Demystifying Iron Dome

The successful missile-defense system doesn't herald similar gains against ballistic missiles.

July-August 2013

BARACK OBAMA encountered an unprecedented welcome when he visited Israel in March. He was greeted at the airport not just by the usual dignitaries but also by a hot new weapon—Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system against short-range rockets. A battery was stationed only a few footsteps from Air Force One, so the president could walk over and congratulate his hosts on their successful use of the antimissile weapon during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched Operation Pillar of Defense on November 14 in response to increasing rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip as well as other actions by militant Palestinians. The seven-day operation involved Israeli air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, but there was no ground invasion such as the one launched in 2008–2009, called Operation Cast Lead. The IDF had four Iron Dome batteries in operation prior to Pillar of Defense and deployed a more advanced fifth battery during the operation. According to the IDF, the system, developed by Israel with joint U.S. and Israeli funding over the past decade or so, provided a sense of security to many Israelis by preventing injury, loss of life and property damage. Reports indicate that some Israelis even ignored air-raid sirens, remaining exposed in the hopes of photographing an Iron Dome interception.

Iron Dome’s scorecard will need closer scrutiny as more technical and verified evidence becomes available, but there is ample justification for praise and expectations of continued operational success. According to the IDF, some 1,500 rockets were fired on Israel during the course of Operation Pillar of Defense. Reports indicate about a third of these rockets (five hundred or so) targeted population centers; of those, 84 percent (over four hundred) were successfully intercepted by Iron Dome (though some technical experts have suggested that the actual success rate was probably significantly lower). Whatever the actual number of intercepts, enthusiasts in both the United States and Israel have viewed this as a breakthrough in the long-debated issue of missile defense. Some have argued that Iron Dome shows the way toward achieving Ronald Reagan’s transformative 1980s vision of strategic defense, a world where ballistic missiles are “impotent and obsolete.”

Moreover, American experts and political leaders have argued for years that a new, global missile age is emerging, in which a widening array of more numerous and capable short-range rockets, cruise missiles, and intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles will pose stark challenges for even the most advanced militaries. Israel faces ongoing attacks from relatively unsophisticated and inaccurate rockets today; tomorrow it may face Syrian Scuds (currently being used against rebel groups within the country) or a range of Iranian ballistic missiles. Armed conventionally or not, China, Pakistan, North Korea and, more discreetly, a few other states are developing missiles and marketing them internationally. Despite multilateral efforts to control the spread of missiles—including the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation—few expect this Pandora’s box to be shut.

Iron Dome is certainly one response to this new missile age, but much of the recent commentary on the subject overestimates the importance of recent Israeli successes. Iron Dome does represent a significant new capability that may have a positive effect on regional-security dynamics in the Middle East and perhaps beyond. Such quick-response programs developed in the United States and elsewhere can contribute to the defense of key population centers and critical infrastructure against limited attacks, and that in turn can bolster psychological resilience. Furthermore, the U.S.-Israeli effort may pave the way for greater missile-defense collaboration among like-minded nations facing similar threats.

But many thorny strategic and operational issues remain. Despite its utility in meeting Israel’s unique security challenges, Iron Dome is not a game changer, nor does it validate—at least not yet—Reagan’s vision of a global strategic-defense capability. Despite a growing (but incomplete) consensus on the need for some level of missile defense, the vision of “impotent and obsolete” ballistic missiles remains firmly out of reach for the foreseeable future.

Whatever its ultimate strategic significance, the Iron Dome technology has served to reinvigorate the American debate on the utility of missile defense. Until recently, the relatively quiet and scholarly tone surrounding U.S. missile policy has contrasted sharply with the public cries and critiques that characterized what we have labeled the “three waves” of emotional debate regarding missile defense over the past four decades. These include the debates in the 1960s over deployment of what became the limited Safeguard system; Reagan’s space-based concept of the 1980s; and George W. Bush’s plan for a ground-based system purportedly designed to protect the United States and parts of Europe from an Iranian attack. Ever since the Obama administration’s introduction of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) in 2009, there have been at most ritual acknowledgements of the “requirement” for missile defense—as in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty preamble and elsewhere. Further, in the United States and elsewhere there has been only relatively low-level expert debate, even in the face of a National Academy of Sciences report that posited significant problems with current programs.

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