Iron Dome: A Dress Rehearsal for War?

By July 3, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 173

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: If the appearance of Iron Dome on the battlefields of southern Israel was what compelled Palestinians to ratchet down the scope of their rocket fire, this would be a major strategic achievement of Israel’s newly deployed missile shield, and a resounding exoneration for the resources invested in it.

Introduction

In March 2012, the Palestinians in Gaza challenged Israel with a barrage of rocket fire more sustained and intense than any round of rocket attack since Operation “Cast Lead” of 2008-2009. Over the course of several days, Palestinian militias fired more than 160 rockets, hitting targets further within Israel than ever before. Israel’s response included the deployment of three fully operational “Iron Dome” missile defense batteries. The defensive system had also been deployed during three previous rounds of Palestinian attack (in April, August and October 2011).

As a result of the Iron Dome deployment, the number of Israeli casualties in March 2012 was negligible and the material damages were significantly less than could have been anticipated. Publicly, both sides showed satisfaction from the results: Israel from the dearth of casualties and damages, and the Palestinians from the intensity and range of their rocket fire. However, this paper suggests that Israel’s achievement was greater than that of the Palestinians. For the first time, the active rocket and missile defense system managed to reduce casualties and damages to negligible levels.

The impressive success of the active defense system engendered a mood of near euphoria in Israel’s public and perhaps also among some of its top leaders. The euphoria can partially be explained by the fact that the success of Iron Dome came against a backdrop of intense Israeli public debate over the Iranian nuclear threat and the prospect of an Israeli preemptive strike that could trigger Iranian missile retaliation. The success of Iron Dome was perceived by Israel’s public (and perhaps also within Israel’s government) as a proof that the country could endure Iranian missile attacks with minimal or acceptable levels of damage.

This paper reviews the recent battle between Iron Dome and the Gaza-launched rockets, assesses Palestinian options in neutralizing Israel’s defense capabilities, and considers the ability of the system to help Israel withstand Iranian missile attacks. This paper concludes that while the achievements of Iron Dome demonstrate the technical viability and the strategic value of an effective missile defense for population centers and national infrastructures, it is far from certain that Israel could presently protect its civilian population against an all-out missile offensive from members of the Iranian coalition.

A Brief Review of March 2012 Escalation

The escalation in Palestinian rocket and missile attacks on Israel was triggered during the afternoon hours of March 9, 2012 by Israel’s targeted elimination of Zuhar el Keisey, commander of the Gaza “Popular Resistance Committee” (PRC), an Iranian-aligned armed militia. Three hours later, the Islamic Jihad (IJ), the second largest armed faction in Gaza, opened rocket fire against adjacent Israeli communities, widening its fire during the evening hours to include southern Israel’s major cities of Beersheba and Ashdod. The already deployed batteries of “Iron Dome” promptly went into action and immediately scored several successful intercepts.

It quickly became clear that the rate of fire was significantly more intense than previous occasions. By the IJ’s own announcement from March 10, its combatants fired about 70 rockets and mortar bombs in the first 12 hours of the fighting . Assuming that mortar bombs comprised about one quarter of this total, it can be estimated that more than 50 rockets were fired within 12 hours, equivalent to a rate of more than 100 rockets per day. In comparison, the highest rate of rocket fire during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009 was 70 rockets per day.

In the three ensuing days, the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheba were repeatedly attacked by standard and long range Grad rockets. The rocket fire peaked in the third day of the fighting (March 12) when the city of Ashdod was attacked three times within one hour. News about the possibility of a cease fire started to circulate towards the evening of the same day, and around midnight an official announcement was made of a cease fire scheduled to take effect from the morning of March 14. The rocket fire did not entirely cease, and by the evening of its first day a rocket hit the undefended town of Netivot, causing some damage but no serious casualties. The next day (March 15) saw a salvo of rockets fired at Beersheba, several of which were shot down by Iron Dome while the rest fell harmlessly in empty areas.

As in previous cases, there are conflicting reports about the number of rockets fired during the fighting. The PRC disclosed that it fired a total of 53 rockets , while the IJ reported shortly before the cease fire that it launched “180 missiles and rockets, including 80 Grad rockets as well as (homemade) El Kuds and 107 mm rockets and mortar bombs” . Israel’s media estimated that 300 rockets were fired , while data from the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center indicates that between 167 and 177 rockets hit – or were bound to hit, if not intercepted – Israeli targets . In any case, the rate of fire was more intense than in previous occasions: 200 – 300 rockets in three days, while the previous record in August 2011 saw the same number of rockets fired during a period of 6 days. The IJ repeated its claim from October 2011 that it was using mobile multiple launchers, but this was not corroborated by any Israeli source and may well have been a public relation ploy for internal consumption.

The choice of targeted objectives did not deviate from the previous pattern, in spite of the suspected availability to the Gaza factions of rockets that could hit Tel Aviv. As before, the Palestinians preferred to engage the larger but more distant urban centers, instead of nearby but smaller towns. The Gaza Envelope communities were mainly harassed by mortar bombs. The furthest point bombarded in Israel was “north of Gedera” – probably a military installation. Indeed, in a March 13 press conference the IJ claimed that it “bombarded the cities, Zionist settlements, military positions and landing strips of the enemy” – that is, it conceded targeting both civilian populations and military obvjectives.

Israel’s losses and damages were noticeably minimal: One severely wounded person in the Gaza Envelope, with two persons lightly wounded in Ashdod and one in Netivot. (Trauma victims are not counted in this report). Several buildings were lightly damaged by shrapnel, and shop windows in one of Ashdod’s main thoroughfares were shattered. This tally was much lower in comparison to previous escalation cycles as well as previous rocket campaigns in Northern and Southern Israel, including the decade-long rocket harassment of the Gaza Envelope communities.

“Iron Dome” Performance

“Iron Dome” left its mark on the latest cycle of escalation both cognitively and tangibly. The system promptly went into action with the outbreak of hostilities, and immediately scored several successful missile “kills” . This is in contrast to the previous period of escalation in October 2011, when the system went into action only one full day after commencement of the rocket attacks. It can be reasonably concluded that the Israel Defense Force anticipated an escalation in response to the targeted elimination of the Palestinian leader and thus deployed the Iron Dome batteries ahead of time.

Judging by the outcome and the tally in losses and damages, “Iron Dome” provided effective (but not airtight) defense to Israel’s southern cities. The small number of casualties testifies to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the rockets aimed at the defended zones were destroyed in flight. Israel’s media reported 57-59 successful intercepts but also nine cases of rockets penetrating through the defensive shield . This 86% rate of success is significantly high for a system in action. Other sources reported lower scores of 80% and even 75% . We have no explanation for such significant divergences between the various sources. Be it as it may, the rate of success was high enough to reduce losses and damages to unprecedented low levels.

The argument that the small number of casualties was a matter of sheer luck – because the few rockets that did leak through the defensive shield might have caused severe consequences – is faulty. Unguided rockets are statistical weapons that do not cause casualties with every hit. In the 2006 Lebanon war, when no active defense was yet available, it took 75 rockets on the average to kill one Israeli. By simple extrapolation, if active defense reduced the rocket leakage rate by a factor of five from 100% (no defense) to say 20% (an 80% score) the number of rockets required to kill one Israeli should have correspondingly increased by a factor of five from 75 to 375 – that is, more than twice the total number of rockets that reached Israeli territory during the recent escalation cycle. Hence, the small number of casualties resulted from the laws of statistics rather than sheer luck.

As foreseen by its designers, Iron Dome did not provide hermetic, leak-proof defense. Rocket hits were registered in Beersheba and Ashdod. Moreover, the operational success of the system did not prevent economic distress in the defended regions due to the suspension of classes in schools (which forced parents to care for their children at home and miss work). Trade also suffered from the stress and anxiety, as happened in all previous occasions.

Palestinian Reactions

Unlike the previous cycles of escalation where senior Palestinians pointedly ignored Israel’s active defense, their reactions this time were significant and involved top leadership. Hamas leader Haled Mash’al complained that “Gaza has been turned into a test range for weapons and Iron Dome” . The IJ too alluded in a roundabout way to the defense’s success in minimizing Israeli losses. One of its senior leaders that went by the name of “Abu Ibrahim” declared that his organization “Sought in the last confrontation to establish a balance of terror against Israel, rather than to kill as many Israelis as possible” – justifying the disappointing results from firing dozens of Grad rockets at Israel’s cities by the claim of “humanitarian considerations”. The Palestinian public at large was highly impressed by Israel’s active defense too. Islamic Jihad’s bragging about a “victory over the Zionist enemy” was ridiculed by Gaza residents who inquired: “What about Iron Dome? What about casualties on the other side? Where is our defense system and where is theirs?” Evidently the success of Israel’s active defense in minimizing losses has been etched into the Palestinian consciousness to some degree at least.

At the same time no discernable tendency on the Palestinian side to slacken the rocket firing was noticed, in spite of its meager results. “Abu Ibrahim,” quoted above, threatened that his organization would extend the range of its rocket fire beyond Ashdod. Since the Palestinian already possess rockets that can reach the outskirts of Tel Aviv, it stands to reason that they will try to leapfrog above Israel’s missile shield to exact significant losses by zeroing on Israel central regions, in spite of the potentially severe consequences to them.

Israeli Reactions

Reactions within Israel were nearly euphoric. The statement, “The recent cycle of escalation in the South saw the crushing victory of Iron Dome,” well reflected this mood. Euphoria was also expressed during visits of Israel’s prime minister and other dignitaries to the Iron Dome batteries in the thick of the fighting. At the same time, some less enthusiastic as well some outlandish reactions were also aired.

Generally speaking, the systems’ success in minimizing losses and damages changed the mind of numerous critics concerning the rationale of utilizing expensive, sophisticated interceptors to shoot down cheap and simple rockets. In the words of the veteran defense correspondent Alon Ben David, “Even when ignoring the costs in bodily and mental injuries, a single Iron Dome interceptor is still far cheaper than the house it helps to save in Ashdod or Beersheba” . Other commentators pointed out that the savings in averting the need for a costly ground operation as well as the ethical imperative of preserving human life far outweighs the cost of defense. Most Israeli reactions called upon Israel’s government to allocate a high priority to investments in active defense.

A change in attitude of several retired IDF generals who had strongly opposed any investment in active defense was also recorded. The former IDF Chief of Staff , Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, who had adamantly objected at the time to any allocation for defensive measures, conceded that “(former Minister of Defense) Amir Peretz had decided correctly (to initiate the Iron Dome program)” . Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel, former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff who too had opposed the decision to launch the Iron Dome program, declared at the end of the fighting that “The (Iron Dome) system changes the balance between us and the terror organizations… it deprives them of their main leverage – using our civilians as hostages” . It is however hard to judge whether the serving generals of today’s IDF General Staff share this new mood.

Numerous other analysts were quick to portray Iron Dome’s achievement in a wider perspective and to warn against overconfidence concerning Israel’s capability to defend itself against more extensive missile attacks. Haaretz journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff observed that “Iron Dome provided the political leadership with an important yet limited advantage” and expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the handful of already available batteries and those in production against the 50,000 plus Hizbullah rockets. Brig. Gen. (res.) Meir Elran warned that “the over-glorification (of Iron Dome) by the politicians, the soldiers and the media is triggering a level of expectation that might prove problematic,” and he predicted that in the scenarios of wider conflicts the system will mostly defend IDF bases and essential civilian installations rather than the general population . Former Minister of Defense Moshe Arens reiterated his well-known position that defense is an unsatisfactory response to the challenge of the rockets and that the correct responses should be offensive ones to destroy the Palestinian weapons in Gaza and to block any further supplies .

Some rather outlandish reactions were voiced by more radical critics of Israel’s current and previous governments. Bloggers accused the government of intentionally triggering the escalation for the sake of a live demonstration of Iron Dome, in order to assist Rafael’s foreign sale efforts and to help float its NIS 500 million bond issue of that same week. Knesset member Ahmed Tibbi questioned in his blog “whether the premeditated assault on Gaza was actually a showcase for selling Iron Dome and its interceptors?” Brig. Gen. (res.) Zvi Shor, chairman of the “Homeland Defense” advocacy association, maintained that the decision to develop Iron Dome was faulty and was sullied by financial considerations. He wondered about the timing of the flare-up in the South and its proximity to Rafael’s bond issue floatation.

Evaluation

The latest cycle of escalation vividly demonstrated the advantages missile defense system as well as its limitations. It also revealed some technical shortcomings in the Iron Dome system.

As argued in a previous paper by the present author , the three objectives of the active defense system are: preserving life and property throughout Israel, providing an added degree of freedom to the political leadership, and providing the IDF with a breathing spell to prepare for offensive actions. It can be concluded that Iron Dome fully met the first and second objectives, Life and property were saved, and Israel’s leadership had the leeway to gradually return to a relative calm without an enraged public breathing down its neck. The third objective was also achieved, as the IDF gained time to prepare for broader offensive action (although it was not called upon to do so, this time).

Dr. Mark Heller of the INSS argues that Iron Dome did not change the rules of the game, since the leakage of some rockets through the defensive shield forced the general population to seek shelter during rocket attacks and forced local authorities to suspend school classes and public events. In his opinion only a leak proof system that intercepts 100% of the incoming rockets could allow daily life to continue under fire. This evaluation is fundamentally mistaken. Even a leak-proof system will not allow the maintenance of peacetime routine, because the debris of the intercepted rockets (as well as that of the interceptors themselves) is a danger to people in the open. Responsible authorities would do well to instruct the general population to take cover and cancel school and public events even when the defense system is perceived as “hermetic.”

The semi-hermetic defense of Iron Dome clearly delineated the strengths and shortcomings of active defense at large: it can minimize losses and damages, thereby helping the political and military authorities in their tasks, but it cannot secure peacetime routine for the affected civilians.

Delays in initiating the development of Iron Dome and the tight-fisted budgeting of its production clearly carry a price. The IDF had available only three Iron Dome batteries, leaving numerous important population centers undefended. Worse than that, had the Palestinians elected to escalate even further and attack targets near Tel Aviv, there would have been no available Iron Dome assets to defend Israel’s major city. At the time of writing, three more batteries are reportedly in various stages of production and delivery, but there is no information about further orders. It can be concluded that the controversy over resource allocation to defensive vs. offensive systems remains unresolved even after the recent success of Iron Dome.

The system had some teething problems during the fighting (the precise nature of which was not revealed for obvious reasons) that allowed several rockets to leak through the defensive shield and hit significant objectives such as a school in Beersheba and a main street in Ashdod. Another issue of concern that was disclosed was the high rate of interceptor missile consumption. It was reported that all in all 150 interceptors were fired to destroy 59 rockets – a rate of 2.5 interceptors per kill. The system needs to be improved to reduce the interceptor consumption, ideally as close as possible to one interceptor per kill. The financial implication of higher consumption rates is obvious and needs no elaboration.

Strategic Implications: A Dress Rehearsal for an All-Out War?

The achievements of Iron Dome during the latest cycle of escalation created an impression among the general population – and perhaps among some decision-makers too – that a solution was at hand to the missile and rocket threats from Iran and its allies. Does the ‘Battle of the Rockets’ in March 2012 indicate that active defense is a game-changer in the military balance between Israel and the Iranian-led block? My answer is: Perhaps. The impact of Iron Dome on the overall military balance must be evaluated from two distinct perspectives: The narrower perspective of the decade-long war of attrition between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza; and the wider perspective of an all-out war between Israel and an Iranian-led coalition (including Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Palestinian armed factions in Gaza).

From the narrow perspective of the attrition war around Gaza, “Iron Dome” returns a measure of symmetry to the extremely asymmetrical situation whereby any Palestinian faction – in fact, any Palestinian individual – could inflict casualties upon and do damage to in Israeli population centers at will and without much risk.

Numerous Israelis believe that the only effective response to this threat is the re-occupation of the entire Gaza Strip and the seizure of the launch areas. This is theoretically correct but pragmatically impractical. Re-occupation of the Gaza Strip entails heavy costs in foreign relations, in political and financial coin, above and beyond the cost in life and property. Trying to choose between the two bad options of paying the full price for the re-occupation of Gaza or enduring its rocket attacks, it is not clear which is worse. The re-occupation of Gaza has far-reaching strategic implications that require careful risk management. It stands to reason that no Israeli government will undertake such a move unless it is absolutely forced to do so, and only when the international and political conditions are favorable – which might happen rarely if at all.

Limited offensives that do not entail the long-term seizure of launch areas have been tried numerous times in the last decade but have never achieved a deterrent effect. If anything the opposite was true. Limited offensives only encouraged the Palestinians to ratchet-up their rocket fire . The only offensive action that achieved some temporary deterrence was operation “Cast Lead”, the intensity of which was on the level of a small war. This operation cost Israel heavily in the terms of its international relations. The balance of risks versus gains precludes the repetition of such an offensive with any frequency.

Israel was thus forced to undertake defensive measures, initially in passive defense (including population warning and physical protection) and later on in active defense. “Iron Dome” complemented the repertoire of the defensive measures, instilled a better sense of personal security in the Israeli population, and etched into the perception of the other side that its ability to inflict pain in Israel has been curtailed.

Yet active defense cannot prevent losses and damages in undefended cities nor can it prevent the disruption of daily life in the defended one. It therefore does not eliminate Palestinian leverage, hence Palestinian motivation to continue the harassment and even to leapfrog above the defense to undefended zones. Iron Dome has blunted the rocket threat from Gaza, but it has not uprooted it.

From the wider perspective of an all-out war, “Iron Dome” is just one component of the overall response. The system is not designed to engage long-range ballistic missiles from Iran and Syrian nor heavy rockets from Lebanon. Such missions are tasked to the “Arrow” and “David Sling” missile defense systems, respectively. In an all-out war, Iron Dome will deal with the shorter-range rockets that are sure to be fired from Lebanon, Gaza and perhaps also from Syria. It is reasonable to assume that in such a case, “Iron Dome” priority will be defense of Israel’s military bases and essential economical facilities as well as zones where rocket hits might generate severe collateral damages such as fuel dumps and hazardous materials stores.

The most encouraging lesson from the successful defense of Beersheba and Ashdod is that it proves the feasibility of defending Israel’s military depots and air force bases against rocket fire from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, thereby preserving Israel’s offensive capabilities. Nevertheless the implementation of this defensive potential requires more than the handful of existing and forthcoming batteries. It also requires a significant stockpile of interceptor missiles. It can be hoped that Israel will allocate the appropriate budgets to make this a reality.

Conclusions

By all means, the latest cycle of escalation was a defining moment in Israel’s active defense. The success of Iron Dome demonstrated to all skeptics that it is feasible to intercept and destroy rockets in mid-flight, that this can be done by Israel’s own homegrown technology, and that Israel’s cities need not be held hostage to any and every rocket-brandishing Palestinian faction.

At the same time, the latest cycle of escalation was not a dress rehearsal for an all-out war, and should not be perceived as such. All-out war scenarios vary from the simple case of missile attacks from Iran only to complex cases of missile and rocket fire from all the Iranian coalition members. No matter which scenario is referred to, Israel will need its full multi-layer array of missile defense systems to handle such a broad attack, consisting of Arrow 2, Arrow 3, David Sling and Iron Dome batteries. Only two of those missile defense systems already exist, the other two have yet to reach their first interception tests. The road ahead is arduous, but Iron Dome proved that it is doable.

In this day and age, when public discourse within Israel is characterized by intense self-criticism, Iron Dome has become a reminder of Israel’s technological might and is a source of justified national pride. Civil resilience, so essential in any future conflict, depends among other things on the self-perception of Israel being a “can do” country. Perhaps this was the major cognitive achievement of Iron Dome during the March 2012 fighting.

Addendum

While this paper was being edited, another round of fighting took place between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza (June 2012). Iron Dome once more showed its mettle in defending southern Israel against rockets launched from Gaza. This time, the fighting was triggered by a June 17 terror attack from the Egyptian Sinai on Israeli civilians. Israel retaliated against Hamas targets in Gaza. During the subsequent week, about 170 rockets and mortar bombs were fired at Israeli targets. Iron Dome protection once more reduced Israelis casualties and damages to tolerable levels. In all, two persons were moderately injured and one industrial plant suffered some material damage.

Somewhat surprisingly, the pattern of Palestinian fire departed from previous occasions. This time, the Palestinians concentrated their fire on the nearby Israeli communities of the “Gaza Envelope” region, leaving the major cities of Ashdod and Beersheba completely free from attack. It remains unclear as to why the Palestinians reverted to this limited scope of attack – freeing more than half a million Israelis to pursue their daily lives while the fighting was underway. Some Israeli analysts attributed it to a quest for legitimacy by the Hamas, but this explanation is unsatisfactory in view of the concentrated attacks on several densely populated communities such as Ashkelon, Sderot and Netivot.

It may well be that the Palestinian frustration from the lack of success in attacking major cities during the previous cycle of violence in March 2012, when Iron Dome threw up an effective defensive shield on those cities, compelled them to shift their fire to what seemed to them harder-to-defend and hence more-lucrative targets.

Assuming that this was indeed the Palestinian’s objective, it was once more frustrated. Since the March 2012 fighting, Israel had deployed its fourth Iron Dome battery in the immediate neighborhood of the Gaza border and threw-up an effective defensive shield on the towns of Sderot and Netivot. While the batteries defending Beersheba and Ashdod remained idle, the Ashkelon and Netivot batteries destroyed most of the incoming rockets. Even sneak attacks by the Palestinians after a cease-fire was declared were frustrated, with Iron Dome destroying entire synchronized rocket salvoes. This less-than-hermetic-but-nevertheless-efficient defense reduced casualties and damages to best-yet proportions.

If the appearance of Iron Dome on the battlefields of southern Israel was what compelled Palestinians to ratchet down the scope of their rocket fire, this would be a major strategic achievement of Israel’s newly deployed missile shield, and a resounding exoneration for the resources invested in it. This however is not conclusive at this time. Further action – which is sure to come – will throw more light on this issue.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo credit: IDF)

Uzi Rubin
Uzi Rubin

Uzi Rubin was founding Director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, which managed the Arrow program. He is now a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]