles and rockets from ships. So the first trigger for the change was the tactical ballistic missile.”
As a result, Israel has had to generate some new strategies. This produced the active-defense concept, the procurement of off-the-shelf weapons such as Patriot III, and some new weapons like Arrow III (for high-altitude ballistic missiles) and Iron Dome for low-altitude rockets and missiles. Arrow III has been undergoing flight tests, and four Iron Dome batteries have been fielded, each with a fixed radar, control center and up to three launchers.
“In the next few years, the [Israeli] air force is going to double the size of Iron Dome to 10 batteries,” says Brig. Gen Amikam Norkin, the new chief of IAF operations. “Then we will go to David's Sling [medium altitude] and Arrow III [very high altitude].”
Regarding the missile attacks from Gaza and the Sinai, Norkin says that “every week we learn something new” about enemy tactics and Iron Dome capabilities.” Last year, the operational intercepts included an increasingly long series of firings and larger simultaneous launches.
“The last time, four Iron Dome units were engaged,” says Norkin. “The fourth battery was installed only two weeks before it was needed. Because of the [short] distances, the [IAF] never has much time.” In one phase of the missile attacks, there were over 200 rockets fired into Israel in two days.”
Norkin describes a big challenge in how to direct all the air defense units, like an orchestra, over such a small area like Gaza and Israel that border each other.
“We recognized in the last 2-3 years that it is much more important for active defense systems to be centralized than earlier anti-aircraft defenses,” says T. The command organization changed from units based on local and geographical tasks to a simpler construct of two wings and two missions.
One wing handles the anti-aircraft mission and the other—the 167th—has responsibility for an active defense. The concept is based on the operational reality that a global perspective is needed to defend the state of Israel from rockets and missiles that could come from anywhere.
Active defense has a new organization, staff and mission as well as an operational blueprint that serves as the compass for building the force, designing the capabilities and focusing the concept.
“The ballistic sky is split into two pieces, the upper and lower tiers,” says T. “It presents a great challenge to sharing all the same information, detection cues, targeting data, interception points, as well as the debris and other aftereffects that follow an interception. The solution is a centralized command and control that manages, coordinates and synchronizes the two tiers.”
Passive defense constitutes another crucial element, under the home-front command authority. That means protecting civilians and military personnel with bunkers and other structures wherever they are. There is also an offensive capability to provide counter-battery fire on launch sites. Yet another piece is early warning.
“You have to get the information [about an attack] out quickly . . . to the civilians and to ensure the time needed to attack the launch team,” says T. “The last piece is deterrence to ensure that if the enemy has the capability, he won't use it.”
More capabilities are envisioned.
“About two years from today, we will have David's Sling and Arrow III capabilities,” says T. “In some unique and specific cases, we also have partners in the U.S. Army who have joined us in part of our mission.”
In fact, U.S. officials confirm that a combined exercises is scheduled for year-end.
“It's part of our relationship with the U.S. and it's part of the [active defense] that the U.S. becomes a well-coordinated and synchronized part of the battlefield environment.”
The Iron Dome anti-missile system is the newest element of active defense.
“It is a young system with 15 months of operational experience,” says T. “Unfortunately, every 3-4 months there is a new escalation [of rocket attacks] from Gaza to Israel. Imagine the environment without Iron Dome. During the second Lebanon war in 2006, in 33 days there were 4,200 rockets launched. Around 2 million civilians were without any active defense.
“The way it works today is for [Iron Dome] to be very mobile, to be capable of changing position in hours and thereby offering key leaders more options,” the colonel says. “It's my job to see that the batteries are in the right place. There are no rules. I don't want to prepare myself for the last escalation, but to be ready for the next.”
Israeli aerospace officials contend that Iron Dome has a success rate of 90-95%. But Defense Minister Ehud Barak asserts that the number is lower. “The Iron Dome system has been proven to be . . . extremely effective intercepting more than 80 percent of incoming missiles [while ignoring] those that are not going to hit real targets.” So Barak's statement is ambiguous about whether the remaining 20% of enemy missiles were missed or ignored.
“The numbers are nice, but they are the past,” says T. “The next escalation is like a soccer game. It starts at 0-0.”
Norkin says the IAF's trials in creating an air defense network are only just beginning. As Israel stands up a new cyberforce, the capability has to be designed to be able to reach all the way into the tactical level and into these air defenses. Those networks offer attack pathways to hackers unless they have adequate cyberdefenses. Another crucial part of the task will be, for budgetary reasons, to refrain from creating new organizations or develop new weapons.
“We shouldn't develop new tools that we can get from other organizations,” says Norkin. “We need to synchronize cyber with other IAF capabilities. We have to build headquarters and command and control to work in the correct way to bring all the systems together. We can't separate attack and defense. We have to put them in the same room for real-time operations.”