A Qassam being fired from Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip, 2008.
A Qassam being fired from Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip, 2008. Photo by Eliahu Ben-Yigal
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The successful tests of the Iron Dome rocket interception system were received in certain defense establishment quarters with the distress usually reserved for failures. The seeds of failure lie in the success, because there are public expectations that the Israel Defense Forces fears it cannot meet, either financially or operationally.

The war of intercepting rockets is liable to bring a war of communities, as mayors and local council heads exercise their political and media power to demand protection for their voters. That is the catch of the Iron Dome, which especially troubles the Israel Air Force: In order for the system to work properly, a very large quantity of batteries and a lot of resources are required, in terms of money and manpower. If the air force gives it that, then other equally important defense programs will suffer.

The heart of the air force's work is the manned combat flight, and the commanders of the force were and will be combat pilots. Anti-aircraft activity, including rocket interception, is a necessary evil. If an Iron Dome battery means one less F-35, that may please residents of the western Negev, but not the pilots at the nearby bases, from Nevatim to Hatzerim.

For decades, Israel neglected the issue of the interception of the Katyusha, Grad and Qassam rockets. Not only would the Second Lebanon War have looked different had successive governments, defense ministries and general staffs had the sense to give higher priority to proposals to develop rocket interceptors; it is also possible that the first Lebanon War could have been avoided. All the problems along the northern border would have looked completely different.

In global warfare, short-range bullet-against-bullet combat originated at sea. A vessel must protect itself; a hit could sink it. The simpler the threat, the more difficult defending against it via means of electronic warfare. The main fear in the first decades of the state was that Israel would be occupied, its sovereignty threatened and its population destroyed. Since the takeover of barrier areas in June 1967, this fear is no longer realistic. The current scenario, which plays out repeatedly in the IDF's clashes with armies and organizations, is of fire-against-fire accompanied by incursions. When the government forgets to return its raiding forces to its base, it gets into trouble. Chief of staff Dan Halutz learned this; in 2006, he demanded the IDF be withdrawn quickly from Lebanon and not be tempted into taking control of territory.

The IDF's brief does not include judging the civilian society that maintains, funds and operates it. That is the job of prime ministers and defense ministers. They should have understood that civilians have stopped valuing orderly military action that exposes the home front to harm. On the diplomatic and political level, this means a wise government must adopt a moderate and centrist policy that will enjoy broad support (and will spare it the ritual of establishing the next investigative committee; the next committee will demand an explanation as to why the Iron Dome was placed there rather than here ). On the security and military level, this policy should have led the government to spend the money it used to build up the force on protecting the population instead. The offensive force is still more important, but without real and imagined protection for civilians, this force will not be used as planned.

No counterforce

The defense minister, rather than the chief of staff, is in charge of considerations that are not strictly military, such as social, political, economic and industrial matters. But the strongest organizational factors in the defense establishment are the air force and the Research and Development Directorate (MAFAT ). These groups, and to a smaller degree the navy, conduct organized and almost impenetrable work. In the absence of a counterweight, the people who run these organizations can shake up the entire country.

Ostensibly, Military Intelligence is also a strong organization, but the existence of the Shin Bet security services and the Mossad, subordinate to the prime minister, ensure it is subjected to monitoring and balance. The air force and MAFAT, however, benefit from exclusivity.

When a talented, opinionated and self-confident major general or brigadier general from the air force heads MAFAT or its research and development unit, the influence of the air force is doubled. To that we can also add the deployment of air force major generals and brigadier generals, from commanding the force or leading an aerial squadron, to heading the planning division in the General Staff. Although the air force lost its chief of staff (Halutz ), it still has major generals in important fiefdoms, including the head of MI and the prime minister's military secretary, whose opinions are heard even if they aren't in charge of building the force.

If the air force refrained for years from an operational demand for a system to intercept short-range rockets, whether out of fear of failure or fear of success, and if MAFAT does not pull without waiting for a push from the air force, it's no wonder that the system was a long time in coming. And if the ministers are weak, and the National Security Council cannot intervene in such issues, an "advisory scientific council" should be established, with the participation of security and development professionals, like the body in the Pentagon alongside the defense secretary.

In the past, the air force hungrily devoured anything connected to the aerial sphere, including anti-aircraft artillery from the Artillery Corps and drones from MI, and opposed establishing "an aerial-ground branch" with assault and combat helicopters. Now they don't care that the remote-control Sky Rider planes belong to the artillery. The air force may have surrendered without a fight had it also been forced to give up the one - so far - Iron Dome brigade.

This brigade, reported the air force magazine, was created out of a brigade of tactical anti-aircraft weapons - Vulcan cannons and Barkan (Stinger ) shoulder-fired missiles - but most of the fighters and technicians in the "first rocket defense brigade in the world" came from other systems, in order not to thin out existing brigades. This is a therefore a brigade in progress, without operational experience, and it is doubtful whether it will be ready by a stated November deadline.

Even before that, there will be a report by the state comptroller, who is keeping close tabs on how steep-trajectory weapons are handled. The report is unlikely to serve as a basis for the distribution of medals. And what will happen in November, after the U.S. congressional elections, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is asked to show his diplomatic cards? After a two-month extension from the end of September , will the Central Command head's order to freeze construction in the territories (which also applies to communities bordering the Green Line, like Har Adar ) be extended? Will settlers riot and harm Palestinians? Alternately, will the freeze end and lead to a flare-up?

On the other side, will Hamas try to undermine the renewal of the peace process by firing rockets? How practical will Iron Dome turn out to be then?

The defense establishment has been developing, testing and improving the Arrow missile for the past 20 years, without having it encounter a real enemy. Iron Dome was just born. It's not yet standing on its own feet, but it is already liable to soon face trial by fire. That will be a challenge to the technology, prestige and deterrence that are so important to Israel, and especially to the air force, which prefers to save its money and its attention for easier missions, such as an attack on Iran.