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

Thus, Iron Dome isn’t likely to be exported extensively. For one thing, it works best in a threat environment like that of Israel and its particular geography. Israel faces a unique mix of threats, especially to its population centers, in a geographically constrained space. Hostile groups are able to fire large numbers of unsophisticated rockets at close range and then melt back into a civilian population, making retaliation difficult and enhancing the value of active defenses.

Second, the system is relatively expensive, although this has been contested by government and industry officials, as well as some outside analysts. Experts estimate that Iron Dome interceptors cost between $30,000 and $100,000 apiece, while the primitive incoming mortars and rockets may cost less than $100 and longer-range rockets may go for only a few thousand dollars. Then there is the question of how many Tamirs are fired to engage one incoming missile—a matter of both shot doctrine and practical experience. Finally, the cost of Iron Dome as a system depends on how many batteries are required for full, or at least sufficient, coverage of a threatened area. For a large country such as India, for instance, the cost of obtaining sufficient batteries to protect its full expanse would likely be prohibitive. Even in a relatively small country such as Israel, full coverage may prove unaffordable, especially against the larger rocket arsenals of Hezbollah. Currently, Israel fields five Iron Dome batteries, one of which was recently deployed to the country’s northern areas, with more batteries in the works. But any full cost accounting is elusive because, as with American missile-defense programs, it is difficult to prorate the supporting military programs (sensors, satellites, communication, logistical infrastructure and even human-intelligence programs) necessary for Iron Dome to be effective, or to distinguish those endeavors from their original missions or contributions to other weapons systems. Given the recent successes, all of this may be moot, at least in Israel. What politician wants to tell his constituency that he will not support a wonder weapon that demonstrably protects civilians against a well-known and fearsome threat?

Regardless of actual costs per missile, per engagement, by conflict or any other Iron Dome calculation, any government will need to assess the relative cost of defense systems according to its own strategic and domestic political contexts. Israel faces what most of its citizens perceive as an existential threat. Three times in the last decade barrages of short-range rockets have rained on Israeli territory, and single or double shots at random intervals are common. Thus, Israel has very good domestic political reasons to bear the expenses of Iron Dome indefinitely, especially if U.S. financial support continues. For other countries, including the United States, which face less challenging or immediate threats, other comparable short-range counterrocket, artillery and mortar defense systems may be sufficient. These would include the U.S. Navy’s Phalanx system and counterbattery systems.

Thus, Iron Dome may be best perceived as a niche capability with a very unfavorable price ratio—something most governments wouldn’t likely view as worthwhile. Even Israel, after all, received substantial financial assistance from the United States in order to produce all its missile-defense systems in the current quantities. Without access to such assistance, fewer countries than some commentators have assumed are likely to view the technology as attractive on a cost-benefit basis.

The third barrier, and perhaps the largest, is that Iron Dome is a complex “system of systems” in which all elements must work in concert in order to make interceptions possible in a short time window. For Israel, this means a crucial need is access to cueing by the U.S. early-warning system, almost certainly not available to many other potential clients.

Finally, Israel may be reluctant to share all of Iron Dome’s technologies, software and processes. Major aspects of how the system functions are not publicly known—for example, the full role of the human operator in making an intercept decision. Even coproduction or licensing agreements carry risks. Would potential purchasers guard technical innovations and operational procedures as jealously as Rafael and its various subcontractors? With life-and-death stakes for Israeli citizens, officials would need to vet carefully who acquired, much less built, the system and its components.

On the more positive side, Iron Dome was developed quickly, and designers managed to circumvent major impediments in the Israeli military-acquisition system. As Israel gains experience producing the system, costs may come down to the point where exports become more feasible. Furthermore, discrete aspects of the system—for instance, the software that allows the system to quickly discriminate between threatening and nonthreatening rockets—may generate commercial opportunities for Israeli defense firms.

Leaving aside export-market considerations and operational issues, the impact of Iron Dome may be more subtle and long lasting than many people have realized. Reports of Grad and Fajr-5 missiles being shot out of the sky made news everywhere, whatever the final technical analysis may prove. Major news outlets, both print and online, prominently featured praise by Israeli officials and world leaders such as UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. This attention came at a critical time for national-security issues in the United States and elsewhere. At the macro level, defense spending is declining in most Western countries, forcing policy makers and military leaders to take hard looks at which capabilities are essential and which are not.

At the same time, the Obama administration plans to pursue the steady growth of its multitiered “phased adaptive approaches,” consisting of successive stages of incremental and ultimately integrated improvements to U.S. and allied missile-defense radars in Europe, the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia. Most important, well-publicized reports about the growing threat of missiles from Iran, Syria and elsewhere add to the worries of national-security planners around the world. For nonspecialists, advocates of missile defense in general and politicians seeking ways to appear strong on defense, Iron Dome is nearly irresistible, an example of a program that works and thereby demonstrates the feasibility of future systems to defend all civilians. Yet, as we have seen, Iron Dome does not exactly fit that bill and may suffer the pains of media hype, just as Patriot underwent after the initial analysis during the 1991 Gulf War.

THE APPEAL of Iron Dome for Israeli policy makers and citizens is not hard to understand. After all, living with constant external threats—be it from invasion, suicide bombers or small, unguided rockets—is debilitating for a society and its citizens. Iron Dome has demonstrably reduced, at least in the short term, the threat of Hamas rockets. As one well-known Israeli journalist recounts from her personal experience:

We, the residents of southern Israel who live within a 40 kilometer radius of Gaza, were encouraged to build safe rooms in our house, seek support if we were feeling nervous and otherwise learn to adjust to a situation where we were in ultimate waiting mode—waiting for the next alarm, the next school closure, the next “episode” when an occasional missile or two might fall nearby.

And oddly enough, like good lab rats, we did just that. We learned to drive with our car windows open so that we could hear sirens while on the open road. We taught our children how to fall asleep again once they were moved into the safe room in the middle of the night. We developed a whole slew of coping mechanisms that range from “dressing for missiles”—no heels or straight skirts allowed—to black humor, acknowledging the absurdity of living in this kind of situation. A child wakes up from a crash of thunder last winter screaming, “missiles,” and we get to make jokes about how children of the Negev are more familiar with the sound of falling Grad missiles than actual rain. We became old war heroes, exchanging stories of close calls from the missiles of 2009 versus those of 2010 and 11.

But as time has gone on, our resistance has worn away.

The last line captures a fundamental ambivalence toward missile defense and, more generally, the political and strategic dynamics that place citizens at the mercy of both Iron Dome and the attacks it protects against. Does Iron Dome contribute to the existential security of the Israeli state and its citizens or is it a technological Band-Aid? The protection offered by Iron Dome and systems like it may, in the end, allow political and military leaders to avoid making the difficult political choices necessary to find longer-term solutions to the underlying conflict. And how does living in the shadow of missile interceptions wear on the body politic?

The enthusiasm of American and external experts for Iron Dome is less explicable, given the underlying realities of this defensive system explored above. There are only a handful of places in the world where Iron Dome–like systems could perform with anything like the efficiency we have seen in the Israeli case. Other comparable systems have been proposed in the past, remain in development or even have already been fielded. However dramatic its short-run results, Iron Dome is not really new or unprecedented. But it is operational, and this might be enough for those with financial stakes in demonstrating that such weapons work and that people in many countries should spend tax dollars against the horrifying, if remote, chance of attacks by short-range missiles. This argument gets stronger when Iron Dome expansion is envisioned less as a means of population protection than as point defense for valuable and vulnerable military installations or critical infrastructure. Rafael and potential licensees will make fine profits on sales motivated by such calculations.

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