Politics & Policy

Star Wars over Gaza

Israel’s Iron Dome shows the value of high-tech missile defense.

According to the Times of Israel, Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system shot down 84 percent of several hundred Iranian-supplied short-range ballistic missiles that Hamas launched from Gaza toward Israeli cities. This system, built in record time with U.S. help, demonstrated once again the importance of ballistic-missile defenses in the new world disorder.

This is not the first time we have seen this demonstrated. Who can forget the Patriot-Scud duel during Operation Desert Storm? The Patriot’s success helped Israeli citizens overcome their fear and return to work during very trying times — and most important, it offered Israeli leaders an alternative to entering the conflict directly, which would have split the Arab alliance with the U.S.-led coalition that rapidly defeated Iraqi troops and restored order in that troubled land, at least for a time.

I’ll never forget the results I personally witnessed as director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) watching the team that produced every Patriot used in the first Iraq war. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, only four Patriot interceptors were available, and those were intended for testing. The system was in its final stages of development, but those tests had not been completed before the system was taken into combat a few months later.

Those rapidly produced, untested interceptors changed the entire dynamic of the political debate about the importance of building missile defenses and helped my SDI team design an effective global-defense system including both theater and homeland defenses. Most of today’s missile-defense systems trace their conception to that sea change.

Nevertheless, the inevitable naysayers soon got into the act, seeking to erode the praise heaped on the Patriot system. Whatever the technical merits of those arguments, the debate largely ignored the strategic importance that Patriot had played: Without missile defense, Saddam’s hope of drawing Israel into the conflict might well have been fulfilled, and the war might have evolved very differently.

These naysayers eventually carried the day, and the Clinton administration “took the stars out of Star Wars,” as defense secretary Les Aspin boasted in 1993. They derailed the Reagan-Bush SDI program to defend the American people at home, and they cut by 25 percent the already approved funding for theater missile defenses, which they had claimed were their top priority.

The George W. Bush administration advocated missile defense and withdrew from the ABM Treaty, thereby removing the most important legal barrier to effective missile defense. But the Bush administration did not return to the ambitious goals of 1992. Instead, they chose to build more limited defenses, presumably because they were less concerned about an imminent threat.

Israeli leaders, on the other hand, had decided that they needed as effective a missile-defense system as they could obtain—as quickly as possible. Under a joint project with the United States, Israel built the Arrow system, which became operational in 2003, and began to consider other capabilities, including what eventually became Iron Dome.

We have continued to help Israel improve the layered defense of its cities against both medium-range weapons and long-range missiles such as those that could be launched from Iran.

After the 2006 Lebanon war, during which thousands of Hezbollah short-range rockets landed in northern Israel, we supported developing defenses against those, too. Beginning in February 2007, engineers at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems began working with the IDF and, again with U.S. support, produced in record time Israel’s defense against the short-range rocket threat, the effectiveness of which has just been demonstrated. The challenge is not simply knocking rockets out of the air. A critical factor is early tracking and assessment, which allows operators to determine whether to shoot down an inbound missile: Those headed toward critical areas are targeted, those bound for less important destinations are granted a pass in order to concentrate fire on the rockets likely to do the most damage. Only a few minutes are available to make this determination.

Meeting such a stressful timeline is comparable to intercepting a long-range ballistic missile during its boost phase, before it can release its warhead and decoys. That Iron Dome engineers met such a challenging timeline should encourage those designing defenses against ballistic missiles, including systems based in space.  

The Israelis demonstrated with Iron Dome that with great motivation, effective management, and sound technology, rapid development of an effective missile-defense system is feasible. The United States would do well to relearn this lesson in advancing its current missile-defense programs and reviving some of the key programs that were killed 20 years ago.

— Henry F. Cooper was ambassador and chief U.S. negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union (1985–89) and director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (1990–93).

Ambassador Henry F. Cooper was director of the Strategic Defense Initiative and chief negotiator at the Defense and Space Talks with the U.S.S.R.


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