Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Exporting Israel's Iron Dome

The disparity of casualties sustained between Palestinians and Israelis in the latest Gaza conflict is paid much heed by commentators. Condemnation of Israel's supposed use of disproportionate force is a recurring chorus from anti-Israeli Arab and Western  voices.

What pro-Palestinian protesters won't highlight are the huge stashes of rockets that Hamas and other militants point and fire at Israel. Hezbollah is estimated to hold 60,000 rockets for the purpose in Lebanon. And the main reason many more Israelis haven't been killed by Hamas and other militants' indiscriminate firing of rockets in the latest Gaza conflict seems to be the stunning success of Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system.

War, what is it good for? Well, by a Clausewitzian definition of 'continuing political aims by other means', whether Israel has achieved a worthwhile victory in Gaza in November is up for debateBut war can also be a route to commercial, economic gain (albeit a bloody one)A big question now is whether Israel can turn Iron Dome's "game changing" 85% success rate at intercepting incoming short-range rockets and missiles during Operation Pillar of Defense into a commercial export success.

Israel got into its Gaza clash through its sometimes clumsy policy of "precision assassination" of high-profile Palestinian paramilitary leaders. While its opponents fire unguided, imprecise weapons indiscriminately, to deliberately kill or maim Israeli civilians, Israel makes some bloody errors while attempting its precision strikes, prompting questions about whether such incidents do represent genuine mistakes, or rather an Israeli willingness, at a war policy level, to knowingly tolerate high "collateral damage", in order to hit targets.

The apparent disparity of forces between Israel and its opponents (prompting claims of Israeli disproportionate use of force) is most obvious when Israel has committed to urban ground combat: the sledgehammer of IDF tanks, jets and gunships cracking the nut of Hamas' AK47s and RPGs. By contrast, Iron Dome has protected Israel effectively (only 4 Israeli civilians killed before the ceasefire) without it having to resort to the clumsy land offensives of previous rounds of conflict.

There are some other nations facing missile threats over their urban centres which might be interested in Iron Dome. Nuclear-armed North Korea still points thousands of menacing missiles at Seoul. 

A new ballistic missile test by North Korea looks imminent, while the regime is known for sporadic outbursts of violence across the highly militarised "DMZ" border. South Korea has to carefully consider its measured responses to North Korean provocations, such as the sinking of the South Korean corvette ROKS Chenoan in March 2010, and the brief artillery exchange started by the North across the DMZ in November 2010.

Unlike Israel's incursions into Gaza or Lebanon, any South Korean forces crossing the DMZ would spark an all-out conflict on the Korean peninsula and presumably a nuclear war. The options open to the South are limited, which the North has used to lever aid packages in the past. The comparison between Korea and Israel's Gaza conflict has some value, because if Iron Dome has proven to be a game changer in Gaza,  perhaps it could offer similar benefits for South Korea.

The alleged reach of North Korean missiles
The North has over 1,000 missiles pointed towards Seoul, and many more rockets and artillery pieces. A large proportion of these are antiquated by western standards, but many can carry nuclear, biological or chemical warheads, and by their sheer numbers are a dangerous threat-in-being to the South's capital. Missile defence goes some way to neutralising the threat of a saturating swarm attack. North Korea has at least 200 longer range missiles, some of which could reach Japan or Alaska. No matter, say defence vendors, Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (which developed Iron Dome) also has systems for intercepting medium and long range missiles: the nattily-named "David's Sling" and the longer range "Arrow".

The same might go for Taiwan, which faces off the threat of thousands of Chinese missiles aimed across just over 120 miles of water. Obviously China is vastly superior to Hamas or North Korea technologically and in all other factors, but just like the stockpiles of rockets built up against Israel and Seoul, China's military strategy against its neighbours has always been about deploying weight of numbers before technological edge.

It is hardly a secret that the US has provided the bulk of funding for Iron Dome, and for sustaining Israel's defence budget as a whole. Like Israel, South Korea and Taiwan are US allies and recipients of huge amounts of US defence aid. Unlike Israel, both are in China's backyard: the focus of US strategic focus since Barack Obama's famous strategic pivot towards Asia. 

It looks like the US could spy a money spinner from Iron Dome, after years of missile defence being a byword for gross military expenditure for questionable value: first through vast spending on 'Star Wars'; then via lengthy investment on Nato's controversial European-based missile shield.  There was already some talk of Iron Dome becoming a joint US-Israel collaboration before Pillar of Defense combat-proved its utility, with some production potentially moving to the US, to companies such as Boeing and Raytheon. War, what is it good for?  It's the economy, stupid.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

F**k fees: student protest

"Well, someone's got to clean up all this shit", ventured the bored copper, stood idly, watching some of London's students protest.  Despite the rain, many had made it out to lament the injustices of high UK student debt and heightened university tuition fees. 

Despite their snappy "F**k Fees" slogan, it seems the organisers didn't get their desired headcount today, judging by the large piles of unused placards, preprepared by organisers. 

The protest I witnessed was outside the student union of my former place of study, King's College London. Conveniently close to lectures, or the KCLSU bar, depending on your point of view. I subsequently looked it up to find it's part of the National Union of Students' (NUS) tuition fees "Demo 2012".

I watch most protests in Western countries through an almost impermeable veil of cynicism. The fees slogan from today is crude and abrasive. Obviously it occurred to me to empathise and speak with the bored police officer at the time, rather than the legion of student activists on the scene. The image that grabbed me was the cynical snap of spare placards above, rather than the drab banners scene below.

I'm sure I'd be more outraged if I was paying their student fees. Fate was kind to me in that respect. My school year was the last to sneak through the door, in September 2003, before fees were tripled to £3,000 "top up fees" the following year. I never took a "Gap Yar", as many friends did. I landed a graduate reporter's job in 2007, before the financial crisis and resulting economic downturn set in, slashing graduates' chances of finding work after university. Students these days have a tougher lot.

"If you're not a liberal when you're 20, you have no heart.  If you're not a conservative by the time you're 30, you have no brain." – quote falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, but the sentiment rings true.

Well, I voted Liberal Democrat when I was 20. Now I'm past 25, nearer 30, and it's 5 years and counting since I completed my studies. My attitudes are conservative and Conservative. The size of the C doesn't really matter. Perhaps London's grey autumn shades and the drab economic outlook have darkened my cynicism. I stumbled on today's protest on my way back from a meeting at a hotel on nearby Aldwych: a morning coffee with a Bermudian lawyer.

The students who voted in droves for Nick Clegg in the 2010 election were woefully naive, falling for a fanciful populist line. The Lib Dem pledge of the time to scrap tuition fees was made on the strict understanding that the party would never really get into government, lest they be saddled with actually implementing it. The Lib Dems since lost a good deal of their support after confronting some elected realities in the Coalition, which instead capped fees at an unpalatable £9,000.

"Red Ed" Miliband's Labour still suffers from the same policy vacuum that sabotaged Gordon Brown at the last election: the Left's appeal dies with the credibility of its policies; and it can't  innovate without bottomless pots of money. That was the lesson, given hindsight, of New Labour.

Students are understandably angry, hemmed in by debt, fees, politics and realities. I genuinely feel sorry for them. In better times they would have better fortunes. I think £9,000 is an unfair ask  genuinely I do  but it's hard to imagine them getting much discounted. Street protest seems about their only option.