On the seventh day of Operation Pillar of Defense, in the course of which two Israelis were killed and 138 rockets landed in Israel, Kobi Almakayes and a dozen of his friends drove to a field outside of Ashdod and set up a barbecue.
“We came to raise the morale of the people of Israel,” he said to this reporter at the scene, using tongs to handle the skirt steaks, the hot peppers and the chicken wings. “At first we came for the soldiers, but now it’s for everyone.”
Almakayes gestured with his chin in the direction of a nearby Iron Dome battery and the three shipping containers in which the soldiers lived. There were other onlookers nearby, including one ultra-Orthodox youth brought by his father as a reward for doing his homework.
Iron Dome is a hero and a comfort for the residents of the south, who, after years of facing rocket fire without protection feel, at last, that they are being taken into account. The anti-rocket system was developed in record time and performs a task that many felt was unfeasible — locating, tracking and intercepting Hamas’s rockets in a matter of seconds. During Operation Pillar of Defense, the missiles intercepted 86.3 percent of the 421 rockets fired toward populated areas in Israel. And for the first time in a long while — perhaps since before the PLO barrages of the early 80s on the northern Galilee — Israelis were given the feeling that their brains, and not just their brawn, managed to best a terror organization.
But despite the sentiment and the success rate, and the likely frustration among Hamas operatives who spent the last decade tunneling under the sand in Rafah and cobbling together the sort of rocket arsenal that they hoped could represent a semblance of a balance of power with Israel, the question remains: Is Iron Dome a strategic asset, a tool that defangs the threat of rockets — one that veteran The Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg suggested “should prove to Netanyahu that holding territory is not quite as important as controlling the skies”? Or is it just a scarf against the cold of the terrorist armies to the north and south, a sort of expensive luxury item that lulls the public into a sense of safety and prevents the army from doing its primary, offensive task.
The first part of the answer lies in the unlikely manner in which Iron Dome came into existence.
In 2004, after decades of sporadic rocket fire, the Ministry of Defense let it be known it was shopping for an anti-rocket system. After weighing the merits of 14 proposals from Israel and abroad, in 2006 it chose one from the local defense contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.
In December 2007, the budget was approved and full-scale development began. In December 2009, Iron Dome successfully performed a full-system test.
“That pace of progress does not exist within the realm of systems development,” said Oron Oriol, today an executive vice president at Rafael and the-then head of the Air-to-Air and Air Defense Directorate at the company. “It’s usually three to five times slower and 10 times more expensive.”
Oriol oversaw the project from the onset. He said that the developers’ initial concept was a low-cost, rocket-to-rocket system that could hit a fast-moving, small projectile and, crucially, be capable of destroying the oncoming warhead — a technology that did not exist at the time and ran counter to laser-based systems that were under development in the United States.
“If you hit the rocket and don’t destroy it, then you merely steer it off course,” he said, “and it hits Bat Yam rather than Tel Aviv.”
During the period of development, the chief engineer of the project, identified only as Hanoch on the Israeli website Newsgeek, said “there was not a single night that I came home before 11 at night. I forgot what my family looks like when they’re awake.”
The project adhered to the usual Israeli rules of improvisation and disregard for the formal stages of progress. Hanoch revealed that, in trying to stay under budget, he used a part from one of his son’s toy cars. “It’s the only missile in the world that has a Toys ‘R’ Us part in it,” he said. He would not elaborate.
The pace of development also strayed from the norm. On a project as large as Iron Dome, there are generally “development gates,” Oriol explained. One does not proceed beyond a certain point with the development of the interceptor missile, for example, if the radar still fails to distinguish between a Kassam rocket and a kite. “Had we done that it would have taken us four to five years,” said Oriol, a former F-16 fighter pilot. “We did parallel tests and started working on the production line, while still in the process of developing.”
The system — comprised of an advanced radar, a command-and-control center and several missile launchers — was planned to work as follows: The radar detects a rocket launch; a sophisticated algorithm calculates the missile’s course and decides within seconds if it is headed for a vulnerable area like a city or military base; and, if it is, the operators in the command-and-control center launch one or more interceptors that autonomously lock on to the incoming rockets.
Oriol refused to specify the nature of the interceptive blast. But he would say that The New York Times story on Friday, in which an anti-missile expert expressed doubt about the efficacy of the Israeli system — saying that the intercepted rockets he had seen showed no signs of shrapnel or “holes” — revealed a fundamental lack of understanding.
Oriol said that the way a missile warhead works “cannot be learned from debris pictures” and that the US expert’s analysis showed signs of “old-fashioned” thinking.
The article identified Richard M. Lloyd as an anti-missile expert and an employee of Tesla Laboratories in Arlington, Virginia. It did not mention that the company also creates anti-missile components and thus would seem to be a Rafael competitor.
US defense delegations visited the Rafael team three times during the development of Iron Dome, Oriol said. On the first visit, they went over the plans and told Oriol there was no chance the system would work. One year later, they foresaw that it would work, but said there was only a 15-percent chance of getting it done on schedule. On the final visit, they said the chance for getting it done on time was closer to 85 percent.
In 2010, Rafael met the breakneck schedule and, thanks to the same speed and flexibility in the production process, the feat was replicated during Operation Pillar of Defense when an emergency battery was rushed to Tel Aviv, a city that had not come under rocket fire since the Gulf War in 1991.
Once it became clear that Israel’s commercial center would face rocket fire from Gaza, Oriol said, Rafael squeezed “two to three months of processes into two days” in order to deliver a new battery to the Air Force.
“The engineers worked day and night,” he said. “The battery wasn’t ready.” Even the commander — enrolled in university at the time — wasn’t available.
On Friday, November 16, the battery was deployed near Tel Aviv. The connection between the radar and the command-and-control center had not yet been fully tested. Nonetheless, on the afternoon of November 17, a Saturday, battery commander Maj. Itamar Abu and his soldiers intercepted a rocket heading for the city.
Tactical tool or strategic weapon?
Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the Rafael plant recently and spoke of its technological achievements as “dramatically changing the face of the campaign.” Iron Dome, he said, gave Israeli leaders the sort of freedom “that not only shortens wars, and not only reduces the damage of war, but also, when the timing is right, can prevent wars or delay them.”
Eyal Ben Reuven, a reserve general and the deputy commander of Northern Command during the Second Lebanon War, echoed this statement on Army Radio last week, saying that Israeli technology had created something rarely seen in warfare: “Deterrence that is not based, as always, only on offensive capacity, but a long-term strategic deterrence that is based on defense.”
This distinction did not sit well with Professor Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who argued in favor of a ground attack while the operation was still ongoing. Israel’s deterrence, with the Muslim Brotherhood ascendant in the region, could be restored only if Israel put boots on the ground, choking off all rocket fire and bringing about the “decimation” of Hamas’s and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s military wings, he said.
The notion of defensive deterrence was inapplicable in this case. “The main thing you need to do is scare the other side. That’s it. Everything else is just over-thinking.” In fact, Iron Dome’s success, in this instance, allowed Israel’s leaders “to avoid doing what was necessary,” Inbar contended.
Inbar acknowledged that there is a concept of deterrence by prevention — a weapon or barrier that preemptively stymies the adversary’s intention. He cited the flawed Maginot Line as an example: After WWI, a dreadfully war-fatigued France erected along its eastern border with Germany a fortified line of defense, but in May 1940 German troops placed a decoy near the line, flanked north through Belgium, and took France in several weeks.
Iron Dome, unlike the Maginot Line, was designed merely to address a specific tool used by the enemy. But since so much of Hamas’s offensive capacity revolves around the curved-trajectory threat of rockets, and so much of their strategy is rooted not in the traditional military gains of territory but in the true goal of terrorism — the wildfire spread of panic — some say the anti-rocket system is not just a small-scale remedy, but a development of strategic importance.
In amassing rockets over the last decade, and displaying a willingness to use them against Israeli civilians, Hamas thought it was holding “the poor man’s atom bomb,” according to Eitan Meyr, a former assistant to the Adviser for Counter-Terrorism in the Prime Minister’s Office and a fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya.
Israel’s tactical response, despite Hamas’s boasts to the contrary, brought the Palestinians to the notion that a ceasefire would be preferable to continuing to fight. That, he said, has “strategic importance.”
This, of course, could play a role in the greater Mideastern strategic picture — reducing the ability of Iran’s proxies to retaliate against Israeli civilians in the case of an attack on the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities.
The system’s strategic importance, Inbar said, lies in its ability to “lessen the price we would pay if we acted in Iran.”
What remains to be seen is the duration of this advantage. By nature, terror organizations constantly prowl for vulnerabilities in a country’s defense. After Israel re-asserted security control over the West Bank in 2002, largely thwarting Hamas from executing suicide bombings in Israel, and then withdrew its citizens from Gaza in 2005, Hamas in Gaza, encircled by a security fence and the sea, took to rockets.
Iron Dome has reduced the price, in blood and in fear, that the rockets are able to extract from Israel. Nonetheless, many experts say rockets will remain the Gazan terror groups’ weapon of choice.
Unlike Lebanon, the sands of Gaza are unfit for guerrilla warfare, said Arie “Leybo” Livne, the commander of the Gaza region for the Shin Bet during the Second Intifada and current ICT fellow. He said that terrorists would use tunnels to launch subterranean attacks near the fence, and agreed that there has been a rise in anti-tank fire in the border region, but discounted the notion of a south Lebanon-style conflict developing along the border. Instead he said the organizations would look for a rocket-based solution to Iron Dome, perhaps upping the intensity and distance of their salvos until they detect a weak spot in Israel’s defense.
Uzi Rubin, a champion of missile defense and the chief Israeli engineer of the Arrow long-distance missile defense system, agreed with Livne and offered a sober assessment of Iron Dome’s impact. “There is no ultimate winner,” he said of the ever-escalating terror threats and Israel’s responses. “It is a game without end.”