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"Star Wars" agency helps Israel on rocket threat

Jim Wolf / Reuters | August 16 2006

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency has begun working with Israel to help find ways to counter enemy rockets, a much shorter-range threat than the "Star Wars" mission to block ballistic missiles for which is it known, the head of the agency said on Tuesday.

"We have been working with the Israelis ... as they go through with development of their own indigenous capabilities for that threat," Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering told reporters after a speech at a missile-defense conference here.

"That is not mature. That is still in development," he said of the effort to defeat something he likened to mortar or artillery fire.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency grew out of the so-called "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative launched by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It is building a multibillion-dollar shield designed to thwart all classes and ranges of incoming ballistic missiles.

The United States has a long history of high-tech joint projects with Israel, including co-development of the Arrow, the system Israel has deployed to defend against short- and medium-range missiles.

Until now, the Missile Defense Agency -- noted for its work on layered defense against intercontinental missiles -- has not been known to be involved in addressing the rocket threat to Israel from Lebanon's Hizbollah fighters.

Israel's defense ministry recently asked the Pentagon for information about a next-generation chemical-laser system for intercepting short-range Katushya and Kassam rockets, Globes Online, an online publication, reported on Sunday.

The system at issue, called Skyguard, is built by Northrop Grumman Corp. and based on a tactical high-energy laser the company co-developed with the Israeli army in the 1990s. Northrop, based in Los Angeles, had no immediate comment.

Company officials told reporters July 12 they were awaiting a show of interest from Israel to kick off an export-license request for the updated system.

Israel is interested because of the threat from Hizbollah rockets to strategic sites including oil refineries and chemical factories in and around the northern city of Haifa, Globes Online said.

In northern Israel on Tuesday, residents were returning to their homes to escape weeks of heavy cross-border Hizbollah rocket fire as a U.N. truce largely held for a second day and the Lebanese Army prepared to move south.


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