How Israel Learned to Love Missile Defense

by Taylor Dinerman
Israel’s Iron Dome system shows that the best defense is not always a good offense.

Between the fall of the Jewish Commonwealth to the Romans in the first century A.D. and the founding of Israel in 1948, Jews were remarkably easy to kill. Not anymore.

Today, thanks to an innovative missile-defense system called Iron Dome (in Hebrew Kipat Barzel), it’s harder than ever. Yet when it was first proposed, many Israeli defense experts (and one way or another most Israelis consider themselves defense experts) were reluctant to support the idea of a defensive response to rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon.

Throughout the history of warfare there has been conflict between those who believe in the strength of a defensive posture and those who put their faith in the attack. Aside from the proponents of the nuclear doctrine known as Mutual Assured Destruction, no one has ever seriously claimed that an exclusively offensive or defensive strategy is viable. Some military organizations have traditionally put more emphasis on defense and others on offense.

Israel, because of its small size, has always preferred to fight offensively. If there is going to be a war, let it happen on the other guy’s territory. This made sense in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1973, however, the IDF’s lightly fortified positions in the Golan Heights and on the east bank of the Suez Canal were overwhelmed in the initial Arab surprise attack.

This led to the delusion that the Bar Lev line in Sinai was somehow an Israeli version of France’s disastrous Maginot Line at the beginning of World War II. In fact, it was a set of positions built during the War of Attrition (1968–70) to protect Israeli soldiers from Egyptian artillery fire, and hadn’t been intended as a line of defense capable of repelling a full-blown attack. The costly success of the IDF’s offensive across the canal and the drive on Damascus in the north convinced Israel’s military leaders that their attack-centered doctrine was the correct one; it just needed better tanks.

In spite of this doctrine’s failure to work as planned during the Lebanon war that began in 1982, Israel’s leaders remained committed to an offensive-minded strategy. However, they knew that their enemies were beginning to equip themselves with long-range missiles. Indeed, Egypt had used a few early-model Scuds during the Yom Kippur War.

Thus, when the Reagan administration offered Israel the chance to take part in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile-defense program in 1983, a small faction inside the IDF leaped at the chance.

Gradually Israeli leaders came to recognize that missile defense was just as important as other forms of air power. Thanks in part to U.S. funding, the Arrow missile-defense system was built and deployed along with a limited number of Patriot-missile batteries. Israelis had long been used to having bomb shelters in their homes and neighborhoods, and they came to accept missile defenses as just another form of homeland protection.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s forces fired 42 modified Scuds at Israel. The ensuing controversy over the effectiveness of the Israeli and U.S. Patriot units that were hastily activated and deployed in response taught both America and Israel some valuable lessons. For one, education and preparation count. The Israeli Patriot crews were barely halfway through their training when the crisis broke out. Neither Israel nor the U.S. Army had enough experience with these weapons to understand how to effectively integrate them into a large-scale defensive scheme. The U.S. Patriot units did not arrive in Israel until the war was already underway, and their improvised deployment has generally been regarded as a failure.

Another problem was that space-based sensors on America’s Defense Support Program early-warning satellites, which provided critical alerts every time the Iraqis launched a Scud, were not directly hooked into Israel’s air-defense system. The satellites were designed to give early warning of a Soviet nuclear strike, and their ability to detect Iraqi missile launches was an unplanned side benefit. The Israelis learned the hard way that they would need a complex, sophisticated, and extremely fast-acting sensor system if they were to make missile defense work.

When the Second Gulf War broke out in 2003, Israel had deployed the early version of its Arrow defense missile. It also had integrated improved Patriot batteries and had developed an advanced command-and-control organization to provide it with a multi-layered national missile-defense system.

Yet when Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets at northern Israel during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, existing missile defenses did little or nothing to stop this attack. For some unknown reason, Israel was unwilling or unable to obtain the American Centurion short-range missile-defense system (based on the U.S. Navy’s Phalanx anti-missile gun). Additionally, the proposed Nautilus chemical-laser system was seen by experts as both too expensive and too easily overwhelmed, since it could only fire seven or eight shots before it needed to be refueled.

Meanwhile, the Israeli defense firm Rafael was developing the concept that would lead to Iron Dome. It would be based on Israel’s longstanding expertise in radars and especially on the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) type radar. This technology uses dozens of small transmit–receive modules to scan for targets. It does not need any sort of mechanical sweeping apparatus, and its power output can be easily adjusted to concentrate on any given part of the sky. Israel had first developed such radars as replacements for the older systems that equipped its F-15s and F-16s.

Iron Dome uses a Multi Mode Radar (MMR) to detect and track enemy rockets. If the rockets are going to land in an uninhabited zone, the system does nothing; if the projectile is going to hit a neighborhood or an area that has been designated as “protected” it will launch one or sometimes two “Tamir” interceptor missiles in order to destroy the incoming weapon.

Its rate of success, which the IDF claims is in the 85 to 90 percent range has been challenged by, among others, Theodore Postol of MIT, a longstanding, hardcore opponent of U.S. missile defense. The details of the system’s effectiveness are closely held, but in its performance against the improved “Grad” and other rockets that Hamas has been using, the results speak for themselves.

The system is by no means perfect. When a rocket is hit, it does not disintegrate into nothingness. Debris from both the missile and the rocket fall to Earth and this debris can sometimes do damage, but this is minimal compared to the damage a live warhead would do.

Back in 2012 I wrote a piece for the Gatestone Institute making the argument that the economics of Iron Dome are not as bad for Israel as some people claim. Since then, the price of the Tamir interceptor missiles has probably gone down thanks to improved manufacturing techniques and the larger quantity of weapons being built.

Three points about the system are significant for Americans. First, while the U.S. has been financing a great deal of Iron Dome’s development and manufacturing, our military seems reluctant to take advantage of the weapon’s availability. Second, the system is continuously being improved; as with every military system there is a constant need to update the hardware and software, and, thanks to Hamas, the Israelis have a great deal of live-fire data on which to base their upgrades. The third, not always evident, point is that there is a human element in the operation of Iron Dome: Some crews are better than others, and training and experience count. The technology by itself can only go so far. American missile-defense crews get little, if any, live-fire training. Simulators have their limits. In light of this, the U.S. military should rethink the way it trains its missile-defense troops.

According to recent reports, Israel now has at least nine Iron Dome units in operation. The IDF has said in the past that they need a total of 13 to 15 units to cover the whole country. As production for Israel winds down, the U.S. would be wise to consider buying a few units of its own for use in South Korea and in places like Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban often use rockets similar to those used by Hamas. We should expect that future enemies will use similar weapons against similar targets. If an Iron Dome were to prevent the destruction of a single U.S. C-17 transport plane, it would pay for itself several times over.

The U.S. is already scheduled to begin producing components for Iron Dome, and there is no reason why it could not manufacture an increasingly large part of the system. Rockets such as the Grad have been an important part of the arsenal of insurgents in low-intensity conflict, and are also an important weapon in more conventional warfare. As time goes on, Iron Dome or weapons systems like it will be integrated into the arsenals of all the major powers.

— Taylor Dinerman is a New York-based writer whose satire Subway Lists and Other Writings from the iPhone Era will soon be published in an expanded “second edition.”