Heavenly shield

Israel's anti-missile system has proven successful, but has it made the country safer?

Beersheba terrorist attacks 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beersheba terrorist attacks 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Instead of turning to their TV sets for entertainment, in mid- March, people in Beersheba and Ashkelon looked up to the heavens. So did Palestinians in northern Gaza. What they saw was astonishing: A succession of gray trails across the sky converging and erupting in explosive yellow flashes, as Tamir missiles fired from Israel repeatedly intercepted and destroyed Qassam rockets and Grad missiles launched from Gaza in mid-air.
The Tamir is part of Iron Dome, Israel’s unique short-range missile defense system developed over the past five years to counter persistent rocket and missile attacks from Gaza and Lebanon. Employing state-of the- art radar, Iron Dome picks up incoming rockets or missiles from the moment they are fired and computes precisely where they will land. It then fires a pair of faster missiles to intercept only those rockets or missiles that are projected to hit populated areas. Stray rockets and missiles are ignored, so that Tamir interceptors which cost around $40,000 each are not wasted.
In the latest round of fighting in March, 92 out of 110 rockets or missiles aimed at populated areas were downed, a kill rate of just under 84 percent. Another 200 or so landed in open fields. In the exchanges, which lasted several days, no Israelis were hurt and little damage was caused on the Israeli side.
Besides the “active defense” provided by Iron Dome, the IDF doctrine against rocket and missile fire includes parallel offense.
Attack platforms, made up of air, ground and intelligence forces working in tandem, gather real-time battle intelligence to enable aircraft to swoop down on rocket and missile crews, sometimes even before they start launching.
In the March fighting, 19 Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees crews were targeted. Sixteen militiamen were killed and others working under intense pressure often botched their launcher setup or aim. Dozens of rockets fell on the Gaza side of the border. Some exploded in or near the launchers.
Elated by Iron Dome’s performance, the government decided to order more batteries and the Pentagon announced it would approach Congress for funds to pay for them.
The neutralization of their rockets also made a deep impression on the Palestinians.
As Islamic Jihadists marched through Gaza in the pro forma victory parade, spectators heckled: “What about Iron Dome?” So has Israel come up with a gamechanger in the Gaza theater? Can Iron Dome reduce the rocket and missile threat to nothing more than a minor irritant and perhaps even convince the Palestinians to stop shooting altogether? Deep strategic questions
The sophisticated system’s perceived success also raises deeper strategic questions.
Could it give Israel the confidence to withdraw from the West Bank, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak once said it would? And what about total war in which missiles play the paramount role? Is Israel’s multi-layered anti-missile system, of which Iron Dome is only one element, ready to cope with large-scale attacks on several fronts? And to what extent could it help deter a nuclear Iran? Iron Dome was developed in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon War. During that conflict Israel had no defense against the more than 4,000 rockets and missiles fired by Hizballah that crashed into population centers in northern Israel killing 53 Israelis.
Top IDF generals were largely unenthusiastic, arguing that the proposed system was expensive, unlikely to be effective, and ran counter to the IDF ’s basic doctrine of taking the battle to the enemy. As a result, budgets were held up and development was significantly slower than it could have been.
To date, there are only three operational batteries, two in the south and one on a trial basis in the Tel Aviv area, with a fourth due to be deployed in early April. According to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, for defense across the country Israel needs a minimum of 13.
But even if there is a full complement, how much of a difference will Iron Dome make? Although in four rounds of fighting since last April, it achieved its stated objectives in spectacular fashion – protecting life and property, relieving pressure on the political echelon to escalate and giving the IDF more time to plan and conduct military operations – most analysts doubt whether it will prove a strategic game-changer.
Imperfect system
The main reason for this is that the system is not perfect, says Mark Heller, a research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. As long as around 20 percent of rockets and missiles aimed at population centers continue to leak through, he maintains that nothing much will change.
“Whenever there is an alert, people can’t be sure they won’t be hit by one of the 20 percent that get through. So everyone has to go running to the shelters anyway and public events have to be canceled. Parents have to stay home from work and the economy gets disrupted,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
Moreover, he says, the fact that the government was not under pressure to escalate was only a matter of luck. Had any of the missiles that got through caused casualties that situation would quickly have been reversed. Most tellingly, in Heller’s view, Iron Dome on its own will not be enough to deter the Palestinians.
“It only costs them a few hundred dollars to assemble and fire a rocket. So the fact that less than 20 percent get through won’t dissuade them from trying. What would deter them is certain knowledge that they are going to pay a high price in terms of offensive retaliation,” he contends.
Nevertheless, even if there is 15-20 percent leakage, Iron Dome significantly reduces Israeli costs in terms of life and property.
Uzi Rubin, former head of the Arrow long-range anti-missile defense program, points out that before Iron Dome, every 75 rockets fired by the Arab side caused an Israeli fatality. Now, he says, they will have to fire at least six times more rockets to even approach the same results. “Looking at it strategically, if it cuts fatalities and damages to such an extent, it changes the game,” he tells The Report.
Still Rubin, an internationally renowned expert on missile defense, concedes that this will not deter the Palestinians. On the contrary, he expects them to try to beat the system by firing more.
Indeed, Iron Dome’s most vociferous critics see its Achilles heel in a virtually unlimited Palestinian capacity to fire cheap rockets.
“Economically, it’s crazy, using two $40,000 missiles to shoot down a $100 rocket,” says Reuven Pedatzur, a fighter pilot turned political scientist and the country’s most outspoken critic of the missile defense concept.
Worse, says Pedatzur, Iron Dome will be wholly ineffective in future scenarios where it faces thousands of rockets and multiple simultaneous launchings. Besides the potential saturation of its radar systems, Pedatzur argues that Iron Dome would run out of Tamir interceptors relatively early in any major conflict.
“Given the price tag, how many can they possibly have?” he scoffs.
Some commentators suggest that the disparity in missile costs could actually lure the Palestinians into launching an economic war of attrition: Deliberately firing thousands of cheap rockets to draw Iron Dome’s much more expensive missiles and so exhaust Israel economically. But this scenario fails to factor in Israel’s offensive capacity and its ability to exact an even heavier economic price from the other side long before the costs of a missile war become intolerable.
Looking at the bigger strategic picture, Iron Dome is unlikely to prove a gamechanger with regard to withdrawal from the West Bank, at least not in the immediate future. Other factors, like settler pressure, coalition politics and the current government’s views on regional security, are almost certain to outweigh the system’s capacity to contain a potential West Bank rocket threat.
Indeed, according to Rubin, Barak himself did not really believe his own contention that Iron Dome would create conditions for an Israeli pullback.
“In 2007, there was a monumental battle between the military and political echelons over missile defense. The army thought it a waste of money and Barak had to find compelling reasons why budgets should be allocated.So he very cleverly came up with a political need for missile defense because he knew the generals wouldn’t be able to argue against that,” Rubin tells The Report.
Total war
In theory, if total war were to break out, Iron Dome, geared to handle incoming missiles with ranges from 2.5 to 45 miles, would be complemented by other elements of the multi-layered missile defense system: Magic Wand for ranges from 25 to 200 miles and the Arrow, backed by the American Patriot PAC-2, for long-range anti-ballistic missiles, like the Iranian Shihab.
The trouble is Magic Wand is not yet operational and the IDF has not acquired or deployed the optimal alternative, the Patriot PAC-3. And although there are three operational Arrow-2 batteries, the upgraded Arrow-3 has yet to fly.
Nevertheless, Rubin argues that in an emergency the strategic significance of the missile defense system would be enormous, primarily because it could protect army bases and ensure powerful Israeli retaliation.
“The first enemy target in all-out war will not be the civilian population, but the army bases and the munitions depots. And if Iron Dome can protect a city the size of Beersheba, it can certainly defend bases like those. And that sends a strong deterrent message to other side,” he says.
Rubin makes a similar argument with regard to a possible future nuclear balance with Iran. He argues that for nuclear deterrence to be effective, the Iranians need to believe Israel has an assured second strike capability and that its retaliation, if attacked, would be certain, massive and unstoppable.
According to open sources, Israel has six strategic air bases, of which Rubin says at least three would survive any opening Iranian nuclear salvo thanks to protection afforded by the Arrow, thereby guaranteeing a massive Israeli response.
“The missile defense shield that Israel has been prescient enough to deploy ahead of time is a key element in this deterrence, and the continued investment in its enhancement should be seen as a necessary and unavoidable part of the cost of safeguarding Israel’s continued existence and prosperity against any odds, including a nuclear Iran,” he insists.
Pedatzur demurs. “You don’t need the Arrow for that. For that we have Dolphin submarines, which are, according to foreign reports, capable of launching nuclear weapons. Why waste billions on something we don’t need?” he fumes.
The best way to deter Iran, in Pedatzur’s view, would be to drop Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity and to spell out exactly what would happen to Iranian cities if Israel were attacked.
Clearly, developing its anti-missile defenses has cost Israel billions. Rubin claims it has not been at the expense of other weapons’ systems. But has it made Israel safer? The jury is still out.