Targeting and Safeguarding Ben Gurion International Airport

Despite the existence of the "Iron Dome" and sophisticated early warning systems, many carriers suspended their operations due to Hamas' rockets. Brig. Gen (res.) Asaf Agmon on why such action was unnecessary

Targeting and Safeguarding Ben Gurion International Airport

One week after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, airlines and their regulators started to question whether, with Hamas rockets being fired in the direction of Tel Aviv from Gaza, it was safe to continue operations to Israel. Despite the existence of the ‘Iron Dome’, along with the most sophisticated early warning systems, many carriers suspended their operations. Brig. Gen (Res.) Asaf Agmon explains why such action was unnecessary and how, despite the incessant attacks, the airport world-renowned for its security remains a safe destination.

Operation Protective Edge saw Israel, yet again, competing against a structured, orderly terror organisation whose main purpose is to terrorise Israeli citizens and disrupt their way of life, with the intention of forcing the Israeli government to cede to its demands.

Although Hamas ideology claims that Israel, as the Jewish state, has no right to exist and must be annihilated, it is clear to Hamas leadership, both that of the military flank and the civilian one, that it is not in their power to eliminate Israel. Therefore, a significant disruption to Israeli citizens’ daily routines and damage inflicted upon Israel’s strategic assets have become Hamas’ most important objectives.

Thus, Israel’s main international airport, utilised by all overseas scheduled carriers operating to the country, and serving as the gateway into and out of it, is a primary target for a Hamas attack. At the same time, Ben Gurion International Airport is also regarded as a key establishment, warranting, in the eyes of both the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the political echelon, the highest degree of defence capability.

For Hamas, its means of attack are its different kinds of rockets. Hamas rockets capable of reaching Ben Gurion International Airport include: the Fajar 5 rocket, made by Iran, whose range is estimated at around 70km with a 90kg warhead; the heavy M-75, made by Hamas itself, with a similar range and warhead smaller than the Fajar; and, the R-160 rockets, being much longer-range rockets, also produced by Hamas, with a range over 150km with a 120kg warhead. During the present conflict, several scores of the R-160s have been fired in the direction of Israel’s northern region, some almost reaching Haifa. Regardless of type, most of the rockets launched by Hamas have warheads containing a large amount of metal fragmentation designed to maximise their effect when hitting unprotected people.

The main defence system the IDF has at this time against the rocket threat is the Iron Dome system operated by the Israel Air Force (IAF). Iron Dome is a unique system, composed of a locator-radar, which locates the rockets source and tracks its trajectory, several launchers with advanced interceptor missiles (Tamir) and a command and control centre which also determines the likely target. When a missile is identified by the radar detector as having been launched, the command and control system designates a missile, or several missiles, to be launched in the general direction of the threat. These heat-seeking missiles destroy the attacking rocket, causing the mid-air explosion of the intercepting missile; the main threat, at that stage, is the fragmentation of both the Tamir missile and the Hamas rocket.

Naturally, even mere remnants of the Tamir missiles, should they fall within the airport, especially on the runways, could endanger aircraft since fragments might fall on the fuselage or become sucked into the engines of the planes (foreign object damage). Accordingly, the firing of the interceptor missiles has been planned in such a way that they would not cross flight paths designated for international flights and that no parts of an intercepted rocket or fragments of the interceptor missiles would fall inside the Ben Gurion airport area.

Throughout Operation Protective Edge, the Iron Dome system launchers have been deployed around Ben Gurion Airport in such a way as to provide maximum defence whilst causing only minimal interference of take-off and landing processes. Happily for us, the new runway for landing from the north had been inaugurated several months before hostilities broke out, so we were able to plan arrival and departure routes free of any safety risk and with appropriate separation (landing from north and taking off eastward). All the southern zone of Ben Gurion Airport was cleared of civilian air traffic activity enabling the Iron Dome system to operate freely against incoming rockets, without impeding the flight paths to the airport and preventing any damage to aircraft parked in it.

In addition to the deployment of the Iron Dome system as an active defence for flight paths and Ben Gurion itself, the airport also organised a quicker embarkation and disembarkation process for passengers and shorter aircraft taxis between the gates and the runway, and vice versa. Take-offs and landings were planned so as to prevent momentary overcrowding on the taxiways at the airport. In addition, airlines were advised to carry higher fuel reserves to facilitate longer holding times in the air in the event of an attack on the airport.

The operation of all Ben Gurion Airport defence systems was planned, tested and supervised by aviation experts headed by the ICAA (Israel Civil Aviation Authority), the IAF and the Israel Airports Authority and was put into effect by the airport management, the air traffic control tower and the commanders of Iron Dome batteries deployed around the airport together with the air traffic control unit.

From the start of the latest conflict scores of rockets have been launched at the Ben Gurion area. All the rockets which might have fallen into an area endangering activity in the airport itself, or either on the populated area around the airport or the Dan bloc in general (the main metropolis of Israel, which includes Tel Aviv) were successfully intercepted by Iron Dome.

During each attack in which Hamas has launched rockets towards the centre of the country, planes which are in the process of approach are instructed to hold above the Mediterranean until the situation becomes clear and, only then, such aircraft resume their approaches to landing on runway 21, on the northern side of the airport.

Ben Gurion International Airport, in its new operational format, effective since renovations were completed, contains three active runways enabling utmost operative flexibility; this has turned out to be extremely significant throughout Operation Protective Edge.

However, on 22nd July, a rocket was fired at the airport area, but it was not intercepted due to operational considerations. (It should be pointed out that, in part due to cost, the Iron Dome does not always initiate an interception. If it is clear that the rocket will not hit a population centre or key installation, the incoming missile will be permitted to "hit".) The rocket in question landed in Yehud, a small town about 2 km away from the airport, and damaged a structure without causing any human casualties; a woman, who was in her house at the time, some 10 metres from where the rocket hit, exited unscathed.

The economic impact was greater than the physical one. Several reactions ensued. A Delta plane which was about one hour’s flying time away from Ben Gurion was informed that the airport was under attack; the pilot decided not to proceed with his landing, so turned back and landed in Paris. A US Airways plane which was about to take off several hours later, with some 300 passengers due on board (mostly US citizens), rushed to take-off while still empty, leaving many of its passengers at the airport.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made the decision to activate one of its emergency response procedures, which specified that, should munitions fall within one mile from an airport, the activity of all American aircraft at that airport must be stopped for a period of up to 24 hours for an assessment of the situation to be made and a decision about the resumption of activity to that airport to be taken. "Due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza, all flight operations to/from Ben Gurion International Airport by US operators are prohibited until further advised," said the FAA's Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM.

This FAA decision brought about the issuance of a “strong recommendation” by the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) that European carriers avoid Tel Aviv “until further notice”, which, in turn, caused a chain of reactions as companies stopped their flights to Israel. It should be noted however that several airlines, including British Airways, resolved to continue their flights to Israel, sticking to their usual routine.

New York City’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, put it very succinctly when paying a solidarity visit to Israel (flying El Al) in the aftermath of the imposition of the US restrictions: “Halting flights here – when the airport is safe – hurts Israel and rewards Hamas for attacking Israel. Hamas wants to shut down the airport; we can’t let that happen. I’m a pilot – and I’ve always believed the FAA does a great job – and still do. But on this issue, I think the agency got it wrong.”

Naturally, Israeli airlines, mainly El Al, continued and even increased the number of their flights from Ben Gurion especially since thousands of Israelis were suddenly stranded either at Ben Gurion, unable to fly to their destinations, or abroad, unable to fly home.

The situation of many Israeli holidaymakers who were in Turkey at the time was one of the most striking. They were stranded there since Turkish Airways, Pegasus Airlines and Turkish charter companies stopped flying to Israel in accordance with the EASA recommendation but, as Israeli airlines don’t fly to Turkey due to the unwillingness of Turkish authorities to fulfil the security demands made by Israeli authorities to adopt specific security measures, there was no way the holidaymakers could get home. In a special operation financed by the Israeli government those holidaymakers were eventually airlifted to Greece where they boarded Israeli companies’ planes to be flown home.

Around the same time, the Director General of ICAA, Giora Romm, together with the IAF, the National Security Council and the Israeli Airport Authority, initiated a process to explain and detail facts and directives relating to the security protocols in place in order to reassure decision-makers that there were no real safety threats or security risks which should preclude the resumption of civilian flights into and out of Ben Gurion Airport.

This process was carried out in tandem with FAA representatives and, similarly, with Eurocontrol, the organ responsible for flights in Europe. These bodies were supplied with facts and statistical data demonstrating that Ben Gurion was as safe an airport as it always had been and that both the American interdiction and the severe European recommendation should be repealed in order that all flights could be resumed.

Even once Israeli reassurances had been accepted, it took a few days for some carriers to resume flights and, for some companies (the Lufthansa group, for example), services were dependent upon staff volunteering to operate flights.

Hamas, having been declared by the US administration as a terrorist organisation, with which no contact or dialogue could take place, quickly realised that it had made a strategic achievement and immediately underlined its “success in cutting off the Zionist entity from the world”. Even at the time of writing, when Hamas is unwilling to extend the ceasefire, it declares that unless its demands are met, it will hit Ben Gurion and paralyse Israel’s main international gateway.

Most readers will recognise that almost 50 years have elapsed since civil aviation first became the target of terrorist organisations who wished to gain publicity by wreaking havoc and creating chaos. It seems little has changed. Numerous states, as well as individual airline companies are still investing incredible sums of money in order to overcome these terrorist threats.

The actions taken by the FAA, and in their wake, EU bodies and airline companies, have given Hamas a renewed incentive to try and strike at civil aviation around the world by all means and in every possible way. Without even hitting the airport, Hamas has created fear and the industry has allowed them to further disrupt our daily lives.

Israel has invested much thought and money in its efforts to eradicate terrorist threats against its civil aviation industry. It started years ago with the inflight security provided by specially trained personnel on board flights and continued with securing planes whilst still on the ground with its advanced profiling system and airport security protocols, while making every effort to impact as little as possible upon passengers’ comfort and the efficiency of terminal and airport operations.

Then, more recently, there is the revolutionary C-MUSIC system designed to protect passenger and cargo planes from MANPADS threatening them on take-off and landing. This system is mounted on the plane, equipped with radar capabilities which identify the launching of a missile towards the plane and then, in an automated process, with no involvement of the pilot, sends a laser-ray, disrupting the homing head of the missile and directing it away from the plane thus preventing impact. This system is about to conclude its last flight tests and in a very short time will become fully operational.

The global civil aviation community has to cope with recurring terrorist threats; they are part and parcel of the free world’s struggle. Yet, this community should remain at the apex of the fight against terror, denying it any practical gain or one that could serve its public relations image. Just think how American citizens in particular, and citizens of the free world in general, would have felt if, the day after 11th September 2001, the UN had resolved to move its HQ from New York to, say, Brussels because the skyscrapers in New York had proved to be so vulnerable…

Any association, professional as it may be, should understand the context in which it is operating and make its decisions through a full understanding of their general and wider-ranging implications. 

Article originally published in full in Aviation Security International Magazine.

Brig. Gen. (Res.) Asaf Agmon is the former commander of both Sde Dov and Lod Air Force bases. Today he serves as the Chief Executive Officer of The Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies

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