Demystifying Iron Dome

June 25, 2013 Topic: SecurityDefenseMilitary Strategy Regions: Israel

Demystifying Iron Dome

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

by Author(s): Peter DombrowskiCatherine KelleherEric Auner

But Israel’s primary missile interceptor is the Arrow system, developed by the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries in collaboration with Boeing. It includes interceptors, radars, battle management and fire-control capabilities. The Arrow 2, which carries a fragmentation warhead, is currently in service, while the longer-range Arrow 3 is under development. Arrow 3, a two-stage, solid-propellant, hit-to-kill interceptor, has not yet completed a successful intercept test, but the Congressional Research Service says it may be deployed by 2014.

Another system called David’s Sling (sometimes known as Magic Wand) is designed to strengthen the middle tier of the Israeli defense against shorter-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and heavy rockets. A project of Rafael and Raytheon, David’s Sling completed its first successful intercept test (conducted jointly by Israel and the United States) in November 2012. Israel may deploy the system as early as next year.

THE UNITED States has not sought to make use of Israeli missile-defense systems, including those it funded and/or developed jointly. Even before Operation Pillar of Defense, some in the U.S. Congress called for the United States to coproduce the system or use it to protect U.S. deployed forces. In November, Reuters quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying coproduction is not an option “right now.” Members of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee expressed concerns in 2012 that the United States is not benefiting as fully as it should from Israel and suggested that future U.S. funding be conditional on U.S. access to Iron Dome technologies.

Obama’s redirection of American missile-defense programs in 2009 toward regional defense partnerships offers a path of understanding on the nature and extent of U.S. interest in defensive systems, as well as about the potential impact of Iron Dome and its related systems. Obama’s policies represent what we call the “fourth wave” of U.S. efforts to protect against nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, long an aspiration among U.S. military planners and politicians, particularly among congressional Republicans. Wave I began when the United States first contemplated the Sentinel program in the 1960s and ultimately installed Safeguard, its first operational missile-defense system, in the mid-1970s following years of heated discussion on the strategic and technological merits. Perhaps the highest political endorsement came during Wave II with Reagan’s 1983 SDI speech envisioning a system, primarily space-based, that would render the use of nuclear-tipped missiles anywhere and at any stage of launch to be ineffective, if not futile. U.S. missile-defense ambitions were scaled down following the end of the Cold War, with the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations advocating a more limited defense of the nation against long-range missiles. However, Japan and the United States did decide in the mid-1990s to develop bilateral arrangements for a theater-level defense system in order to address Japan’s increasing sense of vulnerability to a North Korean attack.

The George W. Bush administration moved decisively toward what we see as Wave III, reinvigorating the idea of a “national” missile defense. This represented a substantial shift from the SDI, and the beginning of a new, albeit rough, consensus about the purpose of missile defenses in the twenty-first century. The administration moved forward with the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system based in Alaska and California, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and announced plans to create a third national missile-defense site overseas, with deployed interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic. The system was declared to be capable of protecting the U.S. homeland, and parts of Europe, from a potential nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat from Iran.

In reconfiguring the George W. Bush plan in 2009, the Obama administration launched Wave IV. While retaining, and in 2013 modestly expanding, the two existing “national” missile-defense sites, it is pursuing multilayered regional missile shields based largely on the seaborne Aegis air- and missile-defense system in Europe and Asia to supplement and integrate with the older, relatively successful, shorter-range Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems. The most developed and widely discussed of these is the EPAA, intended to be linked to a coordinated air- and missile-defense system within NATO. Also included in the plan are regional systems with new or additional radars in Japan, the Asia-Pacific area and the Persian Gulf.

Notably, U.S. policy makers have not clarified Israel’s role in this region-by-region approach. On the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s website, Israel is listed as a cooperative partner in the Middle East (but not in Europe or the Asia-Pacific), even though the United States has announced no specific plans for data sharing, technology transfers or joint command-and-control efforts among the various Middle East partners, which include Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nevertheless, the United States continues to fund Israeli missile-defense efforts.

U.S.-Israeli cooperation may serve as a model for how the United States will pursue missile-defense relationships with other allies. Indeed, missile defense likely will become an increasingly important tool for reassuring key allies and building alliances. The United States provided approximately $70 million for Iron Dome in 2012, partly to reassure Israelis facing increasing rocket attacks. This number rose to $211 million in 2013, and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency requested $220 million for 2014. Similarly, when Turkey recently felt threatened by missiles from neighboring Syria, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands provided Patriot batteries as a sign of NATO solidarity. It remains to be seen whether the United States will pursue a more robust suite of activities with new partners, such as joint testing, technology development, and software and data sharing.

Obama’s approach shares substantial continuities with that of his predecessor. Both focused primarily on the threat of small numbers of relatively unsophisticated missiles from outlier regimes such as Iran and North Korea, and both forwent efforts to intercept large numbers of more sophisticated Russian or Chinese ICBMs. The Obama administration also continued and expanded the cooperative efforts and multinational exercises (such as the Nimble Titan series) of its predecessor, including with Israel. U.S. policy makers and the public now largely see missile defense as a key element of U.S. strategy, and thus remain committed to significant investment in research and development.

Iron Dome’s effect on Israel’s security situation and the goal of a lasting Middle East peace remains an open question. Iron Dome may render Israel less vulnerable to short-range rockets as weapons of terror and coercion, but it could also spur Israel’s enemies to increase their offensive forces to counter Israel’s defensive systems, including Iron Dome.

In any case, Iron Dome is likely to have a significant effect on Israeli behavior. Like any state, it must respond to its citizens’ desire for protection. In the absence of defenses, it must rely on offensive action—including operations such as the 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead—to demonstrate resolve against rocket attacks. A shield against such rockets could provide leeway for Israeli leaders to seek alternate means of handling conflicts, perhaps even including expanded efforts to seek diplomatic solutions. On the other hand, if Israelis feel secure behind their defensive shield, they may not feel any need to engage in talks that would require concessions.

Meanwhile, Israel’s opponents might change their own tactics in an effort to overwhelm or outflank the defensive capability represented by Iron Dome. The Arabic-language media saw Iron Dome differently from the image highlighted in the Israeli or Western media. Writers in mainstream Arabic-language outlets saw little change in the resolve of “resistance groups” to paralyze Israeli society and economic life while demonstrating an ability to resist even in the face of Israeli counterforce operations. Further, some interpreted the lack of an Israeli ground incursion as successful Hamas deterrence of Israeli forces. If these accounts significantly influence or accurately reflect the Palestinian leadership’s thinking, they cast doubt on Iron Dome’s potential impact on the behavior of Israel’s adversaries. Most tellingly, a strong majority of Palestinians interviewed in several polls saw the lack of an Israeli ground invasion (in contrast to 2008–2009) as a victory for Hamas and a way of paralyzing normal Israeli life while furthering Palestinian goals.

IRON DOME’S success fueled media reports that other states facing threats on their borders were interested in purchasing the system, perhaps including South Korea and India, which share a history of arms sales and technology exchanges with Israel. Early accounts focused on licensing, production and defense barter in which Iron Dome would be only part of the calculus. A few accounts suggested that unspecified European countries might buy Iron Dome batteries to protect forces deployed in Afghanistan. This seems unlikely, given that the Western commitment to Afghanistan is winding down and European governments are facing severe fiscal pressures. But, even before Iron Dome’s successes in late 2012, other militaries may have considered importing the Israeli system. Singapore, the city-state with a small geographic area to defend, was seen as one such possibility, although this speculation, like that involving South Korea and India, likely was stimulated in part by long-standing defense-industry relations between the parties.

The biggest marketing prize for Rafael and the Israeli government is the United States. If the U.S. Army were to purchase Iron Dome batteries, it would provide not only revenues but also, perhaps more importantly, a tighter bonding of the two nations’ security planning. American missile-defense experts had indeed pushed for U.S. adoption of the system prior to Iron Dome’s recent successes. Raytheon reportedly signed an agreement for joint marketing efforts. Yet, unless Congress pushes the matter firmly, Iron Dome isn’t likely to become part of the American inventory. American experts initially were reluctant to support Iron Dome because they thought a laser-based system was more promising for shooting down incoming rockets and artillery rounds, and some still do. American firms are developing systems similar to Iron Dome, but unlike Iron Dome these have not yet moved out of the development phase to field-testing, let alone combat use. Moreover, Iron Dome has fairly limited applicability; its value would be confined largely to enhanced point defense of American overseas bases, key allied infrastructure or population centers, or large, relatively immobile concentrations of American troops.

Image: Pullquote: Some Israelis even ignored air-raid sirens, remaining exposed in the hopes of photographing an Iron Dome interception.Essay Types: Essay