Head to Head / Expert Ofir Shoham, Does Iron Dome's Early Success Give the Public a False Impression?

Brig. Gen. (Res. ) Ofir Shoham, 48, has one of the most interesting resumes in the defense establishment. He began his Israel Defense Forces career in the prestigious Talpiot Program, which trains officers for technology and weapons development, and then moved on to operational work in the navy and commanded a missile boat.

Later on, he returned to the technological field, developing electronic weapons, and held several high-ranking positions in the navy from budget-related duties to communications.

Ofir Shoham
Daniel Tchetchik

For the last year he has headed the Defense Ministry Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, and he is a civilian member of the General Staff Forum and is subordinate to both the chief of staff and the Defense Ministry director general.

Over the last three years, the weapons development unit has been the main defense establishment entity spearheading the development of the Iron Dome system together with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

Ofir Shoham, are you concerned that following Iron Dome's initial success, the public will have unrealistic expectations in the future?

We are stating the truth. This is an outstanding system unmatched by any other system in the world, and it has proven itself in many trials and now it has been successfully tested in an operational setting. And still, like any anti-missile defense system, it has a statistical chance of success and a statistical chance of failure. In the meantime, the success rate is very high, I believe, nine out of ten successful intercepts. As far as one case still being investigated by the Air Force, it is unclear if the problem had to do with the system or a lack of understanding of the way it operates. But it is true, the public is uninterested in why or how, and it sees the end result. For now, with the big picture of detection, target location, deciding to launch and striking, the result has been good.

It's been barely three years since the decision was made to develop the system. Is it possible that you took too great a risk deploying operationally so quickly, even before the system was officially declared operational?

I still can't give a definitive answer about the successful and less successful intercepts. It is always difficult to determine the precise moment when it is ready to be put into service. We set a timetable for trials, entry into service and declaration of operational capability. We chose thresholds that seem right. In this specific case, given the favorable results the system had during the tests, the fact that the operational teams took part in the trials at Rafael and their own trials, the progress in absorbing all parts of the system, and the repair of malfunctions and the guidance provided, as well as the area's recent turmoil, the decision reached was that we are reasonably prepared to reap operational successes. Even if we still have a few things to finish off. And the proof lies in the results.

There were concerns, primarily, in the Air Force, about such an early operational deployment.

Senior defense officials were right when they made this decision; at the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, we felt it would be proper to go ahead even if the Air Force had reservations and it is not that they opposed this, but they were deliberating. We could have not deployed the system, absorbed casualties and the politicians would have had less room to maneuver. In such a situation, we could have absolved ourselves by claiming the system simply was not ready. But the direction was clear and there was an excellent combination of operational planning and technological and logistic support. In my understanding, we were ready enough to take a calculated risk here, and it is not all that great a risk, because the trials were 100 percent successful.

Nevertheless, weren't you tense from the moment Iron Dome was deployed over what would happen in real time?

We waited impatiently to see what would happen during the first trial by fire. In every case like this, there certainly is anticipation and expectations, but here there was a fine process of the defense industries working together with the Air Force. We tried to ensure that the trials would include a large number of scenarios and this system was tested in numerous and complex situations. We made sure that the defense industries and the technical teams were also there to provide assistance in the operational period, certainly in the beginning, and would not leave the project the moment it was transferred to the Air Force, which was involved in the development processes from an early stage.

It is nevertheless impossible to ignore the fact that Iron Dome was a political decision and the system was forced on the IDF, which did not want to allocate a lot of resources to it.

Both the army and the defense establishment receive instructions from and operate according to the directives of the politicians. The reality over the last few years has changed in such a way that there was identification with the mission, even among those who initially were less supportive of the system. Even the Air Force set up a unit whose sole task is active defense; in the past, this did not exist. It is a kind of evolution; there will always be differences in the amounts and the levels. Even in the Defense Ministry, no one thinks that attack capabilities are not important, but the increased importance of defensive capabilities is apparent in increasingly broader swaths of the defense establishment. There is also an understanding that it provides the political and military decision makers with greater freedom to maneuver.

Beyond the defense establishment, in the media and elsewhere as well, there is a heated struggle underway against Iron Dome and a lobby that supported adopting a laser-based arms system like the Nautilus.

The lobby for one of the systems is biased due to very specific considerations. Anyone who delved into the details saw that the decision to go with Iron Dome was right even before the development was completed. There were very clean considerations here and the decisions were made after a very intense review of all the alternatives. They were presented to two defense ministers, three Defense Ministry director generals and Knesset committees. We don't rule out the use of lasers in the future, but in their present condition, laser systems are not ready and cost as much as Iron Dome to deploy. Laser systems also have their own drawbacks, such as the inability to operate in all weather conditions. The decision was made with a view toward what Israel can currently achieve.

What about the claim that Iron Dome uses missiles that cost NIS 100,000 to intercept a rocket that costs a few thousand shekels at most?

It is incorrect to compare the cost of the intercepting missile to the cost of the rocket itself, rather the comparison should be with the cost of the damages it can cause to property, hopefully not to persons, and the cost of actions that we would have had to take following such a rocket attack. We have no pretension of intercepting thousands of missiles, only of gaining time, limiting the threat and in the meantime, the army is also doing other things. We must not forget that the system also contributes considerably to Israel's deterrent capability.