Australia/Israel Review

Iron Dome in Action

Oct 31, 2011 | Uzi Rubin

Iron Dome in Action

An early evaluation of Israel’s missile shield

Uzi Rubin

Israel’s new “Iron Dome” anti-rocket active defence system made its operational debut in southern Israel in two rounds of escalation in the fighting along the Gaza strip (April and August 2011). The development of active defence systems in Israel that started with the “Arrow” missile defence system in the early 1990s and in which Iron Dome is the latest chapter has always been accompanied by acrimonious public debate and behind-closed-doors battles within the defence establishment. These battles have been mainly between the political leadership and the professional military echelons – which resisted the diversion of resources from offensive to defensive weapons.

This operational debut of Iron Dome, which can be characterised as a technical success, provides an opportunity to evaluate its performance and the degree to which it fulfilled its expectations. There exists a significant degree of ambiguity about the technical and strategic expectations from the system, since Israel’s defence establishment never specified them publicly. Similarly there exists significant ambiguity about the actual performance of the system in battle, as practically no official data was released. Yet the very appearance of Iron Dome on the battlefield generated world-wide interest and was widely reported in Israel and abroad. The wealth of public domain reports permits a preliminary evaluation of its performance and implications.

Objectives and Goals

The shock of the 2006 Lebanon War was a catalyst for Israel’s decision to develop an anti-rocket system. In February 2007, Iron Dome was selected as the preferred system, though by that time, daily life in northern Israel had returned to normal. In the south, however, the tempo of the rocket offensive from Gaza was increasing. Accordingly, the public debate on Iron Dome revolved around its effectiveness in the lower limit of its capacity – namely rockets fired from 4 km away – and its ability to destroy mortar shells. Sderot, the city that suffered most from increasing Qassam rocket attacks, was the focal point of discussions on Iron Dome. The public debate barely touched on the need to defend larger cities deeper within Israel, despite the fact that longer range rockets from Gaza had been targeting Ashkelon since mid-2006.

Initially, much uncertainty surrounded Iron Dome’s role in the overall response strategy to the rocket and missile threat on Israel.

It was only after the initial success of Iron Dome in April 2011 that senior officials in Israel’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) elaborated on its strategic objectives and limitations. Brig. Gen. (res.) Ophir Shoham, Director of the Ministry of Defence Directorate for Research and Development (known by its acronym MAFAT), said that the system’s strategic goal is to allow the political leadership room for manoeuvre and to provide an alternative to escalation.

Then-head of MAFAT’s R&D Division Brig. Gen. Danny Gold stated more specifically that the rationale for the system was threefold: ethical, economic and strategic. Ethically, the system represents the state’s obligation to protect citizens’ life and property.

Economically, the system prevents the paralysis of the nation’s economy. And strategically, “[the system] is a response to the main threat from the enemy” – a way to “avoid costly military operations and allow the political leadership to have alternative courses of actions other than escalation.”

As for the defensive capacity of Iron Dome, the program’s manager at Rafael, Yossi Drucker, warned that no system guarantees 100% protection and Israel’s Minister of Defence Ehud Barak warned that “(Iron Dome) does not provide a 100% answer.” In a wider perspective, MAFAT Director Ophir Shoham declared that “We do not presume to shoot down thousands of rockets. Rather, we aim to minimise the damage and let the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) do other things…”

It is unclear whether such MOD considerations played a role in the decision to launch the development of Iron Dome in February 2007 or whether they were adopted only more recently. Be that as it may, Iron Dome is now officially tasked to fulfil three goals: Protecting Israeli life and property, providing new flexibility to the political leadership, and giving the IDF extra time to prepare for offensive operations

Iron Dome in Action

The first operational use of Iron Dome in April 2011 was in reaction to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli targets. After the IDF’s offensive responses failed to stop the accelerated and deep-reaching attacks, a decision was made to deploy one of two available Iron Dome batteries over Beersheva. At this time, Iron Dome was not yet declared to have Initial Operational Capability. The deployment was completed on March 23, 2011 and was called an “operational experiment.” As tensions continued to rise and with exchanges of fire along the Gaza border, the second available battery was deployed on April 4, near Ashkelon.

On April 7, as revenge for the targeted killing of three senior operatives, Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, killing a 16-year-old boy. In response, the IDF ratcheted up its attacks on Palestinian targets while Gaza terrorist groups (not Hamas) launched long-range rockets at Ashkelon. The Iron Dome battery that had been deployed there achieved its first interception of a Palestinian rocket that day. Over the next couple of days, Iron Dome successfully destroyed several other rockets launched at Ashkelon, while the other battery, stationed in Beersheva, was first activated on April 8, destroying at least one Grad rocket aimed at the city. Media sources reported that the new system had destroyed eight of the nine rockets that it engaged. (According to the director of MAFAT, the success rate was nine out of 10). On April 11, the Palestinians declared a ceasefire and southern Israel returned to a state of tense calm.

The next period of escalation began on August 18 when Palestinian terrorists attacked several vehicles on the highway to Eilat, killing eight Israelis. In swift retaliation the IDF killed five senior operatives of the Popular Resistance Committees, held responsible by Israel for the cross-border raid. This led to an intensified rocket offensive from Gaza on Ashkelon, Beersheva and other areas deep within Israel. The two batteries defending Beersheva and Ashkelon destroyed a significant number of incoming rockets (but rockets fired at Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and other towns were not engaged because no additional batteries were available).

On August 20, the Palestinians fired the largest yet salvo of rockets (the media reported 11 simultaneous launches) at Beersheva. While many of the rockets were destroyed in mid-air, one penetrated the defence screen, killing an Israeli civilian and wounding ten. The next day, another three salvoes were fired at Beersheba. No Israeli was injured, but one rocket hit an empty school that was likely located within the protective radius of Iron Dome.

The Palestinians declared another ceasefire on August 28, but the targeted killing of an Islamic Jihad operative spurred renewed rocket fire. This did not cause any further casualties in Israel and several more rockets were successfully intercepted. The IDF reacted with restraint and the rocket fire subsided after several days. According to the media, Iron Dome destroyed between 18 and 20 rockets during this period of escalation, but the Israeli defence establishment declined to provide official information on the success rate. The sole official statement came from Israel’s ambassador to the US, who cited an 85% success rate.

Evaluating Iron Dome’s Technical Performance

It seems that the achievements of Iron Dome in April pleasantly surprised the IDF and the Israeli public, but its performance in August somewhat disappointed the public (but not the IDF). The initial successes created an unjustified perception among the public of a hermetic, leak-proof defence system. The few rockets that subsequently penetrated the system during the August fighting dispelled this perception and caused a degree of disillusionment.

In the absence of official figures, our system performance evaluation must rely on indirect evidence. A total of 300 to 350 rockets of all kinds were fired by the Palestinians at Israeli targets near Gaza and deeper into Israel in the course of the two cycles of violence. Only one Israeli was killed, which means then that the effective lethality of the rockets in the two events was 300 rockets per fatality (RPF).

The lethality of the Gaza rockets during the eight-year (2001-2009) offensive on the Gaza envelope communities averaged 254 RPF – however, when the 300th rocket hit Israel, four fatalities had already been incurred, hence the initial RPF stood at 75. In the 2006 Lebanon War, the initial RPF stood at 50 (it later dropped to 75).

In both cases, initial lethality was higher than the average since it took some time for the public to comply with civil defence instructions and take shelter upon alerts. Media reports on the public’s behaviour during the two cycles of escalation in 2011 show that it resembled the initial pattern of the eight-year rocket offensive, with a sizeable proportion of the public failing to take cover. Hence, it is legitimate to compare the effective lethality of the April and August 2011 cycles of attacks to the initial lethality of the two previous campaigns. From this perspective, the initial lethality in the 2011 escalations with an RPF of 300 was extraordinarily low. Since this cannot be attributed to public discipline or compliance with civil defence instructions, it must have been Iron Dome’s effectiveness that reduced the rockets’ lethality by about two thirds. It seems, then, that Iron Dome has achieved a significant technical success.

Israeli and Palestinian Reactions

Initial reports of Iron Dome’s success in April 2011 were received with some scepticism in Israel and even attributed by some commentators to pure luck. Nevertheless, when the April escalation ended with no Israeli casualties and the full extent of Iron Dome’s capabilities was realised, euphoria prevailed.

Throughout this round of escalation, the pattern of rocket attacks from Gaza was markedly different than in the past. Sderot, previously a magnet for Qassam attacks, enjoyed relative calm, suffering only one rocket impact throughout the April fighting. The Palestinians, instead, evidently preferred to launch longer range rockets at larger cities deeper within Israel. This facilitated the task of Iron Dome, since it had to deal with longer range targets.

During the next cycle of violence in August, the Palestinians maintained their new policy of attacking larger, more distant cities. Sderot was “neglected” once again, with only two rocket impacts. It seems that the Palestinians chose this time to attack cities defended by Iron Dome in order to probe its weaknesses and attempt to penetrate its defensive screen, thereby gaining “points” among constituents for any Israeli casualties. The heavy salvo on Beersheva on Aug. 20 – that could instead have been aimed at the equidistant, undefended city of Ashdod – lends credence to this theory.

The public responses in Israel following this second cycle of escalation were more muted than previously. This time, praises for the system’s performance were accompanied by some criticism. Reuven Pedatzur, a Haaretz defence analyst and a long-time critic of missile defence in Israel (and abroad), declared that the Iron Dome concept collapsed because, among other things, “it was shown that civilians under attack could not maintain their daily life without fear”.

Israel’s defence establishment continued praising the system after the August events while mayors in southern Israel clamoured for Iron Dome’s deployment to their cities as it evoked a sense of security. Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the prompt deployment of a third Iron Dome battery to Ashdod and promised a fourth battery would be delivered by the end of 2011. It seems then that both the defence establishment and the general public regarded Iron Dome’s performance in the August fighting as a success, despite the Beersheva casualties. It also appears that the IDF overcame its historical distaste for missile defence, embracing Iron Dome with some enthusiasm.

Palestinian officials kept silent about the debut of an active defence system in the arena. Yet some sense of the mood in Gaza can be deduced from media reports on Gazans’ reactions. A Palestinian resident of Beit Lahia was quoted as saying: “People in the northern Gaza Strip can clearly see Iron Dome in action. The uselessness of our rockets was never as evident to the people as it is now.”

Strategic Implications

About two months after the April 2011 fighting, a senior Israel Air Force officer declared, “The success of Iron Dome saved the IDF another major operation in Gaza.” In his view, the successful performance of the system provided decision makers with an added degree of freedom and gave them an alternative to a major offensive action. The enemy did not achieve its goal, became frustrated and ceased firing. The IDF has apparently concluded that its newly introduced active defence arm achieved its strategic goals: protecting Israeli life and property, providing new flexibility to the political leadership, and giving the IDF extra time to prepare for offensive operations. In the view of the above quoted officer, there was one further achievement – a dissuasive effect that was brought about by the enemy’s sense of frustration, motivating him to cease his fire.

It is still too early to judge how accurate this evaluation is. Iron Dome did indeed save lives and protect property. It can also be reasonably concluded that the low number of civilian casualties allowed the political leadership to act with restraint and minimise its aerial attacks on Gaza, thereby reducing collateral damage and containing the situation.

However, it is hard to see how Israel would otherwise have risked a major ground offensive in Gaza when the collapse of the Mubarak regime has strained it relations with Egypt, when Israel was gearing up for a diplomatic battle over the Palestinian UN bid for statehood, and when the political damage from Operation Cast Lead was still fresh in mind.

As for the alleged dissuasive effect of Iron Dome, this did not prevent Palestinian armed organisations in Gaza from launching large-scale rocket attacks in August. In fact, Iron Dome may have challenged them to ratchet up their fire in an effort to break through the defensive shield.

Another lesson from the two recent periods of escalation was the race between the offence and defence. The lively public debate about Iron Dome focused exclusively on its capability to defend Sderot and other Gaza envelope communities, neglecting the growing threat to larger cities deeper within Israel. It is now clear that the system’s architects were correct in designing it for both shorter and longer range threats.

In conclusion, the jury is still out on the full implications of active defence for the Israeli-Palestinian battlefield. Nevertheless, having already saved the lives of Israeli civilians and soldiers, and having helped the political leadership contain the fighting – which apparently it did – Iron Dome has already made a significant contribution to Israel’s security.

Dr. Uzi Rubin was head of the Israel Ministry of Defence “Arrow” defence program against long-range missiles, and is the author of the recent study, The Missile Threat from Gaza: From Nuisance to Strategic Threat. © Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.




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