Putting Iron Dome into perspective

Technology cannot hermetically seal our skies.

Iron Dome 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Iron Dome 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
The technological achievement that took the original Iron Dome concept from the drawing board to a deployable multi-tested anti-missile system is remarkable – the latest in the impressive collection of feathers in the caps of Israel’s innovative scientists and defense industries.
Within a few months, batteries of anti-missile missiles are to be positioned in vulnerable Gaza-vicinity communities to protect them against indiscriminate rocketry fired from the Hamas bastion. The various towns are already competing hard to make sure they will be adequately covered.
That said, nobody promises that the Iron Dome will offer absolute protection. Even what is touted may well be beyond the system’s practical capabilities.
Earlier in the week, it passed its final operational tests with flying colors, but real life is a whole other opera (as Israelis may remember from the disappointing performance, to put it mildly, of the Patriots in the First Gulf War).
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i candidly admits that the Iron Dome cannot intercept all Gazan rockets and that Israeli communities will remain menaced. Nevertheless he is confident that 80 percent of incoming projectiles can be foiled. But can they? Even the optimistic Vilna’i notes that Iron Dome cannot be deployed everywhere and would have to be installed according to “operational requirements.”
The Kassams and assorted primitive hardware, however, are highly maneuverable, and there can be scant intelligence as to when someone will fire them or from where.
Hence, unless every inch of the western Negev is covered 24/7, it’s unrealistic to expect even an 80% success rate. For how can even the most learned assessments keep up with roving Kassam crews? Adding to the complexity is the fact that some of the communities under Kassam threat are too close to the borderline for sufficient warning time. The Iron Dome system requires 15 seconds to identify an incoming Kassam. But incoming rockets can (and have in the past) hit their targets after being airborne for shorter durations. The Iron Dome, furthermore, doesn’t offer protection against mortars.
Last but not least, there’s the sticky issue of footing the bill. The popular mantra is that no price is too high to save lives, which – considered strictly on the moral plane – is indisputable. Keep in mind, though, that it costs next to nothing to manufacture a Kassam and that Hamas may have many scores of thousands of crude rockets stored in its arsenals.
One single Iron Dome anti-missile missile costs $100,000.
Clearly, firing against any flying object from Gaza could wreak havoc with the already slashed IDF budget. The army, likewise, would not want to squander all available Iron Dome batteries in a short time and then remain helpless until more come down the production lines.
The prevailing counter-argument is that only Kassams that threaten defined communities would be downed. But such calculations are far from foolproof.
It isn’t always possible to forecast where a Kassam will hit. If not every Gaza projectile is targeted by the Iron Dome, there’s no telling what the Kassam that is not taken down can destroy.
IT IS imperative that Israelis are keenly aware of all of the above, in order to shatter the dangerous delusion that a magical, defensive panacea exists to the Kassam and mortar threat from Gaza. Such delusions can become addictive. And when the magic is exposed, the bitterness can be all the deeper.
Let there be no mistake – technologically, again, the Iron Dome is a stellar achievement that holds great promise. It may fall short of constituting a major deterrent, yet it could help render the Kassam a less attractive mode of terrorizing Israelis. But its contribution to securing Israel, though potentially valuable, should not be exaggerated.
The Iron Dome underscores Israel’s ongoing technological superiority in the region, and it can buy us time. Unfortunately, it cannot hermetically seal our skies. Nor can it replace traditional battlefield offensives to take out terror bases across the lines.