Shoot a bullet with a bullet

The success of the Iron Dome in the last Gaza escapade of November 2012 has given hope to fulfill the decade’s long dream of defending against the indefensible; the dream of the gun-slicker in the Wild West to be able to shoot a bullet with a bullet. However there is still a long path to be traversed; despite the success of the Iron Dome it is only a rocket shooting down a rocket; where the ultimate necessity is to be able to shoot down a missile with a missile. This necessity is apparent with both the North Korean threats and with the progressing Iranian capability.

There are distinctive differences between a rocket and a missile; the speed and hence the warning times and the payload; shooting down a rocket with a 10 kg conventional warhead given 2 minutes warning is not the same as shooting down a missile with a nuclear warhead. The collateral damage is the concerning issue. A 10 kg conventional payload exploding mid-air is negligible compared to a nuclear device; the latter raining havoc on communications and dispersing radiation.

 World War II saw the origins of the debate and policy formulation against missiles such as the V2 that came across the Channel from Nazi occupied Europe. The V2 in principle was the technological forefather of the SCUDS that Saddam launched on Israel in 1991. Here the differences can be noted between the Iron Dome against rockets and the PARIOT against missiles such as SCUDS. Statistically success can never be 100%. When the Iron Dome misses a rocket maybe less than 5 people might be killed; however when a PATRIOT misses a SCUD as happened on 25 February 1991 in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War then 28 soldiers were killed; while one can only imagine the consequences if an ARROW missile under development in Israel missed a Soviet era nuclear RT-15 theater ballistic missile.

 So taking the dictum that the best defense is the offence has seen policy and preparation since World War II swing towards threatening any potential enemy with nuclear-armed missiles. There was the understanding that any potential enemy would also appreciate their own defense dilemma against missiles. This would in theory deter an attack. However such defense by deterrence is unable to prevent entities that don’t have nuclear weapons, to prevent acts of terrorism, or to prevent insane or irrational leaders.

 Development of anti-missile systems has also raised fears that an arms race could be triggered or the increased reliance on hair-trigger alerts would heighten the danger of accidental launches. Treaties were agreed upon to prevent the development of anti-missile systems for fear of such escalation. Hence development of the US anti-missile defense systems required President George W Bush, on 13 December 2001, to announce that the US would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia stating “I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government’s ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks.”

 There is also the standard mantras of those opposing the development of ballistic missile defense that: “The man with the bomb in his suitcase is the real problem”. This is clear reference that missile defense could not neutralize the far more likely danger of non-state actors such as terrorists using other means of delivering weapons of mass destruction such as light aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, boats and even a truck driven into an urban area.

 Despite this the dream persists and over the years, many potential forms of missile defense have been voiced to add to this deterrent but have not materialized technologically; such as President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative first announced in 1983. While awaiting the technological developments the arguments persist that: most states that are currently developing long-range ballistic missiles are very poor and lack the necessary know-how to succeed; threat predictions are mainly guesswork and tend to exaggerate the threat; states interested in acquiring ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction have their regional rivals in mind; and if Israel should be blackmailed by a missile-wielding rogue state, the Israel strategic deterrence would be sufficient to dissuade the adversary from using his assets.

 On the other hand to point to the existence of one problem is not to deny the existence of another similar problem. Long lead times for the research and development of any weapon systems means that research and development has to be ongoing to introduce weapons against potential threats 20 years from now. This research and development is essential since there is no doubt that diplomacy has failed to prevent many states from aiming to develop or acquiring weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

 To this end foreign policy and defense policy are intertwined dependent upon a technologically feasible missile defense system – national or theater  A deployed missile defense system would also be a relief mechanism for military strategists to contemplate in strategic terms that a missile defense system, once deployed, could re-enable certain offensive military missions dormant since the advent of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles during the Cold War. This may take the form of a preemptive strike to eliminate weapons of mass destruction or even to enforce such measures as sanctions on countries that possess the capability to launch ballistic missiles.

The target countries are not relevant to such a debate. The specific technology and deployment of such a system is not relevant to this debate. It could be land or sea based. The importance is that the role of deployed missile defense system would be to ensure that Israel could be defended against a handful of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

The current North Korean and Iranian threats show that it is clear that missile defense is based on a strong logical argument. It is better to spend millions and years of development and research, if that is what is needed, if, instead of threatening to wipe out your opponent with massive retaliation and to incinerate his civilian population, a way can be found of defending yourself against him.

Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.