More to Israeli Radar Than Meets the Eye?

Amid reports today that an American radar system is being set up in Israel, it’s hard not to suspect that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The Israeli news, like Haaretz, are describing the system as being “meant to augment Israel’s defenses against Iranian ground-to-ground missiles”. The BBC, likewise, emphasizes the added protection Israel receives from Iranian missiles.

I don’t want to sound too cynical, but I think Israel’s enhanced protection is just, frankly, a lucky side benefit of the system’s real purpose, and is being “spun” to make the installation more palatable to the Israeli public. Why? Well, it all has to do with the radar system itself…

That system is the Raytheon X-band system officially known as the AN/TPY-2 in U.S. service. It’s the key component of the American Forward-Based Radar (PDF!) global missile-defense system. It’s the very same radar system we wanted to install in the Czech Republic earlier this year, and somewhere in the southern Caucasus region – like in Azerbaijan – last year. It’s unclear whether we were ever able to install such a system in the Caucasus, but the fact that we’re putting such a long-range system – under American control, no less in Israel, seems to suggest pretty strongly that it’s a part of the missile-defense shield we’re so emphatic about. Here’s a look at the approximate range (here we’re using 2000 KM; range estimates vary) of the Negev radar system, once it becomes operational:

That’s a lot of real-estate covered – including most of Iran, and the area of Baku, Azerbaijan, which some boffins reckon is going to be under the flight path of an Iranian ICBM launched at the U.S. To be fair, a single radar can’t see in a full circle – only a 120-degree arc. However, we’ll come back to that in a moment.

You can’t help but wonder why the system wasn’t installed in Iraq, or better yet Afghanistan, as doing so would ensure full coverage of Iran – and, in the case of Afghanistan, provide coverage of Pakistan as well. My suspicion is because we (the U.S.) are concentrating too much on Iran, rather than their neighbors in the region, and too fixated on, rather than “global” coverage, comprehensive “theatre” coverage of our allies in eastern Europe and the Pacific region. I think part of it also has to do with the radar system’s capabilities, which decrease with range – we want the radars, essentially, in the hypothetical missiles’ paths, rather than having an over-the-horizon look at them speeding away.

There’s another fun footnote to this story: the AN/TPY-2 system requires a crew of between 30 and 40 people to operate. According to all the news reports, the U.S. has sent 120 people to man the system – enough people for three complete radar systems. Since a single radar has a 120-degree field of coverage, three systems would give, if I’m doing my math right, full 360-degree coverage. Coincidence? Maybe. We’ll probably never know. More likely would be just two systems – one system pointed northwest, covering southeastern Europe (the area the notional Czech radar system would cover, if it happens), and one pointed east, towards Iran; the few dozen extra personnel could be explained away in a number of plausible fashions.

Will Israel benefit from the radar system(s)? Almost certainly. But it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Israel’s interests aren’t the only ones – aren’t even the primary ones – being served by this deployment.

Published in: General, Security | on September 29th, 2008| 2 Comments »

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  1. On 10/3/2008 at 7:41 am MarkT Said:

    Very interesting post. I wonder if it was considered easier to secure a site in Israel than in Iraq or Afghanistan. But if we’re primarily interested in watching Iran, why not base the unit in Saudi Arabia? A single unit there would be able to ‘see’ Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Also, is the 30-40 headcount for a single 8-hour shift? If so, 24 hour coverage would require a staff 3 times as large, ~120 people.

  2. On 10/3/2008 at 12:20 pm Nemo Said:

    Finding an accurate personnel count is tricky; when an AN/TPY-2 was installed in Alaska a year or two ago (see the PDF linked to in the post) the total number of staff required – including installation security – was given as 30-40. As near as I can tell, that was for round-the-clock, 24-hour coverage for one system. (That seems about right, if you think about it; that works out to 10-13 people per shift. Two radar operators, one or two communications specialists, a handful of technicians to keep an eye on the generators and so on, and two or three people as guards or general “gophers”. 30-40 people per shift seems like a damned lot, for a single modern radar system.

    The only other headcount I could find is for the radar in Japan, which is at a remote location, and crewed almost entirely by civilian contractors.