For Israel, the best defense against rocket attacks could be a cheap defense.
Even before fighting escalated this month between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, U.S. contractors had been working to supply Israel with countermeasures against the deadly rockets that the Lebanese militia has rained down on the north of the country.
Ideas include low-cost interceptor missiles from Raytheon Co., and a laser system from Northrop Grumman Corp. that the U.S. Army has mothballed for lack of development money.
The efforts reflect some limitations of the Israel Defense Forces system, even though it has Raytheon's Patriot missile in its arsenal. A Patriot missile, which can cost $1 million each, is hardly a cost-effective way to knock down the $500 to $2,000 Katyusha rockets that Iran has been supplying to Hezbollah, said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research firm in Alexandria, Va.
"They're not going to waste a Patriot on them," Pike said. "That's a losing proposition."
Israel's anti-missile defenses are ill suited to counter the swarms of rockets used by militants. The Hezbollah missiles may be airborne just a few seconds between launch and impact, other defense analysts say.
The lack of counter-rocket measures is striking since few countries have spent as much as Israel on missile defense. Hezbollah attacks this month have killed more than 50 Israelis, the country says, including both soldiers in ground fighting and civilians killed by rockets.
A Lebanese official estimates that the number of people killed by Israeli airstrikes and other attacks against targets in Lebanon ranged as high as 600 as of Friday, the Associated Press reported.
To combat the rocket threat, companies are building on work they've done for the U.S. military.
Raytheon said in May that Israeli officials have asked the company to design rocket interceptors against short-range missiles and rockets.
The system, tentatively called Stunner, isn't likely to be deployed until 2012 or so, according to Israeli officials and Raytheon. The company hopes to receive a $250 million contract to expand the development effort next year, including some U.S. money.
Raytheon declined to give many details on the work, but in a May 24 news release, it quoted a manager of the Israeli company that is its partner on the project. He stressed the economic value of the project as a way to combat low-cost tactical threats.
"Our interceptor solution fundamentally redefines the performance-cost value equation for terminal missile defense," said David Stemer, general manager of the missile division at Rafael Armament Development Authority Ltd., the Israeli government company. The new missiles, he said, would provide "hit-to-kill performance at a tactical missile price."
Another measure under discussion with the Israelis is Skyguard, a mothballed high-energy laser system made by Northrop Grumman, of Los Angeles.
A version powerful enough to defend cities or troops within a 10-kilometer radius is expected to cost $30 million once production starts, the company says.
Each shot from the laser should cost $1,000, the price of the chemicals needed to create the beam, according to the company and Scott McPheeters, the U.S. Army's assistant project manager for the system.
Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Army, Israel, and Northrop Grumman have spent about $300 million on the laser system, including a version that took three trucks to move.
In tests at White Sands, N.M., it has shot down more than 28 Katyushas and as many as three mortar rounds at once, McPheeters said. "If you can track it, you can kill it," he said.
McPheeters declined to discuss some details, such as the laser's range, but said it could be an effective defense for the Israelis. Yet both Israel and the U.S. Army had suspended development because of costs, McPheeters said.
He and Israeli officials estimate it would take as much as $500 million and about two more years of work to make it deployable.
Also, it has been hard to persuade commanders to rely on the countermeasure. "The problem isn't technology, it's cultural," McPheeters said. "The unbelievability issue is pretty high."
James M. Hasik, an aerospace management consultant in Austin, Texas, said that in effect these projects aim to reduce the cost of the Pentagon's expensive strategic missile-defense programs to the tactical level of weapons cheap enough to engage mortars rounds and short-range rockets.
He noted that Northrop Grumman also is developing a system for the Pentagon that can defend against rockets, artillery and mortars. The system, has received increased funding from Congress because it might protect bases in Iraq.
The system includes a radar and warning system to detect incoming shells. Officials are exploring how they might add an interceptor such as the laser or Raytheon's Phalanx antimissile naval cannon.
One challenge, Hasik said, is whether these systems would do more harm than good if they create too much debris falling onto friendly territory. "I'm not sure that's altogether well thought out," Hasik said.
Most of the Hezbollah's rockets are known as Katyushas - named by the Soviet troops who first used them in World War II. The rockets, with a range of about 13 miles, usually are launched from a truck.
According to wire service reports, Hezbollah has fired more than 1,500 such rockets this month.
Unlike advanced missiles, Katyushas lack systems to guide them to their targets once airborne.