I recently read up on the Israeli missile defense system “Iron Dome.”1 It has shown excellent real world performance in recent days shooting down over 90% of the missiles fired across the border from Gaza at Israeli population centers.
Iron Dome was developed following experiences during the 1991 Desert Storm conflict. Sadaam Hussein attempted to drive a wedge between the West and Arab allies by dragging Israel into the conflict. He ordered SCUD missiles fired into Israel hoping to force retaliation. Muslim countries could not stand against a fellow Muslim (even one as reprehensible as Sadaam) alongside Israel. They would rather lose to a morally defunct dictatorship than suffer that indignity.
The United States countered that strategy in two steps. First they deployed a radical new anti-missile system, the Patriot missile to cities in Israel in range of Scuds. Second, American commanders retasked fully one-third of their air assets to hunting for and destroying the missiles and their launchers. The first part is defensive; preventing damage by knocking down missiles in flight. The second part is offensive; preventing those missiles from being launched in the first place.
That is the problem of relying on the Iron Dome systems alone; no offensive punch. Iron Dome systems are like the goalie in a football game (or soccer for Americans). The goalie blocks most shots most of the time but some do get through.
One of the big drawbacks of any anti-missile system is cost. Hamas and other terrorists can assemble large quantities of Kassam rockets and missiles in an average garage cheaply. These rockets do not have to be accurate; they just have to “go over there and go BOOM!”
Anti-missile systems need sophisticated search and track radar and highly accurate, high-speed missiles aiming to hit a target less than a foot thick moving at high speed through the air. The analogy of hitting a bullet with a bullet accurately describes the challenge here. A missile that can meet these challenges is necessarily expensive. Each Iron Dome missile costs an estimated $50,000 while the Kassam rocket costs only a few hundred dollars to build.
With this disparity, the terrorists can hobble the Israeli defense budget with a constant need for expensive replacement missiles at a very low cost to themselves. All they need is a sponsor willing to funnel money and materials into the Gaza region. We are certain that part is taken care of. The evidence being that the insurgents were able to mount a sustained barrage of projectiles over a four day period on a moment’s notice; all they were waiting for was a trigger event. That came with the IDF’s assassination of Popular Resistance Committees leader Zuhair al-Kaisi. His killing was probably justified and carefully planned to avoid collateral damage. The Palestinian response to events or instigation of hostilities never takes that into consideration.
But the cause of this latest exchange is not germane to this piece. What is important was how the Israelis reacted. Iron Dome performed very well living up to its original purpose of saving Israeli lives. After four days of bombardment no ne were killed and “only several were injured.”2 The same article reports 22 terrorists killed when Israeli jets responded to the launch. Fourteen rocket launched teams were struck before they could launch their projectile. That is offense used for defensive purposes.
No system is perfect in defending against an enemy assault. Castles seldom held out against attack for long with relief forces arriving. Carrier battle groups have layered defensive rings to intercept aircraft, missiles and shells before the strike the expensive target floating in the middle but a determined effort by a sophisticated enemy can succeed. However, retaliation for that success would render the initial victory irrelevant.
The lesson from the past weekend’s Middle East action is no system is perfect in defense. It must be coupled with an offensive response that is swift, accurate and relentless. Stopping the launch of projectiles and killing those who make the attempt is far simpler and more effective than trying to shoot down a bullet with a bullet.
3. Image courtesy of ShalomLife: http://www.shalomlife.com/news/15049/4-more-iron-dome-batteries-by-end-of-2012/