Air Defense: Israeli Phalanx Faces Palestinian Rockets



April 26, 2009: After over a year of deliberation, Israel has ordered one of the modified U.S. Phalanx ship defense system to defend itself against rockets fired from Gaza. There are already two Israeli anti-rocket systems in the works, but it will be another year or two before these are available for service. Meanwhile, Palestinian terrorists have continued to fire rockets and mortar shells fired into southern Israel. Although Israel has been desperate for a weapon that will defend key targets from Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza, there was considerable debate over buying the Phalanx system, mainly because the system is foreign, and two Israeli anti-rocket systems are already in development.

When the Israelis finally decided to buy, they were told that none could be spared. The Israelis wanted at least one of the systems, just to make sure it worked. After some intense diplomacy, they were told they could get one. The U.S. does not need the system much in Iraq any more, but wants to shift the Phalanx systems used in Iraq to Afghanistan. One of these systems will end up in Israel.

It was three years ago, that some Israelis noted how America and Britain were already using an effective anti-rocket system; C RAM. This is a modified version of the U.S. Navy Phalanx system, which was originally designed to protect warships from anti-ship missiles. As originally designed, you turned Phalanx on whenever the ship was likely to have an anti-ship missile fired at it. The Phalanx radar can spot incoming missiles out to about 5,000 meters, and the 20mm cannon is effective out to about 2,000 meters. With incoming missiles moving a up to several hundred meters a second, you can see why Phalanx is set to automatic. There's not much time for human intervention, which is why the Phalanx has to be turned on and set to automatically detect and shoot at incoming missiles. But weapons engineers discovered that Phalanx could take out incoming 155mm artillery shells as well. This capability is what led to C-RAM. Now Israel is bringing one of these system to Israel, to see how well it performs in actually defending against Palestinian Kassasm rockets.

Since 2003, there have been two major Phalanx mods. In one, the Phalanx was adapted to use on land, to shoot down incoming rockets. This was done by using a larger artillery spotting radar, which directs Phalanx to fire at incoming mortar shells and rockets. Not all the incoming stuff is hit, but nearly 80 percent of it is, and every little bit helps. The second mod is for shipboard use, and changes the software so the Phalanx can be used against small boats, especially those of the suicide bomber variety.

Israel originally examined C RAM for possible use in defending northern Israel against another Hizbollah rocket attack. That's where Israelis apparently became aware of how C RAM could be used against Palestinian attacks using more primitive rockets. For defending northern Israel, C-RAM lacked the range to cover a long border against a variety of rocket types. But the home made Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza were another matter. Then, about two years ago, Britain bought a C RAM system to protect its air base in southern Iraq. A C-RAM Phalanx system, which can cover about four kilometers of border, costs $8 million.

C-RAM uses high explosive 20mm shells, that detonate near the target, spraying it with fragments. By the time these fragments reach the ground, they are generally too small to injure anyone. At least that's been the experience in Iraq. The original Phalanx used 20mm depleted uranium shells, to slice through incoming missiles. Phalanx fires shells at the rate of 75 per second. Another advantage of C-RAM, is that it makes a distinctive noise when firing, warning people nearby that a mortar or rocket attack is underway, giving people an opportunity to duck inside if they are out and about.

The first C-RAM was sent to Iraq in late 2006, to protect the Green Zone (the large area in Baghdad turned into an American base). It was found that C-RAM could knock down 70-80 percent of the rockets and mortar shells fired within range of its cannon. Not bad, since it only took about a year to develop C-RAM. Meanwhile, another version, using a high-powered laser, instead of the 20mm gun, is in development.

Israel has several small targets it wants to defend in southern Israel. The most frequent target is the town of Sderot. Since 2001, over 2,000 locally made Palestinian  "Kassam" rockets have been fired at Sderot. Ten people have been killed, and over fifty injured. The Israeli army has developed a radar system that provides 10-15 seconds warning, which is enough time to duck into a shelter. But Sderot only has 80 bomb shelters, most of them built 20-30 years ago and in need of repair. If you want to reduce the casualties in Sderot (about one dead or wounded per 30-40 rockets fired), you need to reduce the number of rockets landing. One C RAM system can defend an area about four kilometers in diameter. This makes it possible to defend Sderot with one or two Phalanx guns, and one early warning radar. There's also a power plant and air force base in the south that could eventually be within range of larger Kassam rockets. One or two C RAM Phalanx guns at each would greatly reduce the risk of a Kassam doing any damage. Hamas has been using some longer range rockets as well, putting more Israeli targets at risk. Many of these could be protected with a C-RAM system.

There are nearly 900 Phalanx systems in use, including some on Israeli warships. Most have not gotten these software mods, that enable the cannot to knock down rockets and shells, as well as incoming anti-ship missiles.



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