Moment of Truth For Iron Dome

On July 17, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza turned violent for the third time in six years, but the second time since the Iron Dome air defense system became operational. Israel initiated and developed Iron Dome as a countermeasure to the short range munition arsenal of Hezbollah and Hamas and the United States has provided substantial financial support to the program. Indeed, in this latest round of fighting, the Congress demonstrated America’s support to Israel by appropriating $225 million to restock the system. The President joined Congress and articulated the country’s support for its ally and highlighted the Iron Dome system: “not only have we been supportive of Israel in its right to defend itself, but in very concrete terms -- for example, in support for the Iron Dome program that has intercepted rockets that are firing down on Israeli cities -- we've been trying to cooperate as much as we can to make sure that Israel is able to protect its citizens.” Experts continue to debate the efficacy of the Iron Dome system and a comprehensive and objective review should occur.  Given the extensive financial support provided by the United States (and the corresponding obligation to protect its own citizens and service members), the time is right to examine  how the United States will realize a return on its investment and will benefit from the purported success of the Iron Dome system.

Operational Performance Since 2012

In prefacing the discussing of operational interception, defining the scope of Iron Dome capabilities is important. As designed, Iron Dome is purportedly capable of rapidly determining the trajectory of incoming missile, rockets, and mortars, and will only engage those that are assessed to be heading towards population centres under its protection, not ones heading towards unpopulated areas.

In November 2012, Israel undertook Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas in Gaza. The eight day operation occurred between November 14 and 21 during which Hamas launched more than 1,400 rockets and mortars into Israel. According to the Israeli Defense Forces, the Iron Dome system intercepted 421 of the approximately 500 enemy projectiles that were launched against population centers, an interception rate of 84.2 percent.

In the more recent round of fighting, Israel formally launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8. According to a Wikipedia compilation based on government and media reporting, Hamas has launched over 2,800 missiles against Israel. On July 20, IHS Jane's Defence Weekly reported that the Israeli Defense Forces claimed Iron Dome had achieved a success rate over 80 percent: “Approximately 985 rockets hit Israeli territory and 225 rockets [headed for population centers] were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system with an overall success rate of 86%."

American Financial Backing To Date
Between FY2011 and 2014, the United States has appropriated a total of $704.31 for the Iron Dome System, constituting approximately 28.4 percent of all U.S. funding provided to Israel in support of various air defense and ballistic missile defense systems (see below chart).  In combination with the aforementioned August 2014 supplemental funding, U.S. funding for the Iron Dome system has totaled $929.31 million.

[Iron Dome system funding in purple]
FY2013 (After Sequestration)
Based on 04/11/2014 CRS Report 33222 “US Foreign Aid to Israel” 
via Federation of American Scientists

In the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense, American officials and defense observers called for technology transfers and co-production. To that end, the U.S. House included a section in the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act specifically noting the United States’s lack of rights to the corresponding technology and conditioned future funding on the Department of Defense ensuring “that the United States has appropriate rights to this technology for United States defense purposes.”

Since then, Israel and American defense contractors concluded agreements to begin such collaboration.

Between January and July 2014, Israel's state-owned Rafael and America's Raytheon secured approval from their respective country's agencies to co-produce the Tamir, the maneuvering missile developed by Rafael for the Iron Dome intercepting batteries. Under the agreement, Raytheon would lead a team of U.S. subcontractors for co-production of Tamir-related components and subsystems, with final assembly and integration in Israel by Rafael; funds to be spent in the US on co-produced subassemblies are estimated at $170 million. (Rafael selected Raytheon because of existing relationship working on another Israeli anti-missile system, David’s Sling, also the beneficiary of approximately $703 million in U.S. funding.) Once implemented, the partnership will broach sales opportunities to the U.S. Army.

Caveat Emptor

However, before the United States can capitalize on the purported success of Iron Dome, the debate over the actual efficacy of the system must be resolved.

As noted above, Israeli Defense Forces have reported success rates in excess of 80 percent through two operations. Israel stands by the claims, but declines to provide any corroborating evidence because doing so might provide Hamas or other adversaries with clues as to how to circumvent the system.

The concept of anti-missile defenses has had detractors since inception. In the case of Iron Dome, the principal critic has been American scientist Theodore Postol.

In the first instance of Iron Dome’s use in 2012, Postol acknowledged that the system’s performance marked an “astonishing achievement,” albeit within the system’s narrow parameters -- tracking projectiles aimed at population centers and traveling at low speeds. Moreover, Postol cautioned against extrapolating Iron Dome’s alleged success to systems designed to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles. More pointedly, Postol noted he did not have access to primary data.

In the latest use, Postol has been far more critical because he has been able to analyze the numerous unclassified photos and videos shot by Israeli civilians.

In a much circulated analysis posted to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on July 19, Postol explained an effective anti-missile defense must be able to deliver an interceptor in front of incoming projectile and detonate at the precise moment at which the destruction of the projectile’s warhead can be achieved. Otherwise, the interceptor will chase a projector or come in from the side and then mistime the detonation -- as in the case of Iron Dome’s interceptors.
According to the publicly available photographic evidence, Postol asserted Iron Dome interceptors have not destroyed an incoming projectile’s warhead at the rate asserted by Israel. In Postol’s estimation, the actual interception rate was less than 10 percent.

The corresponding low casualty rate, according to Postol, was probably more attributable to an effective Israeli civil defense system and the small size of the Hamas rockets, and not Iron Dome interceptors.

In lieu of available evidence, Postol recommended monitoring one lagging indicator -- insurance claims related to damage incurred during the fighting; if Iron Dome interceptors were successful at the rate alleged, then post-conflict insurance claims would reflect the minimal damage attained.

Postol concluded by stating forthrightly, “The Israeli government is not telling the truth about Iron Dome to its own population, or to the United States”, the ally that has provided the Israeli government with the substantial funding needed to design and build the system.

Trust But Verify
Postol first came to prominence in demonstrating the unsatisfactory performance of the U.S. Army’s Patriot anti-missile defense system during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The United States had touted the Patriot system -- along with precision munitions -- as integral to the overwhelming victory achieved as well as evidence of the country’s military technological superiority. In the wake of Postol’s critique, the Department of Defense revised the system’s success rate downward.

The impetus to accept initial claims of success are understandable, especially in light of the substantial financial resources expended and the military personnel put at risk.

In just the past decade, the United States military was confounded by Iraqi insurgents’ reliance on cheaply improvised explosive devices; in the aftermath of thousands of fatalities, the United States had to expend billions of dollars on any and all potential countermeasures. The most successful solution, the introduction of the specially configured Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, entailed approximately $45 billion to acquire 27,000 vehicles, but, according to the Department of Defense, saved over 40,000 lives.

Until another dissent led the department to again revise its estimates downward, by 95 percent, to 2,000 lives.

To be direct, the U.S. Army acquisition system has shown itself to be completely incapable of delivering desired capabilities. As previously noted, a 2011 internal Army review (later made public) found that between 1990 and 2010, the service had terminated 22 major programs with no deployed systems to show for them. According to the analysis, the cost of these abortive programs averaged between $3.3 billion and $3.8 billion per year since 2004.

In 1997, the then General Accounting Office identified shortcomings in the performance of precision munitions during the Persian Gulf War. The report did not mark the end to the pursuit of this critical capability, only the refinement of it.

Israel versus Hamas is only a harbinger of what is to come. The proliferation of missile technology and capabilities ensures future adversaries will deploy them against American forces, or worse, civilians. Relying on unproven military technologies would be unacceptable.

As noted above, the United States has provided Israel with just under $1 billion to develop and design the Iron Dome system over the past eight years. Mercifully, no American personnel or citizens have had to be at risk of hostile rocket launches during that time.

Next Steps

American interests would be served by one, verifying the performance of the Iron Dome system, and two, if verified, then proceeding with acquisition.

Given the extent of American funding provided to Israel, the Administration should engage with Israel and secure the basis by which a bilateral comprehensive and objective review of the Iron Dome system can be completed. Similarly, the Congress should be prepared to exercise oversight in the form of hearings, commissions, or mandated reviews and reporting.

The United States has directed hundreds of billions to the development of anti-missile defense systems as well as trillions in pursuit of other critical capabilities, if only to ensure the safety and security of its armed forces and its citizenry.  The purported success of Iron Dome and the potential adaptation of its technology can benefit the American military, if demonstrated to be true.

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