The Iron Dome of Israel

Israel has begun deploying an experimental missile defense system, known as “Iron Dome,” to protect its citizens from the growing swarm of rockets fired at them by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip. 

The Associated Press describes the system as using “sophisticated cameras and radar to track incoming rockets, determine where they will land, and intercept and destroy them far from their targets.”  This is not an easy task, because the Palestinians use “primitive rockets” with a “short flight path” that makes them hard to track.  In other words, they’re indiscriminate murder weapons, not precision-guided ordinance.

The desire of Israeli engineers to create a defense for their citizens is understandable, but even an imperfect defense is likely to increase the international complacency about Palestinian attacks.  It’s not hard to imagine the usual suspects asking why Israel is so upset about rocket storms when they have a nice missile shield to hide behind.  The onus for “escalation” will fall even more strongly on Israel.

The deployment of “Iron Dome” highlights the surreal nature of the bloody, gloomy standoff between Israel and its terrorist enemies.  Would the American people celebrate the news of a missile shield deployed in upstate New York, to provide a little protection against an endless hail of rockets from radicals in Montreal?  The notion that Israel has to just sit tight and accept a certain number of murdered civilians and broken buildings in perpetuity is a denial of their legitimacy.  If the Iron Dome slows the flow of blood and wreckage to a trickle, they’ll be expected to put up with it forever.

This is not a defensive strategy that could last forever.  The AP notes that Iron Dome spends “tens of thousands of dollars” shooting down rockets that only cost a few hundred bucks.  Hamas has plenty of deep-pocketed supporters who would be happy to bleed Israel’s defense budget dry with that formula, especially if Iron Dome proves effective, and thus makes retaliation against rocket launches more politically difficult.

Writing in Haaretz last week, Yossi Melman criticized his government for waiting so long to deploy the experimental missile defense system, accusing them of being “indifferent to the distress of people in the south” and “afraid of a failure in intercepting a missile.”  He thinks successful rocket intercepts would “encourage the home front and strike a blow at morale among Hamas and Islamic Jihad.” 

I wouldn’t be so sure about that.  The Christian Broadcasting Network’s news service claims to have learned that “Hamas has acquired advanced rockets capable of reaching the metropolitan areas of Tel Aviv.”  Imagine the effect on morale if a few such rockets are launched, and Iron Dome manages to stop some of them.  Even if it gets them all, in a nail-biting race to knock down warheads in the final stages of descent, the residents of Tel Aviv will not exactly be thrilled to watch a game of “Missile Command” being played out in the morning sky.  Palestinians on the street might be a little disappointed, sadly packing their murder candy away for another, bloodier day… but the strategic planners of Hamas will not be displeased at their ability to spend a few thousand dollars, and force Israel to spend a million.  Nothing about this missile-defense system changes the fundamental arithmetic of asymmetrical warfare.

Melman wonders if the developers of Iron Dome are more concerned about marketing their technology to overseas buyers than defending the home front.  Whether that’s true or not, the Israeli government must also be worried about limited success.  They might be about to spend a great deal of money to make intolerable acts of savagery seem more “tolerable” to their critics.