By David Axe
Nov 30 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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."