The case of Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system will continue to be instructive. Iron Dome has reportedly performed very well in testing, impressing expert observers and encouraging missile-defense advocates. (See here, here, and here for a taste of the reporting on it.) But the IDF announced this week that it will be putting Iron Dome in storage for the time being, bringing it out for deployment only in the case of dramatic increases in rocket and missile attacks.
Although the IDF complained about Iron Dome’s cost this summer (see link above), the U.S. has added substantial funding for missile-defense systems to our defense package for Israel. The thrust of Obama’s policy response to the threat from Iran is, in fact, expanding missile-defense options for Israel. Putting Iron Dome in storage is therefore unlikely to be a result of simple cost or training concerns. It’s more useful instead to parse this decision in terms of overall national-defense policy.
Other nations seeking to defend their populations with missile shields may well run into the decision factors Israel now faces. So we should pay attention to what they are. There are downsides to keeping Iron Dome constantly deployed: one is simply that terrorist attackers will know where its components are situated and become accustomed to what it looks like. Even if the components were moved around regularly, they would be more susceptible to sabotage and easier to analyze and defeat — particularly if using them from time to time gave attackers a chance to observe them in operation. Israel’s small size only amplifies this drawback.
Two other factors are more political and strategic in nature; they have to do with the environment of expectations in which Israel would operate with a constantly deployed Iron Dome system. The IDF spokesmen quoted in the linked articles above allude to one of these factors: the expectations of the Israeli people about being defended. Iron Dome is unlikely to intercept all incoming rockets or missiles. Its deployment should not create a basis for complacency. But it could easily do so — and thereby produce a new set of mistargeted political pressures on national-security policy.
In the same vein, the defensive promise of Iron Dome could well raise expectations, both inside Israel and abroad, that its deployment obviated the need for Israel to hold key territory and keep it cleared of terrorists and their weaponry. That conclusion would be false, but I imagine most readers see how quickly it would be drawn — and how vigorously it would be advanced as a talking point against Israel’s other irreducible security requirements. This effect on expectations would be felt in the peace-process negotiations but would also be a factor in the international approach to Iran.
A missile shield alone is not all Israel needs for security. And as a general rule, a missile shield should not be used as an excuse to let overall security conditions deteriorate. That outcome would be more than likely if Israel began deploying Iron Dome on a constant basis right now. Missile defense is necessary and useful, but it can’t be a substitute for a multifaceted national defense, one that includes a policy of suppressing threats rather than waiting passively to be attacked. These developing security-policy dynamics are not by any means unique to Israel’s situation. We should watch and learn from them.