Iron Dome: Strategic benefits and tactical limitations

The system could be improved by technology that intercepts rockets as they are launched.

Iron Dome 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iron Dome 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Irag fired Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, UN coalition forces used Patriot missiles to shoot them down with a success rate, MIT researchers found, of under 10 percent. Contrast that figure with Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket system intercepting 58 of the 76 rockets it targeted during last week's attacks in the South, and you see that progress has been made.
The 76 percent success rate marked the first time in history that such a system destroyed a majority of the targets it engaged on the battlefield.
That anti-missile systems like Iron Dome and Arrow have become more reliable will have enormous strategic benefits—even more than their proponents believe—but only if accompanied by systems that target missiles as they are launched.
The strategic benefits
Critics of Iron Dome hold that the disparity between the costs of each interceptor—$45,000 per unit —versus the meager costs of producing Qassams or importing Grad rockets means Gazans must only inundate Israel with rockets, overwhelming our systems and forcing us to waste enormous sums. The system's proponents counter that what matters is not the disparity in production costs, but the cost of the damage--in human lives and property--that would occur each time a rocket hits its target.
This cost-benefit calculus only scratches the surface. Properly appraising the benefits of Iron Dome only starts with the fact that there were no serious Israeli casualties (and little damage to property) during the latest round of fighting.
Without serious Israeli casualties, Israeli leaders faced fewer and less strident calls to engage in a wider bombing campaign or ground incursion, which would inevitably result in more Palestinian casualties. The irony, it turns out, is that Iron Dome saves not just Israeli lives, but Palestinian lives as well.
Besides the inherent value in preventing Palestinian civilian deaths, minimizing Palestinian casualties is also crucial for winning the front we most often lose: the battle for global public opinion.
Iron Dome: game changer
Still, the largest strategic benefit of Iron Dome is that it may prove Israel's most effective tool for deterring future rocket attacks, greatly reducing the number of confrontations in the South. A reduction in violence would reduce overall military spending and benefit the entire economy, thus easily offsetting the costs of operating Iron Dome.
Thomas Schelling's classic treatise Arms and Influence illustrates how a technology like Iron Dome deters other countries from attacking. The Nobel laureate explored what he referred to as "the power to hurt." Schelling's point was that militaries rarely wage wars with the aim of simply bludgeoning the other side to death. Armies instead use violence to coerce their opponents into making concessions. Like the childhood game of "Uncle," the goal is not to break the other guy's knuckles, but to inflict enough pain and grief that they would rather agree to your demands than continue to suffer.
Gazan rocket attacks, like the Palestinian use of suicide bombers, follow this logic precisely. No one, not even the Islamic Jihad, believes these rockets will cause massive damage to Israel. Their power lies solely in their capacity to terrorize and disrupt our everyday lives. With the range of Palestinian rockets increasing, these groups gain greater power to paralyze the lives of over a million citizens whenever they fancy. Soon, that number will quadruple.
Iron Dome undermines that dynamic. It means that Israelis pay a relatively tiny price for any future conflict while the army can continue unimpeded to inflict pain on Gaza's militant groups.
This is precisely what groups like Islamic Jihad fear most: being denied the power to hurt.
This fear of being exposed as impotent is what propelled Islamic Jihad to fire far more rockets (240) than during any previous clash since the Gaza War three years ago. Still, the effort was to no avail: Islamic Jihad said "uncle" first.
Should Islamic Jihad suffer another such colossal failure, it will start actively avoiding future confrontations just to prevent additional humiliation.
If so, Iron Dome's biggest benefit may be that it prevents the outbreak of war in the first place.
The tactical limitations
This said, systems like Iron Dome, which intercept missiles toward the end of their flight, face severe tactical limitations. Perhaps the best analogy for these systems is that they are like great goal keepers in soccer or hockey: without a good offense, the game is still lost.
During the recent fighting, Iron Dome was not overcome by Palestinian rockets for one main reason: the Israeli Air Force constantly flew over Gaza. The IAF not only took out 19 rocket squads as they fired, but the threat of IAF strikes put the fear of God in the hearts of Islamic Jihad's launching squads.
This offensive pressure meant that firing squads made lots of mistakes. The first evidence of such is that fully one quarter of all rockets fired (71 out of 240) didn't even land in Israeli territory. Of those that did, more than half landed in empty fields, meaning that launching squads could not use previous successes to calibrate their next launch. Finally, hitting these squads reduced the capacity to fire more rockets and may make individuals more reticent to join these units in the future.
As a result of this success, Iron Dome only had to deal a quarter of all rockets fired. With fewer incoming targets, Iron Dome can perform better. Moreover, it keeps the system financially viable.
I raise this point to avoid a lull into a false sense of security regarding Iran, believing that the Arrow system might have the same sort of success intercepting incoming Shihab missiles.
The problem is that, unlike Lebanon or Gaza, Israel on its own has limited capacity to hunt down mobile missile launchers in Iran. While American forces would have a greater capacity, the fact is insufficient resources have been spent on developing systems, known as Boost Phase Interceptors that intercept missiles as they are launched. Without a strong offense on the field, a war with Iran will feel like an unending "shootout" in hockey or soccer.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.