Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Iron Dome: Repelling asymmetrical threats

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the Israeli city of Ashkelon November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the Israeli city of Ashkelon November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

The ageless competition in military technology between offense and defense entered a new era with Israel’s successful deployment of the Iron Dome missile defense system in its recent conflict with Gaza – a system that will likely have important geopolitical ramifications, especially for US force projection. Debate over Iron Dome’s capabilities will continue for some time, but the fact is that the system worked, and other countries noticed.

Over the course of one week, Iron Dome intercepted approximately 400 potentially deadly missiles. Over 1,500 were launched by Hamas, but the Iron Dome only targeted the several hundred that actually threatened populated areas – hence the claim that the system had an 85% success rate. Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the system is designed for short-range tactical defense, designed to bring down missiles and rockets fired less than 50 miles away.

Detractors have much material to play with; the Hamas arsenal was rudimentary and Iron Dome could have been easily overwhelmed by swarm tactics if the rockets had been more accurate. Each battery can only hold 20 interceptors at a time, some estimates cost them at $50,000 per interceptor.

Critics fail to appreciate Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, which states that the performance of computer systems increases exponentially over time. The Iron Dome is keeping pace with the iPhone for major upgrades and performance increases. Also, the Dome’s interceptors may cost much less than $50,000 each in the long-run. The $50,000 price point reflects the fixed costs of systems development being spread out over the limited numbers of missiles that have been produced. Manufacturing costs alone are lower, so if the interceptor buy were to increase, the cost per unit would correspondingly decrease.

Then there is the Iron Dome’s larger significance. Hamas had hoped to show off its acquisition of long-range Fajr-5 missiles supplied by Iran. With a range of 50 miles, the missiles, for the first time, brought the developed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor under attack (Hamas’ traditional arsenal of Qassam and Grad rockets had only been able to threaten towns such as Sderot and Ashkelon). Such hopes were foiled by the Iron Dome’s defense of Tel Aviv, reduced Hamas’ bargaining position, and likely helped Israel avoid a costly ground invasion to secure Fajr-5 arsenals, along with all the negative publicity it would bring.

The Iron Dome arrived just in time. The proliferation of more powerful weapons with longer ranges to non-state actors is an accelerating trend. In 2006, Hezbollah brought Israeli armored columns to a halt with guided anti-tank missiles and damaged the Israeli corvette INS Hanit with a cruise missile. The Fajr-5 in Hamas’ possession is only the next step.

Non-state actors with weapons powerful enough to threaten US forward operating bases are here. Thankfully, tactical missile defense is here too. In the light of Iron Dome’s success, we should ensure support for the ongoing development of these defense systems.

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