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Middle East missile economics

Why Israel's military, one of the world's most powerful, can't seem to counter a $500 rocket

For Israel, the best defense against rocket attacks could be a cheap defense.

Even before fighting escalated this month between the Jewish state and Hezbollah , US contractors had been working to supply Israel with countermeasures against the kind of crude but deadly rockets that the Islamist militia has rained down on the north of the country. Ideas include low-cost interceptor missiles from Raytheon Co. , and a laser system from Northrop Grumman Corp. that the US Army has mothballed for lack of development funds.

The efforts reflect some limitations of the Israeli military, despite having Raytheon's Patriot missile in its arsenal. The Patriot, which can cost around $1 million apiece, is hardly a cost-effective way to knock down the $500 to $2,000 Katyusha rockets that Iran has been supplying to Hezbollah, said John E. Pike , director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research group in Alexandria, Va.

``They're not going to waste a Patriot on them," Pike said. ``That's a losing proposition."

Israel's defenses are ill-suited to counter the swarms of rockets used by militants, which may be airborne just a few seconds between their launch and impact, other defense analysts say.

The mismatch is striking since few countries have spent as much as Israel on missile defense. Still, Hezbollah attacks this month have killed more than 50 Israelis, the country says, including both soldiers in ground fighting and civilians killed by rockets.

Lebanese official estimates for the number of people killed by Israeli airstrikes and other attacks against targets in Lebanon ranged as high as 600 people as of Friday, according to the Associated Press.

To combat the rocket threat, companies are building on work they've done for the US military to lower the price of defense.

Raytheon, the Waltham defense contractor, said in May that Israeli officials have asked it to design interceptors against short-range ballistic threats like missiles and rockets.

The system, tentatively called Stunner, isn't likely to be deployed until 2012 or so, according to Israeli officials and Raytheon. The company hopes to receive a $250 million contract to expand the development effort next year, including some US money.

Raytheon declined to give many details on the work, but in a May 24 news release, the company quoted a manager of the Israeli company that is its partner on the project. He stressed the economic value of the project as a way to combat low-cost tactical threats.

``Our interceptor solution fundamentally redefines the performance-cost value equation for terminal missile defense," said David Stemer, general manager of the Rafael Armament Development Authority's missile division. The new missiles, he said, would provide ``hit-to-kill performance at a tactical missile price."

Another measure under discussion with the Israelis is a high-energy laser system made by Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles known as Skyguard.

A version powerful enough to defend cities or troops within a 10-kilometer radius is expected to cost $30 million once production starts, the company says.

Each shot from the laser should cost $1,000, the price of the chemicals needed to create the beam, according to the company and Scott McPheeters , the US Army's assistant project manager for the system.

Since the mid-1990s, the Army, Israel, and Northrop Grumman have spent about $300 million on the laser system, including a version that required three trucks to move.

In tests at White Sands, N.M., it has shot down more than 28 Katyushas and as many as three mortar rounds at once, McPheeters said. ``If you can track it, you can kill it," he said.

McPheeters declined to discuss some details, such as the laser's range , but said it could be an effective defense for the Israelis. Yet both Israel and the US Army have suspended development because of costs, McPheeters said.

He and Israeli officials estimate it would take as much as $500 million and about two more years of work to make it deployable.

Also, it has been hard to persuade commanders to rely on the countermeasure. ``The problem isn't technology, it's cultural," McPheeters said. ``The unbelievability issue is pretty high."

James Hasik, an aerospace management consultant based in Austin, Texas, said that in effect these projects aim to bring the Pentagon's expensive strategic missile-defense programs down to the tactical level of weapons cheap enough to engage the mortars and rockets used by insurgents.

He noted that Northrop Grumman is also developing for US forces a ``Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar" system, which has received increased funding from Congress because it could provide protection against attacks on bases in Iraq.

Currently, the system includes a radar and warning system to detect incoming shells, and officials are exploring how they might add a weapon such as the laser or Raytheon's Phalanx antimissile naval cannon .

One challenge, Hasik said, is whether these systems would do more harm than good if they create too much debris falling onto friendly territory. ``I'm not sure that's altogether well thought out," Hasik said.

Most of the militia's rockets are known as Katyushas -- named by the Soviet troops who first used the designs -- which are low-cost because they are little more than metal tubes carrying an explosive warhead.

According to wire service reports, Hezbollah has fired more than 1,500 such rockets this month. Unlike advanced missiles , Katyushas lack systems to guide them to their targets once airborne . Since the rockets can only be aimed from their firing platforms, they have been denounced by groups such as Human Rights Watch as indiscriminate terror weapons that disproportionately strike civilians. Human Rights Watch has also expressed concerns about Israel's conduct, noting that its airstrikes have killed many civilians.

The new defensive technologies could give Israel a way to respond to militants' attacks without going on the offense .

Since it found itself on the front lines of Saddam Hussein's launches of long-range Scud ballistic missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, Israel has spent heavily to buy Patriot units and to develop another long-range defense known as the Arrow -- whose overall cost is likely to be about $2 billion, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington research group.

Neither the Patriot nor Arrow antimissile system was designed to counter small rockets, however.

Asked about the Patriot units Israel has deployed near the northern port city of Haifa, where at least eight Israelis have been killed in rocket strikes, an Israeli defense ministry spokeswoman, Rachel Naidek Ashkenazi, said the Patriots were sent so their radar sets could warn of approaching attacks -- not as a defense.

Against Hezbollah's rockets, she said, ``There is no system in the world that can deal with this type of threat." Patriots have also been positioned near Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial center.

Philip Coyle, a former chief weapons testing officer for the Pentagon who is now an adviser to the Center for Defense Information, said Israel could press its Patriots into service at least to defend against a single rocket streaking toward a populated area. But Hezbollah has thousands of weapons to fire, he said, which could overwhelm the Patriot defense.

``An analogy is that if I throw a rock at you, and give you fair warning, and loft it up where you can see it, you might be able to bat it away," Coyle said. ``If I throw hundreds of rocks at you at once, without warning, you'll have to be really, really fast to knock them all down. Like Superman dodging raindrops."

Ross Kerber can be reached at kerber@globe.com.

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