Download PDF Thus far, Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has met with success in intercepting enemy rocket attacks, winning it attention and accolades from a grateful public. However, critics of the system have declared it too costly, too slow, and the result of poor planning. In either case, Iron Dome has the potential to significantly affect not only Israel’s defense strategy but also the offensive strategies of its enemies in the region. The United States also has a great stake in the project because of its interest in preserving Middle East peace, democracy, and access to oil. Though Israel developed the system on its own, the United States has been involved in the post-deployment development and funding of the system, and President Obama has promised further funding over the next few years. Examining the strengths and weaknesses of the system will help clarify its strategic implications for all involved.
Key points in this Outlook:
- The new Iron Dome air defense system represents a conceptual shift in Israel’s security strategy, as Israeli leaders move from their traditional offensive-minded posture and begin investing seriously in defensive technologies.
- Despite opponents’ characterization of the system as costly and slow, its performance has exceeded expectations and been a public relations success within Israel.
- The United States will invest more than $900 million in funding for Iron Dome through 2015, to both protect US interests in the region and share in this potentially valuable technology.
- In an era of austerity and cuts to the U.S. R&D budget, the Iron Dome model—financially supporting a new system developed by an allied country after it proves itself—could be a way to maintain American access to cutting-edge defense innovations.
On April 7, 2011, a trail of white smoke snaked into the sky from the orange groves in northern Gaza. At its head flew a Grad rocket, hurtling toward the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon and its 113,000 residents. The rocket launch itself was not remarkable—Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza have fired thousands of Qassam rockets at Israel. Since 2008, longer-range 122mm Grad rockets had threatened Ashkelon, including the ten Grads that slammed into the city on February 28 of that year.
Yet on that spring day, something unprecedented happened. An Israeli radar system tracked the incoming rocket, calculated its trajectory, and relayed the data to a computerized control center south of Ashkelon. The control center determined that the Grad threatened a populated area and immediately launched a Tamir interceptor missile. Using its radar seeker, the Tamir honed in on the Grad, detonating as it approached the incoming rocket. For the first time in history, a short-range rocket defense system achieved an in-flight interception—the successful debut of the Iron Dome air defense system.
Because of that achievement and subsequent interceptions over the next year and a half, many Israelis see the Iron Dome as a strategic coup for Israel. Uzi Rubin, former director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Ministry of Defense, called the Iron Dome a “game-changer.” In the week after the first intercept, Rubin pointed out, Palestinians “fired 100, 110 rockets. . . . Not one Israeli was scratched—we don’t have casualties.” Excited residents of southern Israel brought their children out to offer food to the Iron Dome battery and to watch the launches. “We will stay here an hour, an hour and a half, or until they launch for the first time,” gushed fourteen-year-old Neta Kramer. “I wish there was something now, I am dying to see it.”
Despite this jubilant atmosphere, others were less sanguine. A Jerusalem Post editorial called Iron Dome a “partial answer.” Tel Aviv University military analyst Reuven Pedhazur considers Iron Dome a “scam,” an expensive, ineffective program meant to enrich Israel’s defense industry, not protect its threatened citizens.
What do Iron Dome’s deployment and successful operational intercepts mean for Israel and its adversaries? Is it a strategic game-changer that robs Hamas and Hezbollah of their most effective weapon or an overhyped, incomplete solution to a dangerous and persistent threat? Understanding the capabilities and the effects of Iron Dome is necessary to anticipate the course of events along Israel’s borders.
The project has relevance for the American military as well. Short-range rockets and mortars are a cheap, effective means of attacking American bases and airfields and harassing civilian populations and can pose a danger to warships docked or close to shore. A clear assessment of the project’s capabilities, drawbacks, and strategic implications will be a valuable tool for Western commanders.
The Rocket Threat
As Israel grew increasingly proficient at sealing its border from infiltrators and withdrew vulnerable citizens and military installations from Gaza and Lebanon, terrorist organizations started attacking under and over the border fence. Hamas periodically uses tunnels to sneak squads of fighters into Israel, and both they and Hezbollah expend great effort and resources developing their rocket capabilities.
Palestinians fired their first rockets at Israel in 2001. According to Hamas, it launched its first Qassam on October 26 of that year, though April 16 attacks on Sderot, identified as mortars at the time, might have actually been rockets. They fired more than four thousand rockets and four thousand mortars into Israel between 2000 and 2008. Most of these rockets were Qassams, though recent years have seen a rise in longer-range Grad rockets fired at Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva. Today, almost one million Israelis live in range of Hamas rockets, a pressing strategic and political problem for Israel.
Hezbollah displayed its relatively advanced arsenal during the 2006 war with Israel. More than 4,200 122mm Katyusha rockets slammed into the northern region of Israel, including its third-largest city, Haifa. Forty-four Israeli civilians died from Hezbollah rockets, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis fled their homes.
For both Hezbollah and Hamas, retaining the ability to fire rockets at Israel is a strategic priority. A major measure of Israel’s campaign in 2006 was its ability, or lack thereof, to curtail the Katyusha fire. Hezbollah understood the psychological importance of the rockets and managed its fire in a way that maximized its public relations value. Hezbollah fighters fired 250 Katyushas on the last day of the war, displaying to the world that the organization was still intact and able to inflict pain on Israeli civilians. Hamas’s Qassams and Grads, while not nearly the same threat to Israel as Hezbollah’s rockets, enable Hamas to pressure Israel’s government, escalate at will, and retaliate for Israeli strikes on Hamas figures.
Despite the obvious physical and strategic danger the rockets represent, Israeli leaders were slow to champion defensive measures. As a rule, Israeli politicians and commanders do not like to spend precious budgetary resources on defensive programs; this simply does not fit the Israeli mind-set or strategic culture. As a small country with no strategic depth, Israel’s doctrine has traditionally rested on the idea that it must go on the offensive, to take fighting into enemy territory as quickly as possible. Tanks and fighter jets are perfect platforms for this doctrine and fit the aggressive, brash Israeli persona. Only a prolonged public outcry moves Israeli leaders to spend money to protect civilians.
Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon initially opposed the construction of the much-discussed security barrier running the length of the West Bank. Politicians on the left attacked Sharon for his opposition to the project. “There’s no fence because political considerations are preventing the construction of a fence,” thundered Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna. “There’s no fence because Sharon is committed to Greater Israel.” Mounting casualties from suicide bombings and attendant public anger finally moved Sharon to champion the fence.
"Almost one million Israelis live in range of Hamas rockets, a pressing strategic and political problem for Israel."Defensive technologies face similar hurdles. Several years before the 2006 war, Israeli government defense technology firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems offered the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the Trophy active defense system to protect Israeli armor against advanced antitank missiles. Initially, the IDF turned Trophy down but eventually agreed to develop the system, albeit with no urgency. The outcry from civilians and reservists after the painful 2006 war in Lebanon changed the pace of development. By the end of 2009, all tanks coming off the production line featured Trophy.
Iron Dome, too, was mired in the mud of government apathy until the shock of Hezbollah’s Katyusha fire. But the attention and resources given it by the government since 2006 show that Israel’s leaders have begun to see defensive measures in a new light. “There is a serious strategic change here,” reflected Dan Meridor, minister of intelligence and atomic energy. “Years ago, it was not simple to incorporate into Israeli military doctrine the great importance of defense.”
Still, the process through which Israel finally chose and developed the Iron Dome remains a subject of controversy. Once they recognized the rocket threat, Israeli planners devised a conceptual split between passive and active responses. Passive measures consisted of armoring homes and schools in vulnerable border towns, including Sderot, and building new shelters. The active response included increased intelligence, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, and new raids into Gaza. It also featured a multilayered kinetic shield, consisting of the Arrow, fully operational in 2000 against ballistic missiles; the David’s Sling system for rockets with ranges more than 250 kilometers, currently under development; and an unspecified kinetic solution to the short-range threat.
Led by Brig.-Gen. Danny Gold, the head of the IDF’s research and development unit, Israel examined foreign options for its short-range rocket defense. It deemed the alternatives available at the time too expensive and ineffective and decided to work on developing the Nautilus system with the United States. The Nautilus, or Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL), shoots down rockets with a deuterium fluoride laser, using a chemical ray to intercept rockets more cheaply than an interceptor rocket. In a controversial decision, Israel rejected the system after successful test intercepts. The Nautilus would have cost $180 million just to ship to Israel, was immobile, and was not ready to become operational. Gold has since declared that Nautilus would not be reconsidered.
Raytheon’s Vulcan Phalanx system was the non-THEL alternative. Initially developed for ships, Phalanx consists of a radar, a tracker, and 20mm guns to shoot down incoming projectiles. Israel tested the system in 2004; in August 2005, a team led by Gold’s research and development (R&D) branch determined Phalanx could provide local protection for critical infrastructure like power stations and schools. Over the next four months, the IAF performed tests but could not come to a final recommendation because of the dearth of reliable information available, and the system was similarly still its proving stages in the United States. The IAF did remark that the Phalanx was the most developed system in the world, and the Israeli Ministry of Defense R&D Directorate (MAFAT) recommended using the system for local defense.
Israel continued its tentative interest. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak held a hearing in July 2007 and asked for the IDF R&D team to determine whether Phalanx could defend key locations within a year and a half as a complement to the nascent Iron Dome system. They found Phalanx was capable of fulfilling that need but that there were safety and environmental risks associated with 20mm cannons blasting away next to schools and homes. Led by MAFAT and Rafael, Israel eventually settled on the indigenous Iron Dome for its short-range rocket defense.
Critics and Defenders
In a highly critical report on the development of Iron Dome, state comptroller judge Micha Lindenstrauss criticized Israel’s decision to spend billions of dollars developing the system before the IDF had specified what it needed from a short-range defense system and before the government and IDF had approved the project. Although it is true that Israel’s hypercritical society regularly heaps blame on its leaders, there were real problems with Iron Dome’s development. Lindenstrauss also singles out the IAF and IDF for failing to produce an official document detailing what they needed from the system and for the increased cost that resulted from their failure to do so.
Criticism of the Iron Dome goes beyond the procedural issues. Reuven Pedhazur labeled the project a scam because of Iron Dome’s capabilities and the cost of its missiles. Iron Dome needs fifteen seconds to identify and destroy an incoming rocket from Gaza. The problem, says Pedhazur, is that a Qassam needs only fourteen seconds to strike Sderot from a range of 5 kilometers or less.
Cost is another serious problem. “Considering the fact that each Iron Dome missile costs about $100,000 and each Kassam [Qassam] $5,” Pedhazur points out, “all the Palestinians would need to do is build and launch a ton of rockets and hit our pocketbook.” He and others argue that the alternatives rejected by MAFAT would have been cheaper and more effective.
Iron Dome’s defenders, led by Gold, are quite comfortable with MAFAT’s decision. The unproven Phalanx and the expensive, immobile Nautilus were inconsistent with Israel’s needs. Gold maintains that most of the experts who pounced on the Iron Dome decision stand to gain financially if Israel buys the Nautilus. Israel’s National Security Council investigated the decision against Nautilus, finding no wrongdoing. Gold stands by his decision. “I am proud,” he said. “We didn’t let bureaucracy stand in the way.”
Contradicting Pedhazur, Iron Dome’s advocates argue it is attractive because of the cost. Once operational, it will cost only $25 million per year to protect Sderot, about the same as a weeklong multibrigade mission in northern Gaza. When critics pointed out that Israel is shooting missiles worth tens of thousands of dollars to intercept homemade rockets, Gold replied that a Kevlar vest costs hundreds of times the price of a bullet, but no one suggests the IDF stop procuring them. Also, instead of stopping every rocket, the system intercepts only those flying toward populated areas.
Even if the system is called on to intercept rockets during an extended campaign, the cost is still entirely reasonable. Of the 3,970 rockets fired by Hezbollah in 2006, 901 landed in populated areas. Were Iron Dome operational then, it would have fired $55.9 million worth of Tamir missiles—not an outrageous price, considering the entire war cost Israel $3 billion.
"During a two-day series of tests in the Negev desert in March 2009, IAF antiaircraft officers reported a 95 percent success rate in simulated intercepts."Indeed, Iron Dome has many enticing capabilities. It works both day and night and can be fired in all types of weather. The system consists of three components: the radar, battle management control center, and missile firing mechanism. The Elta radar system picks up incoming projectiles and tracks their trajectory, relaying the information to the Empersat Battle Management and Weapon Control Center (BMC), which determines whether to send an interceptor missile. If the BMC decides a rocket will land in an open field, it can continue, but if it is headed toward a town or important infrastructure, Tamir missiles are vertically fired from a mobile launcher. The interceptor flies on the projected flight path of the incoming rocket, and when it draws near, electro-optic sensors set off a proximity fuse, destroying both projectiles kinetically. Iron Dome can handle multiple simultaneous firings, and its mobility allows the IDF to rapidly transfer batteries between the Gaza and Lebanon borders.
Passing the Tests
These capabilities were proven in testing before the recent operational deployment. During a two-day series of tests in the Negev desert in March 2009, IAF antiaircraft officers reported a 95 percent success rate in simulated intercepts. Three months later, the IAF reported a successful interception of a real Grad rocket, just in time for the Paris Air Show, where Israel used footage from the test to attract international customers.
In July 2009, the Defense Ministry announced the end of the development stage with a successful intercept of a Grad rocket fired from 30 kilometers away. Iron Dome handled every type of rocket fired its way, and all components of the system were tested, including the radar and BMC. “We are on schedule,” Gold assured the press, “even a little ahead.”
Later that year, in the October Juniper Cobra exercises, the United States had a chance to work with Iron Dome. The three-week exercise, involving a thousand servicemen from the American and Israeli militaries, tested Israel’s response to various threat scenarios.
The Patriot, Arrow, and Iron Dome were featured, some say as a deterrent signal to Iran. With the end of development and testing, the IAF transitioned quickly into training and deployment. Each battery covers a medium-sized city, consisting of three to six launchers with twenty missiles each. The new Iron Dome battalion deploys in open fields to keep debris from falling on populated areas.
In August 2009, the IAF said Iron Dome would begin operational deployment in the first half of 2010. This proved overly optimistic. The first Iron Dome battery was deployed in March 2011 north of Be’er Sheva, and within a month another battery was added south of Ashkelon. On April 7, Iron Dome made its first successful intercept. The next day, the system intercepted three Grad rockets fired toward Ashkelon. By April 9, Iron Dome had successfully shot down eight incoming rockets. After the barrages in early April, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel intended to deploy another Iron Dome battery within six months and three additional batteries by the end of 2012.
"When allies bear the R&D risk and cost and the United States gets a proven product, it is a win-win for both."In June 2011, the first northern Iron Dome battery was deployed near Haifa as part of its operational testing process, though this battery has moved around the country. According to Defense Ministry director general Maj.-Gen. (res.) Udi Shani, Israel intends to continue to invest significant resources into deploying the system. “We are no longer approaching this in terms of initial operational capabilities,” Shani said, “but are defining the final target for absorbing the systems, in terms of schedule and funds. We are talking about [having] 10-15 Iron Dome batteries. We will invest nearly $1 billion on this. This is the goal, in addition to the $205 million that the U.S. government has authorized.”
A round of violence in March 2012 gave Iron Dome’s four deployed batteries another chance to prove themselves. Israel’s air force eliminated a senior Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) leader planning an attack, and PRC and Islamic Jihad responded with four days of rocket fire. Iron Dome intercepted around sixty rockets, over 90 percent of the number it targeted. In 2011, by comparison, it had enjoyed a success rate of 75 percent.
Iron Dome has cleared the daunting hurdles of Israeli bureaucracy and is intercepting rockets with increasing accuracy. Iron Dome’s supporters are largely vindicated by the operational results; it is less obvious, however, what the deployment of Iron Dome means for Israel, for the region, and for the United States.
Despite the excitement around Iron Dome, Israeli thinking has not taken as drastic a turn as it might seem toward supporting defensive technologies. Protecting civilians continues to take a back seat to Israel’s offensive capabilities. Minister for home front defense Matan Vilnai emphasized this point during a visit to northern Israel. “First of all, we will protect the Israel Air Force bases, so that the air force will be able to operate,” he said during a visit to Kiryat Motzkin, near Haifa. “It’s only a partial solution and no more than that, and [Iron Dome] is meant to allow us to exercise our might in the most suitable fashion.”
The offensive still rules in Israel, but Iron Dome does indicate some new ideas. Organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah seek public relations victories in their conflicts, not conquest of land or destruction of armies. The continuous rain of missiles on Israeli civilians and damage to world-class Merkava tanks help these organizations create a narrative of “divine victory.” Israeli commanders have begun to understand this, and defensive technologies like Iron Dome and Trophy make it harder for Hamas and Hezbollah to create this narrative.
Although the deployed Iron Dome batteries have been successful in the south, they do not come close to providing the protection Israel would require during the next round of fighting. The IAF estimates it needs thirteen batteries to defend civilians against simultaneous missiles attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, though continually increasing Iron Dome interception ranges might lower this number in the future. It will be years before Israel can deploy all of those batteries. Israel has four deployed batteries now, with only two additional long-range reserve batteries planned by early 2013.
Even the limited deployment of Iron Dome has many positive results for Israel. The fact that residents of the western Negev know they can sleep under at least a partial defensive canopy eases significant political pressure on the government. It also returns control over the scale and pace of confrontation back into Israeli hands. When Hamas is able to inflict damage and casualties on Israel at will, whether to deflect international criticism or to pressure Israel to make concessions, it holds the initiative. Now that Israel is moving toward neutralizing Hamas’s main weapon, it can decide when it wants calm and when it should escalate against Hamas. If the IDF does need to reenter Gaza, it can do so on Israel’s terms and timeline, not because a rocket lands on a kindergarten. Still, despite its many advantages, Iron Dome cannot stop Hamas from infiltrating Israel or firing missiles at school buses, both of which have led to major escalations in recent years, nor will it intercept every rocket fired.
Iron Dome has implications far beyond the troubled borders of northern and southern Israel. Iran, with its training and funding of Hamas and Hezbollah, relies on its proxies on Israel’s borders to deflect attention from its own nuclear program and violent repression of protests. It can provoke another Middle Eastern war without endangering Iranians and can choose the timing of escalations through proxy rocket fire. Iron Dome, as it continues to be deployed, makes it significantly harder for Iran to achieve these aims. The Islamic Republic will undoubtedly develop other means of deflecting attention and harming Israel, but it will be increasingly unable to use the effective, cheap rocket option.
It is unimaginable that Iran will allow itself to lose the threat dangling over Israel’s head that the rockets represent, though. If Iron Dome continues to prove itself, Iran will likely move quickly to a new weapon. For instance, Israel’s new natural gas fields in the middle of the Mediterranean could become a target for Iranian-funded missiles or small attack craft.
The United States, too, has reason to pay close attention to Iron Dome. The more effective the Iron Dome system, the harder it will be for terrorist organizations to fan the flames of conflict in the Middle East. A quiet Middle East is an American interest, as it eases the flow of oil and allows America to more easily promote democratic governance in the region. Moreover, when the next round of peace talks materialize, an American priority, it will be harder for rejectionist elements to sabotage the talks with a barrage of Katyushas or Qassams.
"The attention the United States and other NATO countries have paid to Iron Dome is a testament to the urgency of developing technology to stop short-range rockets."Though Israel funded Iron Dome alone from the drawing board to operational deployment, the United States is investing in its long-term viability. In May 2010, President Obama announced that he would ask Congress for $205 million for further development and deployment in the 2011 budget. This additional funding was used for the third and fourth operational batteries. In May of this year, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that President Obama had instructed him to provide another $70 million to Israel for Iron Dome. President Obama signed the Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act in July 2012. “This is a program that has been critical in terms of providing security and safety for the Israeli families,” said Obama. “It is a program that has been tested and has prevented missile strikes inside of Israel.” A concurrent fact sheet from the White House press office indicated that over “the next three years, the administration intends to request additional funding for Iron Dome, based on an annual assessment of Israeli security requirements against an evolving threat.”
The day after Panetta’s announcement, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, including $680 million for “procurement of additional batteries and interceptors, and for operations and sustainment expenses,” from fiscal year 2012 through 2015. This brought U.S. investment in Iron Dome to more than $900 million since 2011. Significantly, the House act explicitly calls for Israel to share Iron Dome technology with the United States and to explore coproduction of the system before the money is disbursed.
As U.S. R&D funding is slashed and military innovations crucial to staying ahead of our enemies are canceled, the Iron Dome model might still allow the United States to attain new technologies at modest expense. Israel undertook significant financial risk when it committed to developing the system. Once Iron Dome was deployed and tested in real-life intercepts, the United States decided to fund an existing, proven system, clearing the way for technology sharing and coproduction. This process protected the American taxpayer from cost overruns and canceled programs that have marked American defense innovation in recent years. When allies bear the R&D risk and cost and the United States gets a proven product, it is a win-win for both.
Israeli antimissile technology is of particular interest to the United States. After the inconsistent performance of the American Patriot missile against Iraqi Scuds, the joint Israeli-American Arrow antiballistic missile program enjoyed increased attention and impetus. The United States is integrating the Arrow system, first deployed in Israel in 2000, as part of its multilayered ballistic missile defense. According to the American Missile Defense Agency, “information gained from the program has application in several U.S. missile defense programs.” Iron Dome enjoys similar attention. After successful tests in early 2010, several NATO countries fighting in Afghanistan sent delegations to meet with representatives from Rafael. Earlier this year, Army Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said Iron Dome and other Israeli systems will be integrated into the regional missile defense array planned by the United States. Israeli batteries might even protect Arab states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.
At an April 13, 2011, hearing of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Lt. Gen. O’Reilly was asked by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) how American forces counter low-tech rockets and missiles. O’Reilly answered that he had been keeping a close eye on Iron Dome’s development and had seen it be “successful in its recent deployment against very short-range rockets.” Udall responded, “The more we develop capacity to counter flying IEDs in some ways, the better.” Mortar and rocket attacks are commonplace in Afghanistan, even killing American soldiers inside Bagram, the main US base in the country. Other countries are showing similar interest: South Korea is exploring using Iron Dome against rocket attacks from North Korea.
The Iron Dome system, despite its halting early stages, has reached its long-awaited operational deployment. Though the system does not hermetically seal Israel’s borders from the attacks of creative and determined foes, Iron Dome changes the balance in a dangerous region. The cheap rockets Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas relied on to deter and harm Israel are now much less effective. Israel’s deterrence is strengthened, and the cost terrorists will incur to acquire and fire rockets is likely to be diminished by a system that renders their rockets much less likely to cause Israel any pain.
The attention the United States and other NATO countries have paid to Iron Dome is a testament to the urgency of developing a technology to stop short-range rockets. It will take time and money to complete the process, but to this point, Iron Dome has performed as well as any of its supporters could have hoped—or Israel’s enemies could have feared.
Lazar Berman (email@example.com) is a Middle East expert based in Israel.
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