Iron Dome is good news only on one condition: that the political and
military echelons in Israel acknowledge its limitations.
Iron Dome: Has the Euphoria Been Justified?
by Prof. Avi Kober
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 199, February 25, 2013
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Early praise for the Iron Dome system may be deserved.
Yet Israelís deterrence capability has not been enhanced, and the Iron Dome
may initiate an arms race among Israelís enemies to try and defeat it.
Moreover, its success lowers the chance for Israeli punitive actions that
are needed for deterrence.
In early February 2013 the IDF deployed the Iron Dome anti-rocket system in
northern Israel, to fend off potential threats in the area. This system is
truly an impressive technological achievement. It was evaluated as an asset,
thanks to the systemís ability not only to save lives but to also afford
greater freedom of choice for the political and military echelons regarding
when and how to respond to attacks on the home front.
Praise for Iron Dome
Even initial critics have admitted that the systemís ability to intercept
some 90 percent of the missiles fired at Israel during Operation Pillar of
Defense in Gaza in November 2012 Ė which would have otherwise hit populated
areas Ė is beyond the developersí expectations and a significant
contribution to Israeli defensive capabilities. The system saved lives of
civilians and troops, which makes it attractive to Israelís casualty-averse
society, particularly in conflicts that do not endanger Israelís most vital
security interests, let alone its survival. Its high cost is still lower
than the damage inflicted by Palestinian or Hizballah rockets on property,
let alone the cost in human loss. Each intercepting Iron Dome missile costs
approximately $50,000, whereas the damage inflicted by one rocket on Israeli
targets is much higher, estimated at around $750,000 for one ďaverageĒ
middle age Israeli killed or $190,000 for damage caused to property. The
United Statesí readiness to assist Israel in funding the system means that
its burden on Israelís security budget is, and will be, tolerable.
Criticism of Iron Dome
A handful of strategic experts have spoiled the euphoria, raising some
doubts regarding the systemís efficiency. For example, some claim that the
system can hardly cope with thousands of enemy rockets, particularly with
the challenge of multiple rocket launchers, and that it has from the start
been technologically unable to defend the communities located close to the
Gazan border; such a defense would require other systems, like laser
interceptors. They also argue that the effect of Iron Dome is limited
because some rockets manage to penetrate the system.
But there are additional negative aspects of the system that should be
considered. A major problem is created by the fact that it does not produce
deterrence. Iron Dome is unable to destroy the appetite of the Palestinians
and Hizballah to attack Israel, as it contributes neither to
deterrence-by-denial nor to deterrence-by-punishment. In the former type of
deterrence the attacker is expected to pay a high price by being denied by
the adversaryís defensive deployment, while in the latter type of deterrence
the attacker is expected to pay a high price as a result of the painful
offensive retaliation of the adversary. Currently, Iron Dome can do no more
than frustrate the challenger, not deter him. Furthermore, the tacit, often
unintended message conveyed by deploying defensive systems Ė that the
challenged side is ready to tolerate attacks on its home front Ė has put
Israel in a position of weakness against an enemy that is ready to kill and
be killed, and has negatively affected its deterrent posture.
It is also argued that Israeli towns will not be held hostage by Palestinian
groups. This is only partially true. The sirens and the 10 percent of the
rockets that will penetrate Iron Dome-covered areas Ė and even rockets that
were intentionally not intercepted because the systemís radar had calculated
that they were going to fall in empty areas Ė have a demoralizing effect.
The trickle of rockets still forces Israeli citizens to seek shelter during
rocket attacks and disrupt routine life. Even a more complete system will
not allow the maintenance of a peacetime routine, because the debris of the
intercepted rockets, as well as that of the interceptors themselves, will be
a danger to people in open areas. Furthermore, due to Israelís ability to
sustain rocket attacks thanks to a low casualty rate, border communities are
doomed to suffer from prolonged conflict and be held hostage by Hamas and
The argument that the system provides freedom to the political leadership
and the IDF time to prepare for offensive actions is problematic, too. It
can easily be presented the other way around: a lack of casualties among
Israeli civilians might make any large-scale military punishment operation
almost illegitimate, both externally and domestically.
Finally, the problem of Iron Dome to handle large quantities of rockets
launched against Israel serves as a catalyst for an arms race, as it
encourages challengers to acquire large quantities of missiles and rockets
to penetrate the defensive cover. It was for this reason that during the
Cold War the superpowers agreed to avoid deployment of such systems, save
for in very limited areas. Israelís tiny size does justify such deployment,
but this cannot change the fact that Israelís enemies have long ago
identified Israelís active defensive weaknesses and have been arming
massively for this purpose, a process that challenges Iron Dome and other
active defense systems.
The most positive aspect of Iron Dome is the systemís life-saving
capability, and the feeling among Israeli citizens that they are now better
protected, which should not be underestimated. Some doubts exist regarding
the systemís benefits, though. The system does not provide protection for
those living close to the border, and hardly frees the home front from
disruption of daily life and demoralization. In addition, it is
counterproductive as far as deterrence is concerned, and might create the
impression that Israel is prepared to tolerate enemy rocket attacks.
Furthermore, Iron Dome might tie Israeli hands rather than afford freedom of
choice and action as far as retaliation is concerned, and could weaken
Israelís traditional offensive approach. Finally, the system might stimulate
a quantitative arms race as a result of an Arab attempt to take advantage of
Iron Domeís difficulties in coping with a large quantity of rockets.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rightly said that ďwe will not protect
ourselves to death.Ē Iron Dome is good news only on one condition: that the
political and military echelons in Israel acknowledge its limitations.
Prof. Avi Kober is an associate professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan
University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity
of the Greg Rosshandler Family