Israel’s new Iron Dome short-distance missile defense system has changed the strategic landscape of its conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah, but it isn't flawless. Michael Wilner explores.
A year ago, residents living in the south of Israel relied on a dated radar system for warnings that a rocket was about to strike. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) network, known as Red Color, could never predict exactly where the projectile would fall. Whether it would hit the roof of a living room or a fourth-grade classroom was anyone’s guess. All residents knew was that, when they heard sirens, they had between 15 and 45 seconds to find cover.
Now, despite years of puzzling resistance from military brass, the south has finally received an alternative: a short-range missile defense system with a 90 percent success rate in early trials.
An escalation in March with the Palestinian militant group Hamas was the first real-world test of the newly deployed system, called Iron Dome, which shot down three out of four rockets it recognized were heading toward populated areas. Stray rockets headed toward empty fields were intentionally ignored by the system.
Yet while the success of Iron Dome appears promising, it challenges both the financial and strategic priorities of the IDF.
“Iron Dome should have been started in 2000, but the army was against it,” says Dov Raviv, known in Israel as the “father” of the country’s Arrow ballistic missile defense technology. “They thought there was no need for active defense.”
It took the second Lebanon War in 2006, which saw thousands of rockets flying into Israel over several weeks, to prompt the government to finally sign off on the Iron Dome project.
“To a large extent, it’s still very much in the experimental stage. But this is a brand new weapons system,” says Uri Bar-Joseph, a professor specializing in national security and intelligence at Haifa University.
While Raviv developed Arrow in the 1980s as a strategic response to nuclear and chemical threats against the Jewish state, Iron Dome came in reaction to the increased use of short-range rockets to attack the country. Hamas in Gaza typically uses low-payload rockets known as Qassam against southern Israeli towns. Hezbollah, the northern equivalent based in Lebanon and a proxy of the Iranian regime, fired thousands of Katyusha rockets in their war against Israel in 2006.
American and Israeli military experts alike refer to these weapons as “flying stovepipes,” as they are cheap to produce, carry small payloads and are difficult to control. But both organizations have become more sophisticated since the last conflict, stockpiling more powerful weapons with longer range.
“The Israeli strategic culture is still very offensive,” Bar-Joseph explains. “It hasn’t changed, despite the fact that modern technology doesn’t necessarily favor offense anymore. The IDF is quicker to ask itself how to destroy a rocket launching system than how to defend a population from the homefront.”
He adds, “If we were not lucky, and one or two kids had been hit last month, the government wouldn’t have hesitated to move in. But certainly it minimizes the need for such operations.”
Experts are torn on whether the system can be overwhelmed, as it lacks an inexhaustible number of interceptors.
“If it’s 200 a day, that’s not a showstopper. But if it’s 200 at once headed for Tel Aviv, that will saturate the system,” says Mike Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Iron Dome’s success, therefore, hinges on ammunition stock. And if IDF ammunition is depleted, Israel can be expected to resort to other measures of intervention.
So why wouldn’t the Israeli government simply stockpile adequate munitions?
“The name of the game is money,” says Raviv. “(The IDF) didn’t want to provide money to Iron Dome because it would’ve taken away from the defense forces.”
The cost of Iron Dome—over $1 billion for the existing batteries alone— may indeed be prohibitive. While Qassams are often assembled in garages, Iron Dome interceptors, which need to outpace other rockets in order to catch them, are reported by Stratfor to cost a minimum of $50,000 a piece. And while only two Iron Dome batteries have been deployed thus far, former defense minister Amir Peretz was quoted last month as saying that the military would need between 20 and 26 batteries to cover the entire country, in case of a war with multiple fronts.
But perhaps, in Israel, the feeling of security simply demands a higher premium.
“The cost isn’t only physical damage,” Bar-Joseph says. “Rockets destroy apartments, but the main damage is to morale. Enhancing that morale changes the cost effectiveness of the program.”