An Israeli Iron Dome battery fires against a Palestinian missile attack on 9 July 2014 (Associated Press photo).
Almost one week into the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas, a single statistic underscores the nature of this conflict. So far, more than 150 Palestinians have died in Israeli air and missile attacks against military targets, while no Israelis have been killed by the hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza (and southern Lebanon) into the Jewish state.
Obviously, Israel enjoys a huge military advantage over Hamas; complete air dominance, a fleet of UAVs, real-time intelligence capabilities and tremendous firepower allow the IDF to strike terrorist targets with precision. Meanwhile, the Palestinians keep hoping that one of their rockets will land in a populated area and kill Israeli civilians, adding to the psychological toll in Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheba and other communities that have been frequently targeted over the past fourteen years.
But the ability of terrorist rockets to inflict significant damage and casualties against Israel appears to be diminishing, thanks to the Iron Dome missile defense system. Over the past seven days, Hamas and other terror factions have launched upwards of 400 rockets against Israeli territory; Iron Dome has intercepted more than 70 deemed to be a threat against populated areas, a success rate of more than 90%.
Some are calling the system a “game changer.” From the Associated Press:
Newspapers have already crowned the U.S.-funded system as the star of the campaign. The front page of Yediot Ahronot carried the headline “Golden Dome,” with a huge spread of the system in action. The paper’s top military columnist, Alex Fishman, wrote that the Iron Dome has “changed the face of the battle.”
“If not for the Iron Dome system, the entire military would have already been stuck in the Gaza Strip. It is already possible to reflect on the main lesson of Operation Protective Edge: we must not stop investing in the Iron Dome system,” he wrote.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired military general and current director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said that Gaza’s Hamas rulers and other militants have acquired longer, more powerful weapons in the past two years, but Israel had not been idle either. He said improvements to Iron Dome have allowed it to hold off on a ground operation while the home front was protected.
“It gives us much more room to maneuver. … Now we have the ability to hold our breath for some time,” he said. “And I’m sure that Hamas is feeling frustrated with this situation because after launching hundreds of rockets, they haven’t managed to get Israeli casualties.”
Israeli officials warn that no defensive system is fool-proof; on 20 August 2011, barely six months after it was first deployed, an Iron Dome battery near Be’er Sheva engaged a volley of seven rockets fired from Gaza; six were intercepted or ignored, as no threat to populated areas. Unfortunately, the seventh rocket landed in a residential area of Be’er Sheva and killed an Israeli man.
But Iron Dome has clearly matured as a system. With upgrades to tracking radars, the battle management system and interceptor missiles, Iron Dome is much more effective than it was three years ago, and Israeli casualty totals seem to bear that out. During the last “rocket intifada” (2012), Israel suffered six deaths through the first week of fighting. This time around, there have been no fatalities and the few reported injuries have not been directly related to rocket fire. In one instance, and elderly woman was hurt as she descended the steps into a bomb shelter. Another injury was described as a “panic attack” as warning sirens sounded.
At an estimated cost of $20,000 per intercept, operating the Iron Dome isn’t cheap–and that’s on top of initial R&D costs and the bill for deploying the first two batteries. The U.S. has invested at least $900 million in the system since 2011, and agreed to cover the costs for fielding the next eight batteries, some of which are now in service.
With an overall success rate of at least 80%, Iron Dome is the most effective anti-missile system currently on the market. But some have questioned those numbers; Professor Theodore Postol of MIT believes the number of truly successful intercepts (defined as those which destroy the rocket warhead)
may be only five percent, and perhaps a bit lower. Postol, a long-time critic of missile defense, based his analysis on reviews of intercept data, damage reports and interviews with police officials in areas where rockets landed during the 2012 intifada.
Yet, the amount of damage inflicted from the latest round of Palestinian rockets has been surprisingly low, suggesting that a number of warheads may have been destroyed by Iron Dome. That would mean that Postol’s assessment is flawed and (at a minimum) may fail to account for recent upgrades to the system.
For Israeli leaders and ordinary citizens, Iron Dome is worth its proverbial weight in gold. So far, the system’s ability to knock down terrorists has alleviated the need for a potentially bloody ground incursion into Gaza, allowing Israel to to utilize airpower–and precision weapons–to eliminate Hamas rocket crews and senior leaders of the terror group.
The Israeli Air Force has used small diameter bombs (SDBs) extensively in the conflict, as evidenced by the relatively small explosions observed inside Gaza. Israel purchased thousands of the weapons from the U.S. and has developed its own version of the weapon, dubbed the Spice 250. One variant of Spice allows images of intended targets to be uploaded into the weapon’s memory; when its on-board camera matches a building with the recorded image, the small bomb maneuvers its way to the target. Small diameter bombs allow precise targeting, while minimizing collateral damage in an urban environment.
On the other side, deployment of the Iron Dome has create a quandary for Hamas. Rocket barrages that once brought Israeli life to a halt are now little more than an inconvenience. Rocket teams may try to focus on areas believed to have less protection from the Iron Dome, but that means more targets in less populated areas, with fewer opportunities to inflict damage and casualties. They may also try larger volleys in concentrated areas, in an effort to overwhelm the defensive system, but that means more rocket crews will be exposed. And with Israeli UAVs constantly circling over Gaza–and Apache gunships criss-crossing through the same airspace–the Palestinians may lose even more fighters, along with storage sites where the rockets are concealed.
Along with possible changes in rocket tactics, Hamas may step up its use of anti-tank missiles against Israeli military and civilian vehicles traveling near the Gaza border. An IDF patrol was targeted near Be’er Sheva in the early hours of the latest conflict, and four other soldiers were wounded during a similar attack in 2012. The same weapons have also been used against Israeli school buses. However, such attacks are veritable pin pricks compared to the destruction rained down by the IAF on Palestinian military targets in Gaza.
With their “best” weapons largely neutralized by Iron Dome, Hamas and other terror groups will fall back on the time-tested tactics of using civilians as human shields, then criticizing the Israelis for targeting the innocent. But even that measure is having less success; western leaders have been phoning Prime Minister Netanyahu to offer their support, and Israel has been urging civilians to leave areas that may be targeted–even making “roof knock” phone calls to residents in buildings that are in the cross-hairs.
Earlier today, thousands of Palestinians were sighted leaving northern Gaza, suggesting that the Israeli message may be achieving desired results. That, in turn, will make it even easier for the IDF to locate the militants and take them out.