COLUMN-A battleground for weapons of the future

Fri Nov 30, 2012 5:44pm EST

By David Axe

Nov 30 (Reuters) - More than a week after a U.S.-Egyptian brokered ceasefire brought a fragile peace to Gaza, military analysts are busily assessing the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Their goal: Apply lessons from the eight-day battle to weaponry still in development.

Israel's frequent conflicts with its Arab neighbors have historically been proving grounds for the latest in battlefield technology. Arab-Israeli wars inspired the first operational aerial drones, radar-evading stealth warplanes and projectile-defeating armor. All are now staples of the world's leading militaries.

Analysts now say this recent fighting could spur the proliferation of highly accurate, fast-firing defenses against rocket barrages, a threat that has long flummoxed military planners. The solution could be inspired by Israel's now-famous Iron Dome, a rocket-intercepting missile system that shot down hundreds of Hamas' rockets before they could strike Israeli settlements.

"Following the campaign, other nations are expressing interest in this capability," says Tamir Eshel, editor of the Website, Defense Update, who is also an Israeli defense consultant.

The United States, however, has balked at the expense of using missiles to shoot down missiles. The Defense Department could copy Israel's rocket-defense strategy but with a potentially cheaper twist: "directed energy" weapons, based on lasers.

"Both the Israelis and the U.S.," said George Lewis, a senior research associate in the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University, "have considered lasers for these kinds of systems, and the U.S. is still developing them. They're just not quite there yet."

The recent combat in Gaza, however, could help push the technology forward. It's happened before.

Consider, in six days of furious fighting in 1967, Israeli troops captured territory from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, massively expanding the border of the tiny Jewish state. Seven years later on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Arab forces attacked.

The 1973 Yom Kippur war was a shock for the once technologically superior Israeli forces. Soviet-supplied missiles took a heavy toll on Israeli tanks and warplanes.

The SA-6 surface-to-air missile was particularly devastating. "The SA-6 would fly out parallel to the desert floor then pitch up at you," explained Barry Watts, a former Air Force officer now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy organization, "and it didn't have a smoke trail. The Israelis lost a lot of airplanes to it."

The U.S. Defense Science Board conducted a study of the '73 war and concluded that in any future conflict, American planes would "have a real challenge getting though air defenses." The board recommended development of a new kind of bomber that would evade the SA-6, by being essentially invisible to its supporting radar.

The result was the Lockheed F-117, the world's first stealth aircraft. "The Yom Kippur War was the major inspiration," said Bill Sweetman, author of "Lockheed Stealth" and "Ultimate Fighter: Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter."

Today the Air Force is attempting, at great cost, to build a frontline fleet composed almost entirely of stealth fighters and bombers - including the F-22, the F-35, the B-2 and the new Long Range Strike Bomber still on the drawing board.

Russia, China and Japan are also designing stealth warplanes.

Other radical new weapon systems that emerged from the Yom Kippur War include special "reactive" vehicle armor that explodes outward, destroying incoming projectiles. That armor, along with other Israeli-designed vehicle protection, is now standard on the most popular American- and Russian-made ground vehicles.

The first combat-grade Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, were also rapidly designed by Israeli munitions manufacturers in order to avoid exposing reconnaissance pilots to enemy defenses, as happened in '73.

The 10-foot-long Mastiff drone was unpopular - until thoroughly proven in tests. "Air force and army intelligence adopted it with much enthusiasm," Eshel recalls. The Americans bought upgraded versions that are still in use today.

In the late '70s, Abraham Karem, one of Israel's leading drone inventors, immigrated to California, hoping to tap the much larger U.S. weapons market. Using his home as a workshop, he produced the first prototype of what would become today's General Atomics Predator and Reaper drones, perhaps the major weapons in America's global counter-terrorism campaign.

Inside the Dome

Some analysts expect Israel's Iron Dome rocket defense to have an equally profound impact on weapons development. Each Rafael-built Iron Dome system consists of a radar and three reloadable packs of 20 missiles, plus a command trailer. The radar, a sophisticated model designed by Elta, detects incoming rockets and other low-altitude projectiles and cues a maneuverable missile to intercept.

Iron Dome was developed by Israel, with some U.S. funding, after the 2006 Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon. "Israel was defenseless against massive Hezbollah rocket fire," Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, wrote in the newsletter, Israel Hayom. "A year later, Hamas rocket-fire on southern Israeli communities intensified and the need arose to develop a system to defend against short-range missiles."

Eight Iron Dome systems have now been funded. Two were deployed in 2011. An Israeli official told Eshel that Hamas fired approximately 1,500 rockets during the recent fighting, of which 146 misfired or fell inside Gaza and 875 exploded in unoccupied areas. Iron Dome intercepted 421. Just 58 rockets penetrated the defenses and fell in populated areas.

Six Israelis died and hundreds were injured, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

U.S. analysts have been watching and listening. Since the beginning of the Iraq War the Pentagon has looked for ways to defend against intensive rocket strikes. As a stopgap, the military modified fast-firing naval guns for ground use. In the United States, however, purpose-designed defenses like Iron Dome have failed to get past the prototype stage.

"People have been pointing to Iron Dome," said David Wright, a missile-defense expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "and saying it seems to show that kind of stuff can work." But many are concerned about the high cost.

Cornell's Lewis estimates Hamas' rockets cost at most $50,000 apiece. Each Iron Dome missile costs up to $90,000, according to a March report from the Congressional Research Service. "We assumed the missile approach to be too expensive," said Lewis of Cornell University. "It's astonishing that the Israelis are doing this with missiles."

The U.S. has tinkered with solid-state lasers as a rocket defense that's cheaper per shot fired - just a few dollars per blast, for some models. But Watts, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, notes that funding for the Pentagon's short-range laser development has been declining for several years, and is now a minimal $90 million in the most recent budget. "The U.S. military," Watts said, "is just not serious about really reaching critical mass in directed-energy technology."

Not for a lack of options: Defense giant Lockheed Martin this week announced the first successful test of its Area Defense Anti-Munitions system, a 10-kilowatt laser meant for shooting down rockets, other munitions and enemy drones.

"Directed-energy stuff," Watts said of these new laser weapons, "we ought to be pushing it, and the fact is we're not." But Israel's experience shooting down hundreds of rockets - and saving perhaps hundreds of lives - could redirect U.S. technology efforts. Even if it comes at great expense. "It should," said Watts, "have an impact on what we're doing."

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