INSIDE THE IRON DOME: Chanoch Levin spearheaded the development of Israel's famed defensive shield against short-range rockets. For the first time, he shares some of the previously undisclosed details of how a concept more likely to be found in a science fiction thriller became a reality.

Author:Raviv, Dan
 
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CHANOCH LEVINhad just returned to Israel when the rockets started falling.

It was 2006, and the weapons engineer and his wife, Ditza, had moved back to their small town in the northern part of the country after two years in Maryland, where Levin had been consulting with the United States Army on ways to neutralize the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that were killing U.S. troops in Iraq. In mid-July, two months into his homecoming, Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon began shooting hundreds of rockets into the north of Israel each day. In five weeks, Hezbollah fired almost 4,000 rockets, about a quarter of which hit populated areas.

The storm of rockets was terrifying. Many residents ran to underground shelters when warning sirens blared, but still, more than 40 people were killed with many more seriously wounded. A quarter of a million citizens--almost three percent of the nation's population--fled northern Israel, sleeping in hurriedly improvised hostels or moving in with friends and family elsewhere in the country. The economic cost to Israel was at least $1 billion.

The Levins and their adult children, Tamar and Yoav, stayed put, taking shelter in a lower-level computer room in their house night after night, listening to the rocket blasts and emerging hours later to discover the damage to their little town. So when Levin was approached by his employer--the government-owned weapons development company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems--to spearhead a project to combat these missiles, he immediately recognized its importance.

He recalls being told, "You might not be the brightest engineer we have at Rafael, but we noticed you always think outside the box, and with this project, that's the only chance we have of making this work." He was also told that he was not the first one to be offered the job. Others in the company had declined, fearing failure.

That he would be able to create a defensive shield system for Israel was anything but a sure bet, but Levin didn't hesitate. He took the job.

THE PROJECT didn't have a name, but as Levin would soon learn, it had a powerful backer, Israel's then-Defense Minister, Amir Peretz. Like Levin, Peretz knew what it was like to live under a barrage of rockets shot by hostile neighbors. He was from Sderot, the southern Israeli city at the wrong end of the first Qassam rocket fired from Gaza in April 2001. Rockets had been coming in sporadically since, making Sderot synonymous with danger. Almost half of the city's children exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. So when Peretz, who had been Sderot's mayor from 1983 to 1988, was appointed defense minister in May 2006, he was highly motivated to find a solution. Even more impetus came from a rocket strike in November 2006: In the attack, Peretz's house was hit, and his bodyguard lost both his legs.

But Peretz had a hard time convincing his colleagues that a defensive shield could work. He recalls how one skeptic sarcastically asked: "What are we going to do? Put up huge volleyball nets so the Katyusha rockets bounce back to Lebanon and Gaza?" When he asked the General Staff commanders in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for their opinions, they told him the project was bound to fail and would be a waste of time and money. One general said: "The Qassam and Katyusha rockets are a problem we'll have to live with. It's a tactical issue, not strategic. It won't destroy the State of Israel."

Peretz, however, wouldn't be dissuaded and ordered a Ministry of Defense division known as MAFAT (a Hebrew abbreviation for the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure) to initiate a study about what could be done. Danny Gold, a retired brigadier general who was at the time a senior research and development executive in MAFAT, began accepting proposals for technology that would deflect the rockets. Gold invited defense contractors to show what they had in the pipeline. One American firm, Northrop Grumman, offered a system that would fire laser beams at incoming rockets. Its product, Nautilus, rebranded as Skyguard, was marketed as a "laser cannon." Another American company, Raytheon, pitched its Phalanx system, a rapid-fire gun that protects many U.S. Navy ships. Rafael and Levin put forth a totally different approach: They would build interceptor missiles that would somehow track and destroy incoming rockets.

Largely because it would be an Israeli product, Peretz loved Rafael's idea. He wanted to give the "made in Israel" invention a chance, although he stipulated that each interception would have to cost less than $100,000, and a system would have to be ready in 30 months. A project of this kind would typically take 15 years, and "smart" air-to-air missiles made by Israel's factories cost $1 million each. Yet Rafael agreed to take on the challenge.

When Peretz briefed then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the proposed project, his military advisers were not enthusiastic, and Olmert refused to divert government funds. But Peretz persisted, eventually bringing Olmert on board. In a vote in July 2007, Olmert's government approved the project and allocated a budget. Later that month, Rafael's CEO, Yedidia Ya'ari, signed the contract that would give the company 811 million shekels (just over $200 million) to work on short-range missile defense. On December 23, 2007, the Security Cabinet gave its approval. The Defense Ministry then suggested a few names, the most popular one being Golden...

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