Earlier this month, Palestinian militants fired approximately 300 rockets and mortar shells into Israel’s southern population centers. The ensuing escalation left more than 20 Palestinian militants dead, and about the same number of Israelis wounded. The barrage ensued after Israel killed Zuhir al-Qaisi, head of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, who had been planning an attack on Israeli civilians similar to that of 2011, which left eight Israelis dead. He was also one of the masterminds behind the 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. But the most important result of this exchange is that the fighting resulted in a crucial test of the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Iron Dome is an anti-missile defense system developed by Rafael, an Israeli-based military technology firm, in response to the 2006 war with Hezbollah in which almost 4,000 rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel. At a unit cost of $50 million, and with pricey $50,000 missiles, Iron Dome was an expensive but necessary addition to the tiny country’s civilian defense scheme, and this March it performed remarkably well. In order to cut costs and make target acquisition more efficient, Iron Dome is designed to intercept only projectiles bound for population centers. Seventy-three out of the 300 rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza fell under this category, of which Iron Dome shot down 56: an impressive 76 percent hit rate.
There are five reasons why the recent escalation has resulted in strategic benefits to Israel.
First, as with any new weapon system, there was a real need to test it in an authentic operational setting. In 2006, Israeli government officials and military leaders learned (the hard way) how civilian vulnerability to rocket fire translates into political and even military operational setbacks. A campaign against Iran, which would likely draw out for days if not weeks, would likely lead to Iranian ICBM attacks against Israeli population centers. Therefore, it is necessary for Israeli leaders to ascertain the approximate number of hits civilian areas would sustain, in order to better grasp the political and military freedom of action they would enjoy.
Second, a systems check provided crucial data regarding Iron Dome’s technology and whether it meets its original expectations. In the first month of 2012, Rafael upgraded part of Iron Dome’s operating system. One could presume that following the recent confrontation in Gaza, Iron Dome’s new technologies will be reexamined and, if necessary, improved.
Third, and also based on the experience of 2006, it is important to inspire confidence in the system’s capabilities on the one hand, but set realistic expectations on the other. When Iron Dome was announced, optimists projected a 100 percent interception rate, due in part to wishful thinking, and in part to the Defense Ministry’s public campaign to justify the enormous expenses involved in the Iron Dome program. But a perfect system with perfect results is clearly not possible, and it is now time to modify the expectation many Israelis have unjustifiably developed during the past few years. Concurrent with recent events in Gaza, Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly acknowledged that an Iranian-Hezbollah attack on Israel would likely result in approximately 500 casualties.
The fourth beneficial result of this round was that the Gaza terrorist infrastructure wasted a significant number of rockets in a controlled conflict in which Israel clearly had the upper hand. Israel also managed to knock out some of their rocket-launching teams. Israel, at a relatively negligible cost, managed to induce at least a partial reduction of the Palestinian rocket threat.
Last and most important of all, is the deterrence factor. Activating Iron Dome in an authentic operational setting with a 76 percent hit-rate sends a powerful message to Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. A successful Iron Dome is unlikely to altogether deter Iran and Hezbollah from firing ICBMs and rockets at Israel. But it would give Iran another reason to pause before retaliating after its nuclear facilities would come under attack, thereby risking further Israeli strikes without a credible enough threat of their own.
The hope in Jerusalem is that Tehran will follow a course similar to that of Bashar al-Assad in Israel’s 2007 attack on the clandestine Syrian reactor. The Syrian president, fearing a harsher Israeli counter-attack, decided against retaliation, opting instead (and in cooperation with Israel) to cover up the Israeli operation. With Assad’s regime facing increasingly grim chances of survival, the risk of a Hezbollah-initiated confrontation with Israel as a diversion tactic is growing.
Iron Dome’s success in Gaza might give Nasrallah and his Iranian patrons a good reason to reconsider.