The Limits of Iron Dome

Despite its impressive results intercepting missiles from Gaza, the Iron Dome system will never be able to provide 100 percent protection.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

The Iron Dome missile interception system is an astounding technological achievement in which all Israelis can take pride. The engineers at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems have succeeded in attaining the seemingly impossible – intercepting a missile in mid-air that was launched at relatively short range. It is another indication of the great engineering capability that exists at Rafael, which constitutes an invaluable contribution to the security of Israel and its deterrent posture.

As should have been expected, the system’s development required the investment of very substantial resources and the system itself is very expensive, while the missiles it is intended to intercept are dirt cheap – a very unfavorable exchange ratio when calculated in purely economic terms. If Iron Dome has saved a few lives during the not-infrequent attacks on the civilian population in the south by Gazan terrorists, though, most would agree that it was money well spent.

However, the dream that Iron Dome systems would, when deployed in the region, spread a protective umbrella over all civilians living in the south – an umbrella under which the population could go about its business untroubled by terrorist attacks – is just that: a dream. No system can seal off the skies over such a large area and make them impervious to incoming missiles. Some are bound to get through, and the population better run for cover at the first indication of a terrorist missile attack.

The Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command rightly orders the population to seek cover, and for schools to be closed, when there's reason to expect a missile attack. From this point of view, the terrorists in Gaza achieve their goal, despite Iron Dome’s impressive capability. They have the upper hand and continue to hold hostage over a million Israeli civilians.

This situation is typical of a confrontation between terrorists and a conventional army. The terrorists target civilians, who are exposed and easily located, while the conventional army is faced with the problem of locating the terrorists – who are hiding among a civilian population – and preventing them from launching terrorist attacks.

Deterring terrorists from staging attacks against the civilian population is nigh-on impossible. It is only when the terrorists assume political responsibility over the area in which they operate, and thus are held responsible by the civilian population in the area, that it may become possible to deter them. This has been the case, to a certain degree, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as it assumed an increasingly more prominent role in the Lebanese government, and with Hamas as it became the ruling power in the Gaza Strip and responsible for the large civilian population there.

Deterrence of terrorist acts from Gaza is especially difficult. Hamas, a terrorist organization, is ideologically obligated to prove that it has not ceased its war against Israel. Every truce is inevitably followed by renewed terror acts. Hamas is busy increasing and improving its armory of rockets to be directed against Israel at the opportune moment. The presence of other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, like Islamic Jihad – which presumably does not accept the authority of Hamas – complicates the situation.

And so, it is only a matter of time before the population in southern Israel has to run to the shelters again. Iron Dome cannot change this situation. Only the entry of IDF ground forces into the Gaza Strip and the destruction of the terrorist arsenal there can do that.

Consequently, the Israeli government is faced by a choice: The continuation of a situation where everyday life for the civilian population in the south is disrupted every few months and the Gazan terrorists have the capability of striking even deeper into Israel; or else the IDF conducts a cleansing operation in the Strip. The first option is seemingly easier when seen from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but it places a heavy burden on a million Israeli citizens in the south.

An Iron Dome battery.Credit: AP
An Iron Dome missile interceptor battery deployed near the southern coastal city of Ashkelon in October, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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