Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Goliath Behind the Shield of David

From COMMENTARY Magazine, Dec. 2011, by Arthur Herman
How Israel's Defense Industry Can Help Save America
Kibbutz Sasa sits one mile from Israel’s Lebanese border. Founded in 1949, it is the site of the tomb of the second-century rabbi Levi ben Sisi. It hosts groves of fruit trees and a dairy farm and has 210 members. Kibbutz Sasa is also the home of the main factory of Plasan, a company that started out making hard plastic containers like garbage cans in 1985. For four years now, American soldiers have driven more safely in Iraq and Afghanistan, thanks to Kibbutz Sasa and Plasan’s CEO, Dani Ziv.

It was Ziv who, in the 1980s, urged the company to take up the manufacture of protective ballistic vests for soldiers and police. In 1989, Plasan won its first contract to make body armor for the Israel Defense Forces, and then for IDF vehicles. When war came to Afghanistan and then Iraq, orders went through the roof, especially from the United States. Plasan’s profits soared some 1,500 percent, from $23 million in 2003 to $330 million in 2007. Today they stand at over $500 million, with 90 percent of the company’s orders coming from Europe and the United States.

Plasan specializes in a very dense plastic composite product that affords ballistic protection without significantly adding to the weight of the vehicle. “Their work is exceptional,” says a senior Israeli defense industry executive about Plasan. “To convince the U.S. military that you are a reliable outfit is no mean feat. They did it all alone, without any help from a former ambassador or defense ministry director general.”

Plasan-armored mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) have been serving in Afghanistan since August 2009, and contractor Oshkosh Company has another 8,800 on order. In 2009 Plasan even opened a factory in Bennington, Vermont, to do the work for its American contract. But while the 350 or so workers there are American, the technology is decidedly Israeli.

That applies to an even smaller company in Netanya, Israel, called Camero. Its engineers have come up with a way to use ultra-wideband wireless transmissions to see through walls—literally—and detect armed men and explosives on the other side. The Xaver 400 is barely the size of a laptop computer, but it’s dramatically shifting the odds in urban fighting in favor of the technology user, whether he’s an IDF soldier or a United States Marine. Indeed, in December 2010, one of Camero’s top clients became the Department of Defense.

What’s happening at Plasan and Camero is part of a silent revolution sweeping the defense establishments of the United States and Israel. After decades of being the Pentagon’s dependent in terms of military technology, Israel’s defense industry is now gaining a competitive advantage over its overregulated, bloated and lethargic American rival. Indeed, the United States is becoming one of its best customers. Goliath is finding shelter under the shield of David.

This situation is fraught with irony. It’s not only that America is now fighting the kind of wars Israel has been fighting for decades—small-scale, low-intensity, against an elusive terrorist enemy—and needs the skills and equipment Israel has to offer, including remote-detection devices such as unmanned drones, an area in which Israel has been on average 10 years ahead of the curve. Nor is it simply the fact that as U.S.-Israeli relations have cooled during the Obama years, Israelis are realizing that a strong and independent high-tech defense sector may be more crucial to Israel’s future than relying on U.S. help.

The Israeli way of doing defense business is changing the shape of the military-industrial complex. Smaller, nimbler, and entrepreneurial, Israel’s defense industry offers a salutary contrast to the Pentagon’s way of doing things. With the spending and budget crisis in the United States already putting immense pressure on the Pentagon, with all-but-certain declines in the percentage of the U.S. economy that will be devoted to defense in the coming decade, a second “revolution in military affairs” is going to be necessary. We are going to have to get more for less—much less. Israel points the way.

A good example coming from the more expensive end of the military-technology spectrum involving high-tech missiles is Rafael Advanced Systems. They’re the Israeli makers of the Iron Dome missile defense system, built to protect Israeli towns from mortars, rockets, and 155-millimeter artillery shells. Each Iron Dome unit fires four to eight missiles and is equipped with a Battle Management computer system designed by another Israeli company, MPrest Systems. It’s an all-weather mobile system with a range of 70 kilometers (about 43.5 miles)

For the Pentagon, developing and deploying a major new system like this can take more than a decade. By contrast, the Israel Defense Ministry gave Rafael the contract for Iron Dome in 2007, and by March 2009 the system was fully ready for testing. The first true shoot-down test had to wait until July that year. More tests followed in 2010, and by March 2011 Iron Dome was declared operational and has been deployed in towns near the Gaza strip to protect against Hamas’s attacks.

To intercept bigger ballistic missile, Israeli Aerospace Industry (IAI) developed the Arrow antimissile system in cooperation with the United States as part of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. The agreement to build Arrow came in 1989. The first missile, the Arrow 1, got its first test launch in August 1990. Less than four years later came its first test interception.

Although Arrow began as an American-Israeli joint initiative, the irony is that Israel’s interest in developing Arrow sprang from the failure of American-made Patriot antimissile batteries to intercept Scud missile attacks during the First Gulf War. Arrow relies on a coterie of Israeli companies to provide the interception system’s components. Elta, a division of Israel’s biggest private arms firm, Elbit Systems, provides the Green Pine early-warning radar. Tadiran (another Elbit division) makes the Communication, Control, and Command center. IAI devised the Hazelnut launch controls. Altogether, they have constructed one of the world’s most sophisticated defense systems. In 1995 the Arrow 1 was replaced with an even faster, more lethal version, Arrow 2, which, according to its developer, Dov Raviv, has a 90 percent probability of knocking out a ballistic missile—and can tell a warhead from a decoy.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency considers itself fortunate when it gets any successful missile shoot-downs from its land-based system. The first successful test interception from the American version of Star Wars came in August 2005—more than 10 years after the Israelis had done the same thing. Now Israel is looking to sell Iron Dome in the United States. And Rafael’s American marketing partner? Raytheon, the same company that developed the Patriot.

For decades Israel has been seen as the United States’ junior partner in all matters military and strategic. American defense companies were the unquestioned leaders in developing sophisticated modern weaponry, while Israelis focused on more standard items such as small arms (the classic Uzi) or weapons built to suit their unique battle conditions (the Merkava tank). The Patriot missile deployment in the First Gulf War only reinforced the perception that Israelis needed American military technology, and American military aid, in order to survive. Now it may be Israeli technology, in the shape of Iron Dome and Arrow, that ends up defending American cities instead.

The changing situation has also affected the American attitude to technology transfers between the two allies. General Uzi Eilam, former head of the Israeli weapons research-and-development agency MAFAT, remembers that when F-15s and F-16s from the United States arrived in Israel, “they came with systems in locked boxes, which we were not allowed to open.” The rule was, the closer the Israelis were to attaining the same technical breakthrough, the more willing the United States would be to share the technology. Today the Pentagon is speeding up the cooperation process, if only to prevent Israeli advances from heading them off at the pass.

It is striking how the Israeli defense sector keeps steadily leapfrogging from one challenge to the next. This is especially true for the acid test of any strong defense industry: foreign sales. Ten years ago Israel ranked 15th. In 2007 it surpassed the United Kingdom to rank fourth, behind the United States, Russia, and France. The day when it takes France’s place is not far off.

This is a remarkable achievement for a country of some six million people that is treated as a virtual pariah by much of the world. But virtual is the mot juste—for even though Turkey virtually froze relations with Israel two years ago, it’s still among Elbit’s best customers.
Read the rest of this great article here.

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