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Is Iron Dome the Maginot Line?
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An interesting article in The New York Times, “Israel’s Antimissile System Attracts Potential Buyers,” somewhat deflates the widespread praise for the performance of Israel’s Iron Dome batteries in the recent fighting with Gaza. Israel claims that Iron Dome was 85 percent effective, but the numbers deserve some examination. All the claims for the effectiveness of the system are derived from the Israeli government, which would very much like to sell Iron Dome to other countries. South Korea, whose capital Seoul is close to the North Korean border, has been identified as a possible buyer.

The 85 percent effective number means that the missiles launched by Iron Dome either destroyed or deflected incoming missiles 85 percent of the time, but a Ministry of Defense account on November 21st demonstrates otherwise: 1,382 rockets fired from Gaza struck Israel, with another 389 intercepted by Iron Dome. Other estimates indicate that 70 percent of Gazan missiles and rockets landed in Israel without being intercepted, which might suggest that the Israeli government is cooking the books to make the system appear more effective than it is both to intimidate the Palestinians and to encourage foreign sales.

The Israeli government response to those numbers has been to claim that most of the hits were on parts of the country not protected by Iron Dome and the U.S. has gone along with that narrative, apparently agreeing to buy still more launchers to cover nearly all of Israel. But a civilian expert cited in the Times article notes that he has seen no photographic evidence that the Gazan missiles were actually brought down by Iron Dome. The missiles and rockets fired from Gaza were largely homemade with crude guidance and stabilization systems and subject to failure without the intervention of any defensive system. Just because an Iron Dome anti-missile-missile detonated does not necessarily mean that it destroyed anything when it did so.

The Iron Dome system works by picking up an incoming missile on radar, using sophisticated tracking software to predict whether it will hit a populated area, and then launching a counter-missile to intercept. The actual destruction of the incoming missile is theoretically accomplished through an exploding warhead that releases hundreds of flechettes that destroy the attacker. When that occurs, the destroyed incoming missile should be perforated by the shrapnel, but that has not been evident in any photos. Since Israel has a vested interest in promoting the success of the system, any photos produced by the government from this point on would have to be considered suspect, cherry picked to make a case.

Israel’s missile defenses might, in fact, be of questionable value in terms of cost effectiveness. Consider for a moment the economics of Iron Dome. There are currently five operational units that are towed to the sites where are they deployed. They have cost $50 million each. Israel eventually wants to deploy thirteen of them, all paid for by the US taxpayer. In the recent fighting, the Iron Dome units fired an estimated $25-30 million worth of anti-missile missiles, with a per unit cost of $50,000. The Gazan weapons were largely homemade though sometimes using Iranian avionic parts smuggled in and had no infrastructure costs for the launchers. Most were so-called Qassams, lacking sophistication but costing about $100 to construct. So on a one-to-one basis it costs $50,000 per missile fired from a $50 million launcher to defeat something that might cost $100 to build. And as for the nature of the threat itself, during 2011 missiles and rockets launched from Gaza managed to kill no one in Israel.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Israel 
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  1. “So on a one-to-one basis it costs $50,000 per missile fired from a $50 million launcher to defeat something that might cost $100 to build.” But Isn’t this just how we won the war in Vietnam?

  2. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "Andrew"] says:

    Israel’s missile defenses might, in fact, be of questionable value in terms of cost effectiveness.

    This is not only Israel’s problem, this is the contemporary asymmetrical warfare paradigm: hi-tech expensive weapons against cheap low-tech ones. Russia relatively recently tried to address this issue on several venues, including creating a disastrously flawed, and still relatively expensive, tactical air defense ZRAK Pantsyr (first version). In the technology mismatch paradigm it will remain so for awhile–killing cockroaches with the electronic microscope. This issue will be resolved only after maturity of the direct-energy weapons technology arrives. But then again, history of the warfare always was like that–a mismatch. We live in the world where about $10 million worth of anti-shipping missiles can sink (or completely disable) a weapon system worth $10 billion. The issue, thus, is not only technological, it has a clear operational dimension.

  3. Mr. Giraldi,

    Why did they have to develop the Iron Dome at all?

    Why, it was over 20 years ago during the Gulf War that our Patriot missiles positioned in Israel were at least 85% effective…or, wait a minute, come to think of it, weren’t those claims later found to be wildly exaggerated?

    This is another one of those movies we’ve seen before.

  4. The Patriot Missile system was less than 50% effective as I recall from later studies as opposed to the numbers provided during and immediately after the conflict. Annenberg research group group was the last research I read on the results.

  5. Warfare takes a different kind of deception than does marketing or electioneering. If the Iron Dome is as effective as hyped then Israel is making a strategic mistake by hyping its’ effectiveness. The macho political tendency to offer shows of force means your playing with all of your cards on the table.

    The cost of missle shielding will never be as affordable as missle bombardment, making it ineffective for sustained conflict. This means that missle interceptors and the infrastructure on which they depend are going to be high value targets for more economical and numerous offensive systems. Developing missle defense has been a lengthy process, as well as an expensive one.

    If finding countermeasures to such defences can be done at lower cost and a quicker pace than missle defences can be updated, the futurist who think that war can be waged indefinately without risk are starting an arms race that they are unlikely to win. That is not to say that missle defense can not provide added security, only that it might do more when one keeps ones cards close to thier chest, if not up ones sleeve.

    Will cyber battlegrounds ground missle interceptors?

    http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/why-your-intuition-about-cyber-warfare-is-probably-wrong

    Would missle interceptors make for better “fast transients” than they do looming towers?

    http://www.lesc.net/system/files/Fast+Transients+finaldraft.pdf

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “85 percent effective” (ha ha)

    “Iron Dome” is security theater, and whoever buys it ought to be fired for stupidity. Oh, I forgot, we did.

  7. Aaron Gross says: • Website

    Another really lame article. I don’t accept any claim by any government at face value, but the point of Iron Dome, as explained by Giraldi himself, is to shoot down only those rockets that are headed towards populated areas. Those heading for open areas outside of cities aren’t even targeted. In that case Giraldi’s numbers on the total rockets that landed in Israel are irrelevant. The relevant number is those that struck within populated areas. Once again, Giraldi’s innuendo is based on nothing but his own ignorance.

    Of course the cost ratio of Grads (or whatever) to Iron Dome missiles was considered from the start. Israelis might be stupid, but they aren’t that stupid. The Iron Dome proponents have answers to the cost-ratio objection, which Giraldi could easily have found if he were interested. There’s also the fact that the actual cost of firing Grads or Fajr-5s into Israel can be set by Israel itself. That’s partly what the latest operation was all about.

    None of this is to glorify Iron Dome. It worked excellently against Grads and Fajr-5s, and played a big part in allowing Israel to avoid a ground invasion of Gaza. But Iron Dome might not be effective against the next weapons.

  8. Izzy says:

    The value of the iron dome should be based on the lives it potentially saves, not the cheap yet effective missiles it efficiently destroys

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Aaron Gross wrote – “Of course the cost ratio of Grads (or whatever) to Iron Dome missiles was considered from the start. Israelis might be stupid, but they aren’t that stupid. ”

    It’s not a question of Israeli stupidity. The Israelis didn’t pay for it. We did. Next comes the usual additional ripoff as Israel takes technology we paid for (or developed) and sells it to third parties.

    From the LA Times:

    “U.S. taxpayers have paid much of the reported $500-million price tag — to date — of Iron Dome, which Israel began developing five years ago. The U.S. ambassador here, Dan Shapiro, appeared with the Israeli defense minister in the ceremony installing the latest battery.

    U.S. funding is also expected to underwrite Israeli’s next-generation antimissile shield, known as David’s Sling, aimed at longer-range missiles, fired from as far away as Iran. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Israeli firm that developed Iron Dome, is also working on David’s Sling, along with Raytheon, the U.S. defense giant. Rafael would like to market Iron Dome globally.”

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Iron Dome is to missile defense as Operation Enduring Freedom is to freedom.

  11. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "Andrew"] says:

    Warfare takes a different kind of deception than does marketing or electioneering. If the Iron Dome is as effective as hyped then Israel is making a strategic mistake by hyping its’ effectiveness. The macho political tendency to offer shows of force means your playing with all of your cards on the table.

    No, you are not playing with all your cards . Several points. 1. Weapons sell. 2. “Good” weapons sell better. 3.No weapon system is 100% effective. 4. Domestic variants of the weapon systems are, usually, more capable than the export ones. 5. The actual, highly guarded, secret of the weapon are not anymore its strong points, they are deficiencies of the weapon system and thresholds.

  12. SG says:

    The Iron Dome system may or may not be as effective as publicized. What is clear is that the author here did not do his homework and could stand to brush up on his economics.
    Firstly, as stated in a comment just prior, the system only attempts to intercept rockets that are on a trajectory to hit built-up areas. So the numbers the author examines in the article are irrelevant to the calculation.
    Secondly, the system fires two rockets when it attempts to intercept. The cost per rocket has been publicly pegged at $40K. $50K is close enough, but the economics would have to be evaluated with the cost of interception at $80-100K per interception.
    The logic of the article is weakest when looking at the cost-benefit analysis. The comparison between the cost of the rocket being fired from Gaza with the cost of the rockets intercepting it, is irrelevant. The Israeli decision is to fire the rocket or sustain damage and casualties. If a house is destroyed and 2 people killed, is that “worth” $100k? I don’t think we’ll solve the moral philosophy issues here, but it certainly isn’t a $100k vs. $100 question.

  13. Josh says:

    1. It’s a mistake to just analyze cost effectiveness based on the cost of the hardware involved. Attacks on civilian population centers are extremely disruptive, and it’s worthwhile to spend quite a bit to prevent them.

    By the same logic of this article, the entire War on Terror abroad (the cheap part, I’m ignoring Iraq and Afghanistan) and just about everything the Homeland Security Dept. does to prevent terrorism is also not cost efficient because it’s spending a ton of money to prevent a few cheap and theoretical suicide attacks that cost few lives.

    The point is that asymmetrical terror tactics take a fair amount of resources to defend against, which is part of why they’re effective.

    2. The implication that the U.S. is wasting its money subsidizing Iron Dome misses another point – without Iron Dome, Israel would feel much less secure, and be much less amicable to U.S. requests to hold back from preemptive attacks otherwise necessary to defend itself. America is specifically trying to prevent Israel from doing that as much as possible, and by subsidizing Israel’s defense against incoming fire, it’s achieving its only regional policy goals.

  14. David says:

    So Iron Dome may or may not be 85% or 50% or some percentage effective in protecting against relatively unsophisticated missles fired haphazardly by poorly trained terrorists…I’m still trying to determine the points being made by many of the commenters…too expensive, not effective enough???

    The lesson of Iron Dome, whether its 85% or 50% efffective, is that the terrorists in Gaza are not going to be dissuaded from continuing their attacks until ground troops are sent in to destroy the rats nests.

  15. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "Andrew"] says:

    The lesson of Iron Dome, whether its 85% or 50% efffective, is that the terrorists in Gaza are not going to be dissuaded from continuing their attacks until ground troops are sent in to destroy the rats nests.

    Exactly. The issue transforms itself from pure technological (and tactical) into operational (and strategic) one. Even if Iron Dome would be 85% , or even 90%, effective it would still not going to dissuade terrorists from launches but it will provide for:

    1. Moral effect on population, which creates a much more enhanced sense of security (even when effectiveness is not 85%), while seemingly intangible, this effect is paramount in its importance, including for political elites–“people see that we do not sit idle and do something”. This is a national response to the problem.

    2. Some military effect in reducing enemy’s scope of action, thus denying (partially) the enemy its objectives.

    But this does not solve the problem, obviously. It is merely a mean (one of many) to an end. The end, from military point of view, is to stop rats attacking the nation. One of the pure military ways to do so is to deploy boots on the ground. Without them (boots) there could be no military solution. Obviously, some political measure could work (at least in the short term) but it is beyond the point here.

    against relatively unsophisticated missles

    “Sophistication” is not the term which is applicable to these matters, in fact it is highly misleading. Israel’s Navy Corvette Hanit was taken out of action by very unsophisticated (relative to Hanit’s weapons and sensors suite) Chinese anti-shipping missile C-802, which is a knock-off old Soviet technology. It is, indeed, effectiveness which matters here. Technology mismatch between a developed state and non-state actors will exist for a long time and will be not in favor of non-state actors.

  16. Norman says:

    If Iron Dome is ineffective, why so few buildings hit and so few Israelis killed (6) despite 1,000+ rockets raining down on Israel during those period of hostilities? Are Iranian supplied rockets and Palestinian terror rockets useless? Or this site is just full of hatred against Israel that it wants to deny the technological breakthrough Israel managed to developed despite having limited resources?

  17. gd says:

    You got the numbers wrong.

    The accuracy reflects the number of missiles shot down that were aimed at populated territory. Say Hamas fires 200 missiles. 100 are aimed at unpopulated areas. Iron Dome doesn’t touch them. The remaining 100 are aimed at populated areas. 85 are shot down. The correct accuracy measurement is 85/100=85% not 85/200=42.5%.

    As for cost/benefit, you’re not making the right comparison. Every missile landing on populated areas in Israel has real costs. Firstly, the gov’t reimburses all damages. If someone is hurt or killed, then medical expenses and payments to survivors are involved. All told, easily $50k per landing.

    Add to that the costs of war. With Iron Dome in place, Hamas and Hizbollah have less of an incentive to start a war. If they do start a war, the the popular pressure encouraging a full ground invasion is greatly reduced. That saves boat-loads of money and Israel’s int’l reputation.

  18. elle says:

    the point being made in favor of iron dome beside the
    property damage and lives it saves is a great demoralizing
    factor on Hamas and Hezbollah.there is a great effort made by the
    two terrorist groups to achieve the sense of fear on the israeli
    population spatially in the targeted areas ,to kill and destroy property with out
    discrimination .that takes years of planing and hard work on their behalf.
    living in caves and tunnels smuggling components for the rockets that
    they work so hard to assemble.not to maintain risking their lives by
    doing so,and in many cases paying with their lives ,all for a few rocket strikes
    at israel.and now that great victory is taken away by some missile
    that blows their hopes out of the sky.that must be so demoralizing, and hopeless .
    that alone is worth every penny spent on the iron dome system.
    iron dome gave israel’s air force the freedom to take their time and target
    practically and destroy every long range rocket and delivery system in gaza.
    munition dumps , most of their arms infrastructure .that will take years
    if they can ever rebuild again.that was a great success for the israeli’s
    and alot of the credit for it goes to iron dome.

  19. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It’s disappointing to learn that a serious article is based on a an easily avoidable misconception and misunderstanding of the facts.
    It was never claimed that Iron Dome shot down 85% of all rockets fired at Israel but rather 85% of all rockets about to hit populated areas.
    The last conflict in Gaza proved that the comparison between the low price of the incoming rocket/missile and the high price of the interceptor missile is not the correct comparison.
    As demonstrated in Israel, all areas around the Iron Dome battery were pre mapped and classified as either populated or open empty areas. The moment the system identifies an enemy rocket, it calculates the trajectory and potential point of impact and only engages those rockets about to hit the populated areas. Obviously, the best thing to do is not reach this point and prevent the enemy from firing the rocket/missile, but once it’s in the air, you need to compare the price of the interceptor (~40,000USD for Iron Dome) with the “price” (loss of life, direct and indirect damage to buildings/cars/infrastructure) of a 100% hit in an urban area.

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