The Danger of Short Range Rockets

By Stephen Bryen

Israel is now facing a new threat –high explosive short range rockets that threaten Israeli communities particularly in border areas.  Hamas now has these weapons and so does Hezbollah, which is sitting today in the Syrian Golan.  Israel’s Iron Dome missile system, that has proven so effective against Grad, Qassam and WS-1b rockets, is likely not to be effective against these new rockets because of their very short range (1-2km) meaning very short flight times from launch to target.  While there are different solutions, short range missiles not only pose a threat to Israel and to U.S. and coalition troops operating in places such as Iran and Afghanistan, but short range weapons may also upset the nuclear power balance in places such as Korea.

Let’s start with Israel.  Israel has developed one of world’s most comprehensive missile defense systems that is made up of three major components: Iron dome for short range threats; David’s Sling designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, and Arrow, intended to destroy heavier distant threats as those coming from Iran.  All of these are excellent systems providing significant security for Israel.

While the U.S. has participated heavily in all of Israel’s programs (involving U.S. defense contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon), outside of sea-based AEGIS, the U.S. has not evolved very much in its singular tactical defense system which is Patriot.  Patriot had some successes against SCUD missiles in Israel and was used by Saudi Arabia against Iraqi Silkworm missiles.  The UAE used Patriot against a SCUD-D (Iranian version) successfully.  Patriot is not very useful and far too expensive to be used against threats such as the Qassam, and despite frequent upgrades it has not always been effective.  Raytheon, which is Patriot’s developer, has made many upgrades to the system to make it more effective and robust.  Most recently, Raytheon and Rafael have proposed using the intercepting rocket from David’s Sling, called Stunner, with the Patriot radar and command and control system in a new, strong version called PAAC-4, but this system appears to have not yet received funding from the Pentagon.

It follows that, as things now stand, the U.S. will rely on Patriot (PAAC-3 version) for missile defense and will not field a comprehensive system, leaving US forces potentially vulnerable to mixed attacks.  Thus if the situation vis a vis the Syrian government and U.S. forces operating on Syrian territory, the threat of missile attacks remains real, requiring the U.S. to try and liquidate Syria’s missile defenses as its only recourse.

The situation is more tricky in Korea, where the U.S. is busy putting in THAAD.  That is a high altitude hit to kill interceptor that can presumably take out intermediate and long range ballistic missiles. Other than tests (some successful, some not), no one really know whether THAAD is a good system.  Other than THAAD the U.S. has Patriot and offshore (from time to time) has AEGIS, a sea based missile defense system.  AEGIS is used by the U.S., Japan and South Korea, equipped either with SM-2 or SM-3 missiles.  AEGIS is highly regarded, but again it needs time to reach a target meaning that it is not too useful against short range rockets.  If AEGIS does not intercept, the next line of defense is Patriot.  While both Patriot and AEGIS are supposed to be able to knock out short range missiles, sufficient warning time is needed.  If the missile is truly short range and does not rise very high from ground level, the chances of hitting it are small.  It is not clear if AEGIS and Patriot are cued together.

Clearly an interceptor against short range threats would be quite useful.  This would be an interceptor that could kill relatively heavy very short range rockets, like the ones Hamas now has, and also take out mortar rounds.  Such an interceptor either must be very close to the threat or very fast, e.g., hypersonic.  So far the U.S. has been focused on how to deal with Russian or Chinese hypersonic weapons, and is working on missile defense against them (which would have to equal or exceed their speed).  But short range defense is still in the future, if at all.

Another approach would be to use high speed “smart” guns to defeat short range missiles, using point defense techniques.  Italy’s Oto Melara has modified its 76mm gun system with a gun-launched guided missile round called DART that could defeat short range missiles.

While in the short term other measures –evacuating populations if a very short range threat materializes, or trying to neutralize the threat sources, will help mitigate the threat, a more positive approach is needed because population evacuation is not always possible and anyway usually happens after a threat materializes, meaning significant damage is done, and destroying the source of the threat is extremely hard, largely because the threat is portable and after launch immediately changes location.

Finally short range weapons are bad enough with conventional warheads: but these can also be WMD platforms filled with nerve gas or other deadly substances.  Policy makers need to address this issue and invest in strong countermeasures.