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What are the possibilities for missile defense against the longer-range, Iranian-built rockets, such as the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, with which Hezbollah hit Israel’s third-largest city, Haifa, and as far south as Hadera in central Israel?

Since the 1950s, when Time magazine printed artists’ depictions of the majestic umbrella-shaped shields that would be created by the Pentagon’s anti-missile missiles as they intercepted Soviet ICBMs over American cities, the U.S. military has kept promising that whatever ABM (anti-ballistic missile) system was then under development, was just a step or two from being perfected. Simultaneously, it has allowed fudged tests in order to get favorable results, and ignored the fact that, even if the technology worked perfectly when deployed, such systems would be vulnerable to countermeasures that would be cheap and easy for attackers to employ.

In 2006, the best hope for tactical missile defense remains the latest iterations of the Patriot interceptor. First deployed in the first Gulf War, the U.S. military initially claimed that this surface-to-air missile had shot down more than 40 of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds. In 1992, however, the Government Operations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives concluded (.pdf file) that the Army had no proof that any Patriot had shot down any Scuds. The latest Patriot versions seem to be more effective, with at least eight independently confirmed tactical missile hits in the 2003 Iraq War.

Israel, with the United States, has spent billions on a two-tier ABM system that combines Patriots with Arrow rockets, a homegrown Israeli system. Nevertheless, although Patriot batteries have been set up around Haifa, Israel launched none in the recent conflict with Hezbollah. That’s because Patriots cost $1 to $3 million, the Arrow interceptors are similarly expensive, and the supply of both, whether or not they hit incoming Hezbollah rockets, would soon run out – as with the THEL system, both economics and physics favor the attacker’s rockets.

On the ground, Hezbollah has been able to move its rocket launchers rapidly. Indeed, Hezbollah’s battlefield agility and flexibility is one of the most striking features of the recent conflict. Objections that Hezbollah has accomplished a “victory” only in that its obdurate resistance has vast propaganda value within the Arab world miss the point that a militia of some 3,000 fighters impeded the advance of what was supposedly one of the world’s best armies beyond a few kilometers inside Lebanon. In the process, more than 20 Israeli Merkava tanks – again, reputedly the world’s best – were damaged by anti-tank weapons, including the Russian-made RPG-29, which have a tandem warhead so that the first explosion blows away a tank’s protective shield and the second penetrates it.

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