About Us






Monday, October 24, 2011
[Unintended consequence?] Iron Dome in Action: A Preliminary Evaluation - by Uzi Rubin

[Dr. Aaron Lerner - IMRA

About two months after the April 2011 fighting, a senior Israel Air Force
officer declared, "The success of Iron Dome saved the IDF another major
operation in Gaza."

But put another way: the success of the Iron Dome is that it allows
politicians to sit back while the Palestinians prepare an offensive
capability - targeting accuracy, warhead size along with quantity of rockets
that could represent a critical threat to Israel.

But instead of destroying this capability before it is employed against the
Jewish State, the Iron Dome system keeps the heat off the politicians to
address the challenge.]


Iron Dome in Action: A Preliminary Evaluation

by Uzi Rubin

BESA Center Perspectives Papers No. 151, October 24, 2011

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The "Iron Dome" anti-rocket active defense system was
first used by Israel in April 2011 with great technical success. This
prompted defense officials to finally make public the strategic objectives
and limitations of the system, which, until then, had not been divulged. It
also expanded the public debate on missile defense from one that focused on
the threat to Sderot and the Gaza envelope communities to a debate that
included the threat of longer range rockets on larger cities deep within
Israel. It can reasonably be concluded that the Iron Dome system has
succeeded in saving lives and reducing damages, thus providing more
flexibility to the political leadership for containing the fighting with the
Hamas government in Gaza.


Israel's new "Iron Dome" anti-rocket active defense system made its
operational debut in southern Israel in two rounds of escalation in the
fighting along the Gaza strip (April and August 2011). The development of
active defense systems in Israel that started with Arrow in the early 1990's
and in which Iron Dome is the latest chapter has always been accompanied by
acrimonious public debate and behind-the-doors battles within the defense
establishment. These battles have been mainly between the political
leadership and the professional military echelons – which resisted the
diversion of resources from offensive to defensive weapons.

This operational debut of Iron Dome, which can be characterized as a
technical success, provides an opportunity to evaluate its performance and
the degree to which it fulfilled its expectations. There exists a
significant degree of ambiguity about the technical and strategic
expectations from the system, since Israel's defense establishment never
specified them publicly. Similarly there exists significant ambiguity about
the actual performance of the system in battle, as practically no official
data was released. Yet the very appearance of Iron Dome on the battlefield
generated world-wide interest and was widely reported in Israel and abroad.
The wealth of public domain reports permits a preliminary evaluation of its
performance and implications.

Objectives and Goals

The shock of the 2006 Lebanon War was a catalyst for Israel's decision to
develop an anti-rocket system. In February 2007, Iron Dome was selected as
the preferred system, though by that time, daily life in northern Israel had
returned to normal. In the south, however, the tempo of the rocket offensive
from Gaza was increasing. Accordingly, the public debate on Iron Dome
revolved around its effectiveness in the lower limit of its capacity –
namely rockets fired from 4 km away – and its ability to destroy mortar
shells. Sderot, the city that suffered most from increasing Qassam rocket
attacks, was the focal point of discussions on Iron Dome. The public debate
barely touched on the need to defend larger cities deeper within Israel,
despite the fact that longer range rockets from Gaza had been targeting
Ashkelon since mid-2006.

Initially, much uncertainty surrounded Iron Dome's role in the overall
response strategy to the rocket and missile threat on Israel. Its
fundamental goals – what was it expected to defend against, who or what
would be defended, and what were the required defense levels – were withheld
from the public. From its laconic statements one might have concluded that
the defense establishment saw the role of Iron Dome as limited to the
defense of the Gaza envelope against Qassams.

For example, at the end of 2007, Ehud Barak, Israel's Minister of Defense,
assumed that “within two and a half years we will be able to deploy the
first system in Sderot.”1 It was only after the initial success of Iron Dome
in April 2011 that senior officials in Israel's Ministry of Defense (MOD)
elaborated on its strategic objectives and limitations. Brig. Gen. (res.)
Ophir Shoham, Director of the Ministry of Defense (MOD) Directorate for
Research and Development (known by its acronym MAFAT), said that the
system's strategic goal is to allow the political leadership room for
maneuver and to provide an alternative to escalation.2

Then-head of MAFAT's R&D Division Brig. Gen. Danny Gold stated more
specifically that the rationale for the system was threefold: ethical,
economic and strategic. Ethically, the system represents the state's
obligation to protect citizens’ life and property. Economically, the system
prevents the paralysis of the nation's economy. And strategically, “[the
system] is a response to the main threat from the enemy" – a way to "avoid
costly military operations and allow the political leadership to have
alternative courses of actions other than escalation.”3

As for the defensive capacity of Iron Dome, the program's manager at Rafael,
Yossi Drucker, warned that no system guarantees 100 percent protection. The
head of the MOD program office, Lieutenant Colonel C. similarly cautioned,
"No system is hermetic; the citizens should avoid complacency,"4 and
Israel's Minister of Defense Ehud Barak warned that "(Iron Dome) does not
provide a 100 percent answer."5 In a wider perspective, MAFAT Director Ophir
Shoham declared that "We do not presume to shoot down thousands of rockets.
Rather, we aim to minimize the damage and let the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) do other things…"6 Such objectives are much wider than simply
protecting the town of Sderot.

It is unclear whether such MOD considerations played a role in the decision
to launch the development of Iron Dome in February 2007 or whether they were
adopted only more recently. It is reasonable to assume, however, that such
or similar arguments were made behind the scenes during the acerbic
confrontations between the High Command and the political leadership about
the need for active defense in general and Iron Dome in particular. Be it as
it may, Iron Dome is now officially tasked to fulfill three goals:
Protecting Israeli life and property, providing new flexibility to the
political leadership, and giving the IDF extra time to prepare for offensive

Iron Dome in Action

The first operational use of Iron Dome in April 2011 was in reaction to an
escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli targets. After the IDF's
offensive responses failed to stop the accelerated and deep-reaching
attacks, a decision was made to deploy one of two available Iron Dome
batteries over Beersheba. At this time, Iron Dome was not yet declared to
have Initial Operational Capability. The deployment was completed on March
23, 2011 and was called an "operational experiment." As tensions continued
to rise and with exchanges of fire along the Gaza border, the second
available battery was deployed on April 4, near Ashkelon.

On April 7, as revenge for the targeted killing of three senior operatives,
Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, killing a
16-year-old boy. In response, the IDF ratcheted up its attacks on
Palestinian targets while Gaza terrorist groups (not Hamas) launched
long-range rockets at Ashkelon. The Iron Dome battery that had been deployed
there achieved its first interception of a Palestinian rocket that day. Over
the next couple of days, Iron Dome successfully destroyed several other
rockets launched at Ashkelon, while the other battery, stationed in
Beersheba, was first activated on April 8, destroying at least one Grad
rocket aimed at the city. Media sources reported that the new system had
destroyed eight of the nine rockets that it engaged. (According to the
director of MAFAT, the success rate was nine out of 10). On April 11, the
Palestinians declared a ceasefire and southern Israel returned to a state of
tense calm.

The next period of escalation began on August 18, 2011 when Palestinian
terrorists attacked several vehicles on the highway to Eilat, killing eight
Israelis. In swift retaliation the IDF killed five senior operatives of the
Popular Resistance Committees, held responsible by Israel for the
cross-border raid. This led to an intensified rocket offensive from Gaza on
Ashkelon, Beersheba and other areas deep within Israel. The two batteries
defending Beersheba and Ashkelon destroyed a significant number of incoming
rockets (but rockets fired at Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and other
towns were not engaged because no additional batteries were available).

On August 20, the Palestinians fired the largest yet salvo of rockets (the
media reported 11 simultaneous launches) at Beersheba. While many of the
rockets were destroyed in mid-air, one penetrated the defense screen,
killing an Israeli civilian and wounding 10. The next day, another three
salvoes were fired at Beersheba. No Israeli was injured, but one rocket hit
an empty school that was likely located within the protective radius of Iron
Dome. Seemingly then, this rocket managed to penetrate the defense screen.

The Palestinians declared another ceasefire on August 28, but the targeted
killing of an Islamic Jihad operative spurred renewed rocket fire. This did
not cause any further casualties in Israel and several more rockets were
successfully intercepted. The IDF reacted with restraint and the rocket fire
subsided after several days. According to the media, Iron Dome destroyed
between 18 and 20 rockets during this period of escalation, but the Israeli
defense establishment declined to provide official information on the
success rate. The sole official statement came from Israel's ambassador to
the US, who cited an 85 percent success rate.7

Evaluating Iron Dome's Technical Performance

It seems that the achievements of Iron Dome in April pleasantly surprised
the IDF and the Israeli public, yet its performance in August somewhat
disappointed the public (but not the IDF). The initial successes created an
unjustified perception among the public of a hermetic, leak-proof defense
system. The few rockets that subsequently penetrated the system during the
August fighting dispelled this perception and caused a degree of

In the absence of official figures, our system performance evaluation must
rely on indirect evidence. A total of 300 to 350 rockets of all kinds were
fired by the Palestinians at Israeli targets near Gaza and deeper into
Israel in the course of the two cycles of violence. Only one Israeli was
killed, which means then that the effective lethality of the rockets in the
two events was 300 rockets per fatality (RPF).8

The lethality of the Gaza rockets during the eight-year (2001-2009)
offensive on the Gaza envelope communities averaged 254 RPF9 – however,
when the 300th rocket hit Israel, four fatalities had already been incurred,
hence the initial RPF stood at 75. In the 2006 Lebanon War, the initial RPF
stood at 50 (it later dropped to 75).

In both cases, initial lethality was higher than the average since it took
some time for the public to comply with civil defense instructions and take
shelter upon alerts. Media reports on the public's behavior during the two
cycles of escalation in 2011 show that it resembled the initial pattern of
the eight-year rocket offensive, with a sizable proportion of the public
failing to take cover. Hence, it is legitimate to compare the effective
lethality of the April and August 2011 cycles of attacks to the initial
lethality of the two previous campaigns. From this perspective, the initial
lethality in the 2011 escalations with an RPF of 300 was extraordinarily
low.10 Since this cannot be attributed to public discipline or compliance
with civil defense instructions,11 it must have been Iron Dome's
effectiveness that reduced the rockets' lethality by about two thirds. It
seems, then, that Iron Dome has achieved a significant technical success.

Israeli and Palestinian Reactions

Initial reports of Iron Dome's success in April 2011 were received with some
skepticism in Israel and even attributed by some commentators to pure luck.
Nevertheless, when the April escalation ended with no Israeli casualties and
the full extent of Iron Dome's capabilities was realized, euphoria

Throughout this round of escalation, the pattern of rocket attacks from Gaza
was markedly different than in the past. Sderot, previously a magnet for
Qassam attacks, enjoyed relative calm, suffering only one rocket impact
throughout the April fighting. The Palestinians, instead, evidently
preferred to launch longer range rockets at larger cities deeper within
Israel. This facilitated the task of Iron Dome since it had to deal with
longer range targets.

During the next cycle of violence in August, the Palestinians maintained
their new policy of attacking larger, more distant cities. Sderot was
"neglected" once again, with only two rocket impacts. It seems that the
Palestinians chose this time to attack cities defended by Iron Dome in order
to probe its weaknesses and attempt to penetrate its defensive screen,
thereby gaining "points" among constituents for any Israeli casualties. The
heavy salvo on Beersheba on August 20 – that may well have been aimed at the
equidistant, undefended city of Ashdod – lends credence to this theory.

The public responses in Israel following this second cycle of escalation
were more muted than previously. This time, praises for the system's
performance were accompanied by some criticism. Reuven Pedatzur, a Haaretz
defense analyst and a long-time critic of missile defense in Israel (and
abroad), declared that the Iron Dome concept collapsed because, among other
things, "it was shown that civilians under attack could not maintain their
daily life without fear".12 A similar sentiment was expressed by former
Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Arens, who lauded the system's technical
achievement but pointed out that despite the active defense, "the rockets
forced the residents of southern Israel to run for shelter."13

Considering the warning of senior defense officials that Iron Dome cannot
provide a hermetic, leak proof shield and the constant pleading by the
Homeland Defense Command for the public to take cover even in cities
defended by Iron Dome, it is difficult to see why both critics nurtured the
mistaken notion that Iron Dome was supposed to provide "normal daily life
without fear" under rocket fire.

Israel's defense establishment continued praising the system after the
August events while mayors in southern Israel clamored for Iron Dome's
deployment to their cities as it evoked a sense of security.14 Defense
Minister Ehud Barak ordered the prompt deployment of a third Iron Dome
battery to Ashdod and promised a fourth battery would be delivered by the
end of 2011. It seems then that both the defense establishment and the
general public regarded Iron Dome's performance in the August fighting as a
success, despite the Beer Sheba casualties. It also appears that the IDF
overcame its historical distaste for missile defense, embracing Iron Dome
with some enthusiasm.

Palestinian officials kept silent about the debut of an active defense
system in the arena. Yet some sense of the mood in Gaza can be deduced from
media reports on Gazans’ reactions. A Palestinian resident of Beit Lahia was
quoted as saying: "People in the northern Gaza Strip can clearly see Iron
Dome in action. The uselessness of our rockets was never as evident to the
people as it is now."15

Strategic Implications

About two months after the April 2011 fighting, a senior Israel Air Force
officer declared, "The success of Iron Dome saved the IDF another major
operation in Gaza."16 In his view, the successful performance of the system
provided decision makers with an added degree of freedom and gave them an
alternative to a major offensive action. The enemy did not achieve its goal,
became frustrated and ceased firing. The IDF has apparently concluded that
its newly introduced active defense arm achieved its strategic goals:
protecting Israeli life and property, providing new flexibility to the
political leadership, and giving the IDF extra time to prepare for offensive
operations. In the view of the above quoted officer, there was one further
achievement: A dissuasive effect that was brought about by the enemy's sense
of frustration, motivating him to cease his fire.

It is still too early to judge how accurate this evaluation is. Iron Dome
did indeed save lives and protect property. It can also be reasonably
concluded that the low number of civilian casualties allowed the political
leadership to act with restraint and minimize its aerial attacks on Gaza,
thereby reducing collateral damage and containing the situation.

However, it is hard to see how Israel would otherwise have risked a major
ground offensive in Gaza when the collapse of the Mubarak regime has
strained it relations with Egypt, when Israel was gearing up for a
diplomatic battle over the Palestinian UN bid for statehood, and when the
political damage from Operation Cast Lead was still fresh in mind.

As for the alleged dissuasive effect of Iron Dome, this did not prevent
Palestinian armed organizations in Gaza from launching large-scale rocket
attacks in August. In fact, Iron Dome may have challenged them to ratchet up
their fire in an effort to break through the defensive shield.

Another lesson from the two recent periods of escalation was the race
between the offense and defense. The lively public debate about Iron Dome
focused exclusively on its capability to defend Sderot and other Gaza
envelope communities, neglecting the growing threat on larger cities deeper
within Israel. It is now clear that the system's architects were correct in
designing it against both the shorter and longer range threats.

In conclusion, the jury is still out on the full implications of active
defense for the Israeli-Palestinian battlefield. More data must be gathered
(hopefully not too soon). Nevertheless, having already saved the lives of
Israeli civilians and soldiers, and having helped the political leadership
contain the fighting – which apparently it did – Iron Dome has already made
a significant contribution to Israel's security.

Uzi Rubin was head of the Israel Ministry of Defense "Arrow" defense program
against long-range missiles, and is the author of the recent BESA Center
study: The Missile Threat from Gaza: From Nuisance to Strategic Threat.

BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg
Rosshandler Family.


1 Amos Harel: "Minister of Defense: A missile defense system will protect
Sderot within two and a half years," Haaretz, December 24 2007
2 Anshel Pfeffer: "Ophir Shoham, Is it cost effective to intercept a rocket
with a 100000 shekels interceptor?" Haaretz, April 11, 2011.
3 Noam Barkan, "Ruling the Dome," Yediot Aharonot, April 11, 2011.
4 Ibid.
5 Hanan Greenberg and Elior Levi, "Barak on Iron Dome: Does Not Provide a
100 Percent Answer," Ynet, March 25, 2011.
6 Ibid.
7 Eli Lake, "Israel Iron Dome Missile Defense System Hits 8% of Targets,"
Washington Post, August 29, 2011.
8 Lethality is reciprocal to RPF. A large RPF means that more rockets are
needed to cause one fatality, and vice versa.
9 See "From Harassment to Strategic Threat" by the present author, BESA
publication no. 87, page 17 fig. 3 (Hebrew).
10 According to a Ministry for Foreign Affairs website detailing Palestinian
rocket and mortar fire on Israel, the number of rockets hitting Israel in
April 2011 was 65, and in August 2011 149 – a grand total of 214 rockets.
It is not clear whether this source is more reliable than general media. In
any case, even with this lower estimate of the total number of rockets, the
main conclusions herein remain valid.
11 The victims of the Beersheba rocket attack on the night of August 20
failed to take cover when the rocket hit, see "ZAKA volunteer: the killed
and wounded were not sheltered within a protected space"
12 Reuven Pedatzur, "The Collapsed Dome," Haaretz, August 26, 2011.
13 Moshe Arens, "An Imperfect Pride," Haaretz, August 31, 2011.
14 The mayor of Ashdod, Yechiel Lassri, told the Walla news website that
"…the deployment of Iron Dome…is good news for the residents of Ashdod and
adds to their sense of security," August 31, 2011.
15 Amira Hass, "In the Gaza strip they erected mourning huts for the victims
of (Israel's) air raids, but not for the perpetrator of the (Eilat road)
raid," Haaretz, August 25, 2011.
16 Amos Harel, "A senior IAF officer: the success of Iron Dome saved another
IDF operation in Gaza," Haaretz, July 26, 2011.

Search For An Article


Contact Us

POB 982 Kfar Sava
Tel 972-9-7604719
Fax 972-3-7255730
email:imra@netvision.net.il IMRA is now also on Twitter

image004.jpg (8687 bytes)