Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Iron Dome Isn't a Panacea

@SuttonGL's Twitter comment to myself and @NoahPollack on the Iron Dome missile system being deployed in Israel is an interesting one. Given that he was kind enough to view my Twitter feed, here's an explanation that's not just a snarky tweet:

The intent of my RT (I can't speak for Noah Pollack's intentions) was to look at the long-term viability of using an anti-missile system to underwrite security in Israel's south. In its current strategic use, Iron Dome is an unsustainable security option for Israel.

In 2010, 315 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel. If Iron Dome were deployed against these attacks, it would have cost Israel between 11 million and 15.8 million dollars (the actual price of a Tamir intercept missile is actually somewhere between $35,000 and $50,000). In wartime, the number of projectiles, and the ensuing cost to Israel, would have been significantly higher.

As one metric of the total cost of Iron Dome, the Obama administration granted Israel 205 million dollars in funding for Iron Dome's development, and that was mostly for just the control centers. The total cost over a 5-10 year period of the entire Iron Dome system (missiles, batteries, troop deployments, control centers, and radar), without change in the Israel-Gaza situation, would be enormous.

Conversely, Hamas' cost of continued rocket attacks would be low. It is using significantly cheaper Qassam, Katyusha, and Grad rockets, as well as mortars. It also has significant rearming capabilities including shipments, and smuggling through tunnels from the Sinai, which Israel ultimately did not deny Hamas even during Operation Cast Lead.

While Iron Dome is capable of engaging multiple targets (exactly how many appears not to be in the open source), Hamas may react by trying to overwhelm the system. It likely has more rockets that Iron Dome can engage at once. Hamas could also try to target the Tamir batteries themselves, denying Israel Iron Dome's capabilities altogether. Most importantly, Hamas could just fire missiles with the intent of draining Israel's defense budget. Given the price differentials, Israel would run low on money for Iron Dome far before Hamas would run low on rockets.

The point is that Iron Dome may protect Israelis most of the time, but it will not stop or deter Hamas over the long term. Ultimately, Iron Dome is a defensive system. It can protect Israeli citizens but it cannot create long-term stability on the Israel-Gaza border. Iron Dome is a good system but it will not win a war against Hamas, nor will it create long-term security for Israel. The reduction in violence in Iraq was not the result of body armor or MRAPs, but rather the result of the political order created in the wake of the Surge. Clearly body armor and MRAPs played a role in the success of the Surge, but they were sub-components of a larger, effective strategy. For Iron Dome to be sustainable both economically and strategically in the long-term, it needs to be treated as an emergency relief system, not as an insurance policy for the security of Southern Israel.

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