Preemptive Move? Israel's Missile Shield

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Iran's nuclear ambitions are growing and Israel faces the threat of rocket and missile attacks from almost all sides. As the international community watches and waits on diplomatic efforts, the Israeli military is working on a sophisticated way to protect itself.

Israel's missile defense shield is one of the most advanced in the world. And it needs to be since the country is within striking distance of many enemies.

Iran has long-range missiles that could carry nuclear or chemical warheads. Syria holds ballistic missiles that can strike all of Israel. Both nations support the Lebanese-based Hezbollah.

The Not-So Friendly Skies

In 2006, Hezbollah launched nearly 4,000 rockets across the border from Lebanon virtually paralyzing northern Israel. Dozens of Israeli civilians were killed and thousands more wounded. Nearly a third of Israel's population was forced to live in shelters.

Since then, Israel says Hezbollah has re-armed with tens of thousands of rockets.

Military intelligence also points southward to the Gaza Strip where Hamas successfully tested a rocket recently that could reach Israel's largest commercial city - Tel Aviv.

Years ago, Israel built a strong air force to protect its skies from aerial attack. Then, according to Defense Consultant Uzi Rubin, Israel's enemies changed strategies -- investing in missiles instead of aircraft. That forced Israel to also rethink its strategy.

"In strategic terms, we are rebalancing the strategic balance with the missile defense, that's the significance of our missile shield," Rubin told CBN News.

Rubin added the shield would prevent damages and save lives because it provides military options against the enemy.

"He fires at you and you have either to take it or to escalate and go into some kind of a counter action," Rubin said. "Now when you have your own defense, you can absorb an attack. You can decide on your own if and when you want to escalate."

A Trio of Defense

Israel's missile shield will eventually include three separate systems that will be linked and function together.

Israel began work 20 years ago on what is known as the Arrow. It is now a joint operational Israeli-U.S. project. It has been tested successfully numerous times.

"This is our strategic missile defense system, which is now being enhanced as we are talking with the new upper tier, more capable missile called the Arrow 3," Rubin said.

In one Arrow test, a missile target simulating an Iranian Shihab-3 is launched from an aircraft. The radar locates the target, transmits key information to the launcher, which fires a test interceptor.

The next level of protection under development is known as David's Sling - also a joint Israeli-U.S. project.

Named for its Biblical ancestor, David's Sling is smaller, more agile and would also serve as a backup to the Arrow.

"It can be tied up to that so if you have a threat coming down you can try to hit it first with an Arrow 3, another time with an Arrow 3, another time with an Arrow 2 and then the David's Sling below. Four layers," Rubin said.

Completing this shield is the Israeli Iron Dome.

Hamas fires its rockets from the Gaza Strip into nearby Israeli communities. In the future, developers expect Iron Dome to stop those rockets before they ever crash into Israel.

An 'Iron' Shelter'

In the last four years nearly 8,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza. Many of them have landed in Sderot. Noam Bedein of the Sderot Media Center described the routine of living under rocket threat.

"By just driving into Sderot you have already the routine of putting down your window, you know turning off your music, taking off your seatbelt because you're always alert to jump out of your car," Bedein said.

"Hearing a mother, by the way, just a couple of months ago that while she was driving around the town, the siren just went off and she had to jump out of her car. She went into her backseat needing to choose what child to grab on first so she could run as close as she can to the shelter," he said.

The Iron Dome could be the key part of this overall system when it becomes operational next year. According to developers, it is relatively inexpensive, functions in all weather conditions and can handle numerous salvos effectively.

A single unit can protect a medium-sized city like greater Haifa and could also be deployed in Northern Israel which was targeted during the 2006 war.

During that conflict, City Manager Eli Cohen said Kiryat Shemona - a city of more than 20,000 residents - basically ceased to function.

"We are always preparing for this activity -- that the border will heat up and we'll get hit. Once in a while we have a reminder. We had false alarms and in parallel there were also Katyushas (rockets) that fell," Cohen told CBN News.

Not Losing the War

From her apartment, Marcia Brown watched in 2006 as rockets fell in the city. She says an anti-rocket system would make a huge difference.

"It would take a tremendous strain off the population, off of the systems," Brown told CBN News. "If, assuming this really works as well as it does, a situation like 2006 wouldn't occur the way it did. We would be able to deploy these things and a quarter of a million people would not have to live in fear and underground."

Experts agree: no missile defense system can provide foolproof protection - some missiles will get through. But while this won't win the war, it could prevent Israel from losing it.

*Originally published December 10, 2009. 

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CBN News
Julie Stahl and Chris Mitchell

Julie Stahl and Chris Mitchell

CBN News Jerusalem Bureau

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