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Why Israel Needs Star Wars, and We Do Too

The Gaza conflict vindicates Reagan-era missile defense.

If you live in a dangerous neighborhood, you have to be prepared to fight all the time.  And if you live in a dangerous neighborhood and flinch at the sight of your own blood, well, you had better have the best possible weaponry–including armor–on your side. To avoid getting bloodied, you had better do everything possible to maintain a technology-based margin of safety. Indeed, optimal strategy tells you to focus on such technology, because in the end technology, no matter how expensive, is cheaper than spilled blood.

A case in point is Israel, situated in a supremely dangerous Middle Eastern neighborhood. Yet Americans, too, are on notice, because it’s a dangerous world overall, and the ballistic challenges that Israel faces today could be the challenges that the U.S. faces tomorrow.

Does some of this sound familiar? Yes, it does, because all of us were warned about these new dangers almost 30 years ago, by Ronald Reagan, when he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative on March 23, 1983. Reagan’s “Star Wars” idea was widely ridiculed at the time, although the Soviet Union took it seriously enough. Yet over the last quarter century, since Reagan left office, the idea of missile defense has been neglected, and so here we are today, living in a world in which missile offense is changing the balance of power.

In the here and now, what happened to the once-dominant Israeli Defense Forces? Why did they not dominate in Gaza? The problem is not Palestinian and Arab enmity–that’s long been a given. The problem is not their enemies’ willingness to die a jihadi martyr’s death–that’s been a given for almost three decades now, since the suicide bombings in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The new problem for Israel is enemy rockets. These rockets might be low in quality, but they are vast in quantity–and they made their mark. As Lenin said, quantity has a quality all its own.

Meanwhile, the negative results of this new military situation are clear in the news reports since the ceasefire. The headline in The Guardian was “Hamas emerges stronger from Gaza war after Israel ceasefire deal.” Okay, some would say, that’s the Guardian, never much of a fan of Israel.

Yet the American media has shared the same grim assessment. On the November 21 broadcast of NBC Nightly News, Andrea Mitchell said that Hamas has “clearly been empowered by this crisis,” while Richard Engel, reporting from Gaza, added that Hamas thinks it’s won “a major victory.” Martin Fletcher, in Tel Aviv, added further, “The sense here is that there’s nothing to celebrate.” The New York Times wrote the next day, “Despite the death and destruction, Hamas emerged emboldened.”

The Israeli media offered much the same message. Haaretz said of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, “What remained was for him to explain why he was willing to settle for a cease-fire that included concessions to a terrorist organization, rather than overthrowing Hamas as he had promised.” Continuing, the paper noted, “The balance of power it leaves between Israel and Hamas is worse. Rocket fire on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and a parade of Arab foreign ministers to the Gaza Strip, giving legitimacy to Hamas, are just two examples.”

Nobody thinks of Netanyahu as any sort of dove–so what happened? Why did the Israelis fall short of victory? Or even, some say, suffer a defeat?

We can sum up the problem in two points:

First, as we have seen, the Israelis did not have a good enough plan for interdicting Hamas rockets.

Second, the Israelis did not have a good enough plan for eradicating Hamas missile emplacements in Gaza. Lacking those adequate plans, even the hawkish Netanyahu accepted a ceasefire that left Hamas jubilant and Israelis downcast.

In both of these problems, we can see a clear failure of technological imagination. The Israelis have plenty of high tech, to be sure, but evidently they don’t have enough. To put it plainly, Israel, outnumbered as it is, can’t afford anything close to a war of attrition; it needs advanced technology to overcome the disadvantage of its small population. Meanwhile, friends of Israel, including the U.S., would do well to help the Jewish State, because we, too, are outnumbered by our potential enemies. Indeed, our own technological margin of safety is shrinking.

But wait a second, what about the Iron Dome missile-defense system? Don’t the Israelis, helped by the Americans, have the technology that was almost completely effective at shooting down Hamas rockets? Yes, Iron Dome was almost completely effective–about 88 percent effective, in fact. That’s why only five Israelis were killed by rocket fire this year, whereas 44 Israelis were killed by similar barrages of rockets from Hezbollah in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Indeed, rocket and missile defense works, just as Ronald Reagan said it would, back in 1983. But not yet perfectly–and that’s an argument for perfecting it, ASAP.

So the Israelis, absent that next technological leap, were confronted with the painful fact that 88 percent interdiction is 12 percent less than 100 percent. A numerator, after all, is only as good as its denominator; those 12 percent of Hamas rockets that penetrated the Iron Dome accounted for 933 hits inside Israel, just since November 14–and for the deaths of five Israelis.

Fox News’s Leland Vittert, reporting from Ashkelon, Israel, a town of more than 100,000 just eight miles from Gaza, where rockets fell routinely, noted that Hamas grew savvier in its tactics, firing 8 or 10 rockets at a time, overwhelming the Iron Dome. And if a big number is all it takes to overcome Iron Dome, then Iron Dome needs to get a lot better.

More broadly, the Hamas rocket offensive put much of Israel under a terrible shadow–and that dark cloudiness was bad for business, as well as for national morale. It’s hard for Israel to keep its status as a prosperous “start-up nation” if techster-hipsters are afraid to go out in the streets after some typical energy-drink-fueled hackathon. After all, free-agent geeks, surveying the world, know that nobody is firing rockets into Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley. So while Iron Dome’s 88 percent effectiveness is 88 percent better than nothing, the status quo is not what Israel needs.

What Israel needs is a non-human, non-vulnerable technology to get into the guts of the Hamas network in Gaza–and to stay there, in order to block future attacks.

It’s true, the IDF rained down plenty of ordnance onto Gaza, destroying many Hamas emplacements. But at the time of the ceasefire, the Israelis were still well short of eradicating every last emplacement, which means that Hamas retains plenty of offensive capacity. So why didn’t Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud government go all the way?

The answer seems clear enough: the Israelis didn’t have the stomach for a mission into Gaza itself. After all, such a mission would have required ground troops; demolishing a structure from the air doesn’t do the trick if the rocketeers can hide amidst the rubble. As Israeli Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter said on November 21, “You can beat terror only with ground troops … . [There’s] no way to beat terrorists just by air strikes.”

To eliminate the rocketeers, and their rockets, the Israelis would have had to go block by block through Gaza. And that’s a bloody business, for the attacker as well as for the defender. The Israeli Defense Forces did it against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, and against Hamas in Gaza in 2008-9, but they wanted no repetition of that experience in 2012. In both cases, the Israelis inflicted vastly more losses than they suffered, but that’s hardly the point: the international media “optics” of such warfighting are terrible, and besides, in the overall scheme of the Middle East, the outnumbered Israelis don’t have the manpower to spare.

In that vein, Lloyd Green, an occasional contributor to The American Conservative, makes a paradoxical point: “Israel is more sensitive to its military casualties than to its civilian losses.” That might seem like an inversion of the normal roles and risks of the military and the civilian, and indeed it is. Yet Green cites the findings of Mitchell Barak, a former aide to Netanyahu, now one of Israel’s leading public-opinion analysts, who made the same point in a recent TV interview: Israelis love their military so much that they don’t want to put their fighters at risk unless it’s an absolute national-security imperative. And in the Israeli public mind, evidently, the Gaza threat fell short of that threshold.

Yet if public tolerance for casualties is so thin, one might think the Israeli government would have been better prepared for the latest round of Gaza fighting. One might think it would have been ready to supplant precious manpower with infinitely less precious tech-power.

Okay, that’s the past. Now to the future.

We can start with the point that nobody believes we have seen the last Gaza conflict–and therefore all the lessons of the past few weeks will be applicable to the next round of fighting, whenever that comes.

So yes, technology needs to come to Israel’s aid. Iron Dome shielded Israel from most Hamas rockets, yet now we know that Iron Dome needs to be improved. In addition, the IDF needs another kind of technology to wipe out Hamas rocket emplacements before the weapons can be positioned, let alone launched.

In other words, the Jewish State needs the earth-crawling equivalent of aerial drones. It needs expendable “Terminator”-like robots to replace non-expendable human beings. These ground-pounding robot soldiers–they could be full-sized, pocket-sized, or nano-sized–would be tasked not only with eliminating current rockets, but also with lingering in the area to prevent the shipment of replacement rockets. It’s scary sci-fi-ish scenario, but a lot scarier for Hamas than for Israel.

To be sure, the IDF today has plenty of high-tech tools to minimize causalities in house-to-house fighting, but it obviously needs more–a lot more–to reduce IDF fatalities down to an acceptable number, which is zero, or thereabouts.

Robot soldiers may not be very good at winning “hearts and minds,” COIN-style, but as we have seen, flesh-and-blood soldiers, of any nationality–despite happy propaganda to the contrary–are generally ineffective at pacification. Long before the first American stepped into Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israelis had occupied Gaza and the West Bank; the resulting reaction among the Muslim population should have been a warning to Americans as they launched their own pacification operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. military, too, desperately needs the same Terminator-tech. As most Americans have concluded over the last decade, the 6,500 GIs killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are 6,500 too many.

So why hasn’t Uncle Sam created this robot army? Why haven’t we fully utilized our own vast technological potential? One answer is that we have been too busy fighting low-tech wars, thus not stepping back to think about high-tech wars. We have developed aerial drones over the last decade, but we have undervalued the creation of terrestrial drones.

Moreover, we have all but forgotten about missile defense, at least for the American population.

Why? Over the last two decades, American military doctrine has focused mostly on “force projection,” that is, sending our armed forces to the four corners of the world. For the Pentagon, force projection has meant sending our forces to stop civil wars, provide humanitarian relief, build nations, fight terror–and maybe bomb Iran. To most leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties, this “forward strategy” has been fine and good, but along the way, the idea of defense–as opposed to offense–has been sorely neglected.

As one consequence, we learn that while we have been investing in Pashto- and Arabic-speaking soldiers, the Chinese have been investing in ballistic missiles. China is reportedly able to destroy our aircraft carriers with its new missiles; if these reports are true, our Pentagon has been doing something wrong.

For their part, the Israelis have their own force-projection vision: the IDF long since gave up on trying to befriend foreign populations through force; to the Israelis, force projection has meant long-range aerial strikes against targets in Iraq, Syria, Sudan–and maybe Iran.

Beyond Israel and the U.S., other countries, too, face security challenges that haven’t been sufficiently addressed. South Korea’s capital of Seoul, a city of 11 million people, is just 35 miles from its border with North Korea. The North Koreans possess a relatively low-tech arsenal that is nonetheless capable of destroying much of Seoul; as a result, the South Koreans desperately need their own missile defense.

We can draw two conclusions.

First, we need to put more focus on a high-tech defense that actually defends. And not just the U.S. should hold such a focus, but also Israel, South Korea, and other nations, too. Once again, Reagan had the right idea three decades ago; in that 1983 speech, he said that once missile-defense technology was perfected, it could be shared with peace-loving nations.

Others have since suggested updates for the Gipper’s vision. Six months before 9-11, in May 2001, this writer, for example, called for a “World Anti-Rogue Nations Organization,” specifically to advance the idea of joint missile defense among those civilized countries that wished to keep their capital city’s skyline intact.

Second, the basic idea of high-tech defense–a defense that uses technology to minimize casualties–needs also to be repurposed back to offense. And so we return to the vision of robot armies. Israelis, as well as Americans, need to remember the fundamental lesson of the industrial revolution: progress is made when tech-power replaces muscle-power, when brain replaces brawn–and blood.

And while Israelis know full well who their enemies are, Americans might do well to reflect on the prospect that the same sort of irregular warfare could come to our hemisphere as well. After all, it’s not that hard anymore to build a rocket, and there are plenty of places to hide such long-range destructive devices.

The Israelis thought–or at least hoped–that their high technology would keep them safe.  Now they know that their high tech needs to be even higher. We should see need, too, and we should act on that knowledge. Reagan had the right idea 30 years ago, and now recent events in the Middle East are vindicating him–the hard way.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.