The Iron Dome system, successfully deployed in March''s Gaza escalation, has elicited a surprising set of reactions in the Israeli public sphere. On the one hand, much has been made over the high price of the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system. On the other, it has been hailed as a game changer that will neutralize the rocket threat on Israel''s borders.
Neither view is quite right.
Regarding the cost: Each of the 20 rocket interceptors loaded onto every $50 million Iron Dome battery costs some $62,000. That''s 62 times the cost of the cheap $1,000 Gazan terrorists spend to fire the rockets in the first place, critics incredulously point out.
The 73 attempted rocket interceptions in the Gaza conflict cost Israel a whopping $4.5 million, they point out. But out of a total annual defense budget of $16.3 billion, that is a pittance. Well, critics respond, while that cost may be perfectly suitable for a relatively minor scuffle such as the Gaza escalation, wouldn''t deploying Iron Dome in a large-scale conflict bankrupt Israel?
A closer look at the numbers reveals that this conjecture is nonsense. Compared to the cost of other defense measures, the Iron Dome – imperfect though it is – is practically a bargain.
Imagine, briefly, what would have happened if Israel had the Iron Dome system in place during the 2006 Lebanon war, the conflict that spawned the defense system in the first place. Some 3,970 rockets were fired at Israel within a month, 901 of which landed in urban areas. If Israel had the Iron Dome at that point, it would have cost $55.9 million in Tamir interceptors – about the base price of one Iron Dome battery.
According to IDF testimony, the Lebanon War cost a total of NIS 11.2 billion ($3 billion). Of that, NIS 3.5 billion ($941 million) paid for ammunition. In other words, adding Iron Dome interceptors to the equation would have only increased the ammunition bill by some 6%, and hardly made a dent in the overall cost of the war.
Moreover, it would have prevented a portion of the economic damage caused to Israel in the war, but not nearly all of it - herein lies the rub about Iron Dome. While the system would have ostensibly prevented about 76% (its most recent intercept rate) of the damage done to the 2,000 homes hit by rockets in the war, the anti-rocket system would have had little effect on the estimated at $1.6 billion in economic damage.
The reason is that, as we saw in the recent Gaza fighting, even a miniscule number of rockets penetrating its protective shield can still paralyze Israeli towns. As long as a small number of rockets kept falling, businesses, schools, and normal life shut down anyway, regardless of its high intercept rate.
That''s why, despite what its greatest cheerleaders say, Iron Dome is not a game changer. Had it been around in 2006, it would not have prevented the 300,000 – 500,000 Israelis who were had to leave their homes or the over 1 million who moved to bomb shelters during the war from doing so.
"Unless active defense is 100 percent effective, it will not eliminate the need for passive defense or prevent massive disruption of normal life inside the envelope of the rockets,” says defense expert Mark A. Heller of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
Is the price worth it, then?
According to Heller, its success rate is high enough to validate “the economic rationale of the project, despite the huge cost imbalance between cheap rockets and missiles coming out of Gaza and expensive interceptors sent up to destroy them.”
Consider as comparison a real game changer in Israeli defense: 2003''s security barrier. Within a year of becoming operational, the structure helped reduce the suicide bombings of the second Intifada by 90 percent, helping end the second Intifada and neutralizing much of Hamas''s bite (until Hamas figured out that it could shoot rockets right over it).
The cost of the project recently reached $2 billion.
With the added perk that the United States has pledged $205 million toward Israeli missile defense (and seems poised to pledge more), Iron Dome''s costs seem right in line with its usefulness - even if it is not the game changer everyone hoped it would be.