Israel has deployed the ‘Iron Dome’ system, which is intended to intercept and destroy short-range rockets like Qassams and Grads, near Be’er Sheva. President Obama has promised to ask the US Congress for $205 million in aid to pay for additional systems.
It’s an incredible feat of engineering: to detect a rocket within a few seconds of launch, determine if it is headed for a populated area, and intercept it if so. It’s possible that it could save Israeli lives.
Nevertheless, there are technical and political reasons to not turn it on today:
- At present it can’t intercept missiles with flight time of less than 15 seconds. Rockets can be launched from Gaza against nearby towns which can arrive in less time than this.
- Each interceptor that is fired costs $100,000. Hamas and friends could launch large numbers of cheap Qassams as an effective form of economic warfare.
- Such a system would be most useful in wartime, when large rocket attacks are expected. But if it is activated now, the enemy will gain information about how to defeat it.
- The presence of such a system makes it possible for Israel to tolerate what is actually an intolerable situation. Hamas and Hizballah will continue to build and stockpile rockets, build fortifications, etc.
- From the US and international point of view, especially if the US funds additional systems, any actions that Israel takes against terrorists and their infrastructure, will be assumed to be unjustified and ‘disproportionate’.
One plan that was discussed was to use Iron Dome or similar systems only to defend airfields and other military installations. This would be a rational policy, on the assumption that the IDF will retaliate against rockets fired at civilian targets. The area of these bases is smaller, they are easier and cheaper to protect, and in the case of war their defense could make the difference between victory and defeat. But of course it’s impossible to tell people (at least in an open society) that you have the means to save their lives but won’t do it for reasons of cost!
Given the cheapness of the short range missiles, the response of the enemy to the deployment of this kind of system will be to fire ever more of them. Because of the political consequences mentioned above, Israel will be loathe to strike back aggressively. The lack of retaliation will, in turn, lead to — no surprise — still more rockets.
I would prefer to see the first systems deployed to protect military assets. As more are built, they may be deployed around civilian areas. But the latter should not be turned on yet — they should be kept in reserve in case of war.
Meanwhile, Israel should become even more aggressive in its responses to missile attacks on civilian targets, using disproportionate force against Hamas infrastructure and personnel.
Israel’s traditional philosophy has been that of active self-defense — to preempt enemy attacks and to carry war into the enemy’s own territory. This doctrine is necessitated by Israel’s small size and lack of strategic depth and resources. There would not be an Israel today were it not for this approach.
Her enemies understand this quite well and have carried out a systematic campaign in the political and information arenas to undermine this. The Goldstone report and the way the majority of world media spun the Mavi Marmara affair are examples of how they have succeeded in recasting self-defense as aggression, completely inverting reality in both cases.
It’s not surprising that the Obama administration — at best, thinking wishfully and at worst hostile — is pleased to help Israel pay for more Iron Dome systems. It would be happy to see Israel hunkered down inside passive defense systems, which in the event of war might or might not work. At least there would be no embarrassing targeted killings or accidental civilian Arab casualties.
But if they don’t work, there is no place to fall back to.