The recent conflict in the Middle East between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli defence Forces has drawn widespread condemnation from around the globe. Hamas for its indiscriminate bombardment of Israeli settlements like Sderot with Kassam rockets, and the Israeli’s for their disproportionate response.
With the recent invasion of Gaza by Israel, we have the latest phase in an ongoing conflict that appears to have no possible solution. Although a number of alternative ‘solutions’ are regularly muted by outside agencies and governments, the only plausible one would be for all parties involved to come to a settlement; the term settlement meaning the cessation of all hostilities between the two warring parties and a subsequent process of reconciliation. Peace would be fragile and at times tense, but it would be peace all the same. Unfortunately, trust between the Jewish and Arab states is seriously difficult to simply imagine, let alone search and hope for.
With regards to the invasion of Gaza, the Israeli forces have repeatedly stated that this was only plausible option they had. This is true to a certain extent, as it is nigh on impossible to prevent sporadic rocket attacks on towns like Sderot and the surrounding settlements. This is due to the long and winding border between Israel and Gaza, this unfortunately allows an infinite number of firing positions for the Kassam rockets. In this sense Hamas, whether the Israeli’s like it or not, have and will always have the tactical advantage. By the time Israeli forces can respond, the perpetrators will have simply melted away; it is guerrilla warfare in its purest form. So, is there an answer? When I mean an answer, I mean is there an alternative solution, and one that preferably doesn’t require the dropping of a thousand pound laser guided bomb into a populated area.
At this time, Sderot isn’t the only place in the world receiving daily rocket attacks. In Iraq, the Green Zone in Baghdad and Basra, to the South, receive their fair share of incoming ordnance. Fortunately for the coalition forces a solution has been deployed in the guise of C-RAM. C-what you may ask? C-RAM, it’s an acronym of Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar, and it’s one of the key components in the Allies defences.
C-RAM or Centurion, to give its official name (not to be confused with the British Centurion tank), is not a secret weapon and there is nothing remotely sinister about it. Centurion in its most basic form is a radar controlled, electrically driven Gatling gun and is mounted on the flat bed trailer of a lorry. It is fully traversable, has a fully integrated radar and generator, and is likened by American forces to R2-D2 with an erection. The British, having a somewhat more sensitive demeanour, call it the Dalek. When up and running, the system can detect rockets, mortars, artillery shells and the like and can blast them to pieces whilst they are still in flight, effectively destroying them before they hit their intended target. It is quick to react, accurate, and unlike its science fiction connotations, is fully operational, and yours for approximately $15 million a piece.
The actual science behind the system is nothing new, the large 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon started life mounted on an aircraft, the F-104 Starfighter (yes, it is that old!). The M61 Vulcan cannon itself is also used on a whole host of current aircraft, including the F-15 and F-16; it can also be mounted on an M113 armoured personnel carrier for short range air defence. In that guise it is referred to as the M167. More recently, it has been mounted on the ships of the Royal Navy and U S Navy, amongst others; and is used for what is termed a Close In Weapon System (CIWS), to destroy Exocet style anti-ship missiles. In this role it goes by the name of Phalanx.
What the manufacturers, General Dynamics, have done is to take the Phalanx system and mount it on a flat bed truck, and that’s about it. It weighs approximately 5,500 kg, and is for all intents and purposes, fully independent. It can literally be driven to a location, unhitched, set up and is ready to go in a short period of time. The radar system is smart enough to only fire at incoming targets, so Centurion doesn’t destroy any ordnance fired by your own forces, and when it locks on to the target it hoses it with up to one thousand 20 mm cannon shells, fired at between 3,500 and 4000 rounds per minute from its 1500 round magazine. This gives the system a high probability of a hit, currently 70% to 80% if the data from Iraq is accepted as correct. The manufacturers also claim that the system can cover a four kilometre wide area of airspace; this means that the beleaguered town of Sderot could be defended by approximately five systems for the sum of $75 million. $75 million in defence terms is peanuts.
This may sound too good to be true, and you may ask, “What becomes of the expended cannon shells that have missed the intended target, do they not rain down into the civilian populated areas causing untold damage and destruction?” The answer is that they don’t, the M246 high explosive cannon shells self destruct while still airborne. The manufacturers state that all that falls to earth are small, harmless pieces of shrapnel, although I would prefer to consult with the Iraqi inhabitants living near to the Green Zone before passing comment or judgement.
Unfortunately, things are never as simple as they first appear. The system has been thoroughly utilised and tested by the British and Americans in Iraq, and therefore proven in combat. The Israeli’s have looked at the system and ………subsequently rejected it.
Yes, it is true, the Israeli’s have rejected it on the grounds that it wasn’t suitable. Wasn’t suitable? This beggars the question, “In what way was it not suitable?” Did they borrow a battery of them and ring the town of Sderot and test them? No. Did they undertake exhaustive firing tests under simulated combat conditions in the United States? No.
Then what did they do? What the Israeli’s have done is to make the mistake of creating their own anti-missile project some years ago. This system, called Iron Dome, is still under development, and isn’t expected to be operational until at least 2011. When it is eventually ready, it will undoubtedly cost infinitely more that the Centurion system. The problem with Centurion is that it is manufactured by an American company rather than and Israeli one. To adopt a new, low cost system would possibly deny an Israeli company a sizeable chunk of the defence budget. It could also possibly lead to the cancellation of the Iron Dome programme altogether, which means egg on face for a lot of high powered Israeli politicians and military personnel, and is therefore unthinkable.
The reason stated for not purchasing Centurion given by Israel is that it only defends an area of a few hundred square metres. If this is the case, and the manufacturer’s data is incorrect, would it not be better to purchase a few units and defend a few hundred square metres of Sderot than do nothing at all? At least it might achieve something. Whilst Centurion is in service and whilst Iron Dome is being developed, operational experience could be built up and the system could be upgraded. Within a few years, technology will improve and therefore so will reaction time’s, range and kill probability. In addition to this Centurion systems could be updated and modified to inter-operate with each other as a fully integrated and co-ordinated battery.
Iron Dome has yet to get into service and has yet to get through its teething troubles. Many modern weapon systems are highly effective, but this effectiveness is dependent on the experience and efficiency of its crew, and that takes time. Israeli crews could be building up this experience now, as the British and Americans have done in Iraq. Once Iron Dome is in service, it could be integrated into the Centurion network, providing a multiple layered defence system. This would give it greater operational flexibility and range.
If a Centurion network was deployed, and deployed in sufficient numbers to cover some of the most vulnerable, populated areas in range of the Kassam missiles, what would be the consequences? Although the Kassam could keep on being fired, they could, in effect be rendered obsolete. Hamas could acquire rockets with greater range, but Centurion’s variants could also be produced to match them with larger calibre’s and greater range. It would become a localised arms race, albeit one with a finite limit, as Hamas can only smuggle, man-handle, deploy and launch rockets of a given size. Rockets would still get through now and again as no system is perfect, but in this sense Centurion could prove to be a defensive winner. If Hamas then realised that the only true form of attack they presently have is ineffective, what would be their next course of action, a change of tactics, a new strategy; peace?
Israeli politics at the moment loves a disproportionate response. This isn’t because the Israeli electorate is thirsty for Palestinian blood, it is because they have become desensitised and conditioned to the pain and suffering of what they perceive as their enemy; in effect, both sides have. This has allowed hard line politicians to come to the fore and become elected; conflict breeds tough leadership. In times of war an electorate will rarely tolerate liberal thinking and opinions, especially when they see their neighbours being killed and their homes destroyed on a regular basis. This appears to be an integral part of human nature. However, in the case of Centurion, where the risk of death and damage to property is drastically reduced, would this not allow breathing space for the civilian population? If Israel suffered no civilian casualties or very little property damage because of a Centurion network, how could they justify an assault on the scale recently seen?
Unfortunately, the history of Arab/Israeli conflicts is littered with mistrust and broken cease fires too numerous to mention. As soon as one side sees a significant tactical or strategic advantage in the offering, the first thing out of the proverbial window is the cease fire and the prospect of peace.
In Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, the scholar Wang Xi is reputed to have said, “In military operations, what is valued is foiling the enemies strategy, not pitched battle.”
In this sense Israel has missed a valuable strategic opportunity. Unfortunately, as is the way of things, if Israel did adopt the Centurion system it wouldn’t stop there. It would come fully integrated with Remote Piloted Vehicles, Artillery locating radar’s and supporting airpower. The aim of this network would be, defence aside, to locate and destroy the firing point and the operators. Given the current climate, the destruction of the firing point would invariably include anything else in close proximity, terrorists and innocent civilians alike. The message from the Israeli Government is clear, they see Hamas as the instigators and they would not sit and accept a rocket bombardment lightly; however ineffective it would be. A response would be inevitable, as would its lethality.
With this in mind perhaps its time to ask the question, “Is conflict purely about killing the enemy combatant?” Just because a nation has an offensive capability at its disposal, should it actually use it to its maximum effect?
If Israel could actively reduce the number of casualties it inflicts by utilising something like Centurion, then the perpetual cycle of violence that seems to dominate life in the Middle East could diminish.
Defensive weapons however, are not the only solution. Whether it’s in Gaza, Iraq or Afghanistan, the main causes of insurgency are a combination of factors including desperation and depravation. If the ill-educated, unemployed and disaffected youth of a nation are permanently impoverished, what have they got to lose? Breaking the cycle of violence is not merely down to the agreement of the opposing governments. Economic stability and standards of living must also improve; once at an acceptable level, insurgent activity will diminish.
With Israel’s rejection of the Centurion system, whatever the truth behind the reasons, they have failed to promote an alternative to the current, continuing conflict. In this sense they have left the citizens of Sderot open to bombardment and indirectly left the citizens of Gaza vulnerable, vulnerable to the fundamentalist ideals of Hamas and the determined response of the Israeli defence forces. Centurion as a defensive system isn’t perfect, but at least it offers a possible alternative to the laser guided bombs and white phosphorus shells that make up just a small part of Israel’s offensive armoury. With this in mind, we can only hope that ‘Iron Dome’ is as effective or better than the Centurion system, or at least accept that the violence perpetuated until its installation is a price worth paying.