Israelis Must Come to Terms With the Limits of Iron Dome

The anti-rocket system is not the be-all and end-all; Iron Dome provides only partial protection, to put it mildly.

This week defense officials made a plethora of creative claims to explain why the Iron Dome anti-rocket system was having a hard time intercepting the barrages of Grad rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The following are some of those explanations, as reported in the media.

A battery was stationed in Rehovot, so it did not intercept the rockets fired at Ashdod. The weather made identification difficult. The Grad launching positions were walled and dug in. The launching cells have been trained in new technologies. The radar wasn't working because of calibration problems. Hasty positioning led to mistakes.

Iron Dome battery in Ashdod - Nir Keidar - 03112011
Nir Keidar

These explanations are nothing but media spin, excuses in an attempt to throw sand in the public's face. They are reminiscent of a lawyer's claims: My client was not at the scene of the crime, and if it's proven he was, I'll claim he was completely drunk. And if it's proven he was not drunk, I'll claim that his legs were broken. And if it's proven he was standing on his feet, I'll claim he was having an epileptic fit. But all this can't conceal the naked truth.

In the past few days about 30 rockets have been fired into Israel. The two Iron Dome batteries intercepted between four and five rockets, a success rate of about 15 percent. By anyone's standards this is a very low rate, and it certainly contradicts the great promises by the Defense Ministry, the system's manufacturer Rafael and the project's head administrator, Yossi Drucker.

At the rate the excuses are being manufactured, the Defense Ministry and Rafael people might well blame the former defense minister, Labor MK Amir Peretz. He was the spirit behind the strategic decision that we have to protect the exposed home front and gave Rafael about NIS 1 billion to develop the system.

We have to admit the truth: Iron Dome's ability to intercept rockets is limited. In August five rockets were fired at Be'er Sheva in a single barrage. Iron Dome intercepted three of them. Two got through, killed one person and damaged property. This week, Islamic Jihad released a video showing that a barrage of 10 rockets was fired - although we can't rule out that the video was a forgery, taken elsewhere, perhaps in Libya.

The many rockets fired at Israel make life very difficult for Iron Dome. The more rockets fired, the more acute the problem. It's safe to assume that Hamas engineers, helped by Iranian experts, are constantly looking for the system's Achilles' heel.

Praise is due to the Rafael engineers for developing in a very short time an innovative system to meet Israel's security needs. They deserve compliments for the development of Tamir, the intercepting rocket, the fruit of a unique and advanced technology.

The problem is that Rafael's spokesmen, the Defense Ministry and the lobbyists raised Iron Dome's bar of expectations too high. To ward off the criticism during the development phase, they promised all sorts of great things. They stirred the hope, which became an illusion, that the system would supply a maximum answer for the needs of Sderot and the Gaza area, needs for which the system was developed.

But this was not the end of the matter. These people are continuing to mislead the public with statements that it's impossible to provide hermetic protection. Ostensibly these are moderate, balanced and correct statements indicating that they are aware of the gap between the promises and the performance, and that it's impossible to achieve 100 percent success. But the truth is that the protection level provided by Iron Dome is very far from the impression created by these statements.

Iron Dome provides only partial protection, to put it mildly. It's good that Israel has the system. We have to produce more batteries and deploy them to protect more communities in the south. But the public must come to terms with the bitter reality that Iron Dome is not the be-all and end-all.

Also, the people at the Defense Ministry should seriously consider other possibilities for defending the home front, like the laser canon. It's equally important to urgently approve budgets for fortifying buildings and constructing shelters, perhaps even at the price of postponing production of one Iron Dome battery. For the price of one battery - more than NIS 200 million - shelters and safe rooms could be built to protect 30,000 people.

From the Iron Dome's performance so far we can draw another painful conclusion. Both the Arrow 2 missile defense system and the future model, the Arrow 3, will have similar problems against rockets and will have a hard time handling the threat of Iran's Shihab missile.