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Analysis'A temporary defense mechanism has become a strategy'

Iron Dome has saved many lives, but has it made Israel safer?

Though tactically a runaway success, some believe the active missile defense system blunted Israel’s traditional boldness and gave leaders cover to let the Hamas threat fester

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Iron Dome in action on May 13, 2021. (Avichai Socher/IDF)
Iron Dome in action on May 13, 2021. (Avichai Socher/IDF)

Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched over 1,500 rockets and mortars at Israel since Monday night, sending Israelis around the country — including some of its most upscale neighborhoods in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area — running from restaurants and coffee shops into bomb shelters. The rocket attacks from Gaza have taken seven lives in Israel, as of Thursday morning.

The death toll would doubtless be far higher if it wasn’t for the Iron Dome, Israel’s short-range air defense system that has become something of a main character in the episodes of violence between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups.

March 2021 marked a decade since the groundbreaking system was first deployed. In that time, it has exceeded expectations, intercepting over 2,500 rockets and missiles in a range of weather conditions, and saving hundreds if not thousands of lives.

Other countries are paying close attention, especially the United States. American investment in the system enabled its development to expand significantly, and to date two Iron Dome batteries have been sold to the US. Other countries have also confirmed deals to buy the system.

The Iron Dome is an unquestioned tactical and technological success.

But technological and tactical achievement does not equal strategic success. Sometimes, it can have the opposite effect, blinding leaders to threatening trends and giving them a narrative of success they can sell to the public while they let dangerous problems fester.

Then-US president Barack Obama, right, Then-IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery, March 20, 2013. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

A decade into the Iron Dome era, Israel must take a step back and ask — are we better off with the system or without it?

Defending the offensive

Throughout most of its history, the IDF wanted little to do with defense. Its  traditional security concept rested on three complementary pillars — deterrence, early warning, and decisive battlefield victory (hachra’a in Hebrew).

Guided by this concept during the years of its victories over conventional Arab armies, the IDF built offensive power meant to deter enemies from attacking and advanced intelligence arrays to detect when that deterrence had eroded. If it was unable to convince the other side that it was better off avoiding conflict, the IDF would bring the full might of its offensive capabilities to bear in search of a rapid and decisive victory in enemy territory. Such an outcome would, the concept held, strengthen deterrence.

Defense began sneaking into the conversation in the 1960s, as Israel considered purchasing the Hawk surface-to-air missile system from the US. The possibility of spending scarce resources on defense roused stiff opposition at the highest level of the IDF.

Yitzhak Rabin, center, as Chief of IDF General Staff, during the Six Day War, speaking with the commander of the southern front, Yeshayahu Gavish (Courtesy of Israel Defense Force Archive)

IAF commander Ezer Weizman opposed the idea on the grounds that it would give Israel’s political leadership an excuse to avoid the bold offensive operations — in this case a surprise airstrike — necessary to win a war.

“I feared that when the senior leadership would need to approve an air offensive,” Weizman revealed in his memoir, “the presence in Israel of Hawk missiles would actually block a fast-affirmative decision [to strike first].”

President Ezer Weizman during a 1998 interview in his Jerusalem residence (photo credit: Flash90)
President Ezer Weizman during a 1998 interview in his Jerusalem residence (photo credit: Flash90)

Another argument that emerged from IAF headquarters took issue with the Hawk missiles over the fact that they were purely defensive. They argued the money would be better spent on flexible platforms like aircraft that could serve in both defensive and offensive roles.

In the end, five Hawk missile batteries were purchased just before the 1967 Six Day War for $30 million. They were integrated into the existing offensive concept, by protecting Israel’s air force installations (in addition to the Dimona nuclear reactor) to maintain the IAF’s deterrence and first-strike capabilities.

The subsequent defensive project the IDF embarked upon was a debacle. The infamous Bar-Lev Line, the string of fortifications built on the banks of the Suez Canal after the Six Day War, was easily overrun by Egyptian forces at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Instead of holding off the enemy advance to give IDF reserves the time to reach the front and go on the offensive, attempts to rescue the besieged troops in the outposts — instead of gathering enough force to cross the Suez and take the fight to the enemy — sucked up much of the Southern Command’s attention and resources in the early days of the war.

Egyptian troops jubilate as they plant their flag atop a bunker on Bar-Lev line east of Suez Canal, October 13, 1973. (AP Photo/Pool/Ahmed Tayeb)

Students of military history will make the association with other massive defensive systems that had an undesired and unanticipated effect on strategic thinking. In his 2015 Ma’arachot article, “Iron Dome – the New Maginot Line,” IDF BG (res.) Dr. Meir Finkel compares the system to the defensive fortifications line France built in the 1930s to hold off a German offensive. The state-of-the-art Maginot Line consumed 6 percent of France’s defense budget from 1930 to 1937, taking desperately needed funds from offensive capabilities like tanks and planes.

The impact of the Maginot Line was felt beyond budgets. In his work on the fall of France in World War II, British historian Alistair Horne describes how the line became not only a core component of French strategy, but also created an illusory atmosphere of safety and security.

Nazi soldiers march through Paris, France, October 24, 1940. (AP)

It provided neither, and when the German armor finally came in 1940, it simply attacked through the Ardennes Forest where the fortifications were sparse. France surrendered within 46 days.

“All the deficiencies of the Maginot Line — astronomical costs at the expense of offensive means, the creation of false security and the atrophy of the army’s offensive thinking — could also exist in the context of Iron Dome,” warned Finkel.

The fourth pillar

It was the rocket and missile threat that truly opened the way for defense to take its place among the three traditional elements of the Israeli security concept. Katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon — first from the PLO and later from Hezbollah — forced the IDF into widespread offensive operations, and gave small armed groups a measure of deterrence against the mighty IDF.

Saddam Hussein’s forces fired 39 al-Hussein Scud missiles at Tel Aviv during the 1991 Gulf War, with Israel relying fully on the untested US Patriot air defense system. The commander of the Israel Air Force at the time, Maj. Gen. (ret) Avihu Ben-Nun, told former IAF pilot and military analyst Reuven Pedatzur after the war that, according to Pedatzur’s testimony before the US Congress, “only one al-Hussein warhead was evidently hit by Patriot missiles.”

The destruction caused by an Iraqi Scud missile during the first Gulf War in January 1991. (Defense Ministry’s IDF Archive)

After Hezbollah succeeded in maintaining sustained Katyusha rocket fire throughout the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the 2007 Meridor Committee on Israel’s National Security Doctrine presented defense as the fourth pillar in the national security concept. The same year, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert accepted the recommendation of defense minister Amir Peretz, and approved Iron Dome as Israel’s solution against short-range rockets.

Iron Dome was envisioned as the short-range component in Israel’s emerging missile defense system. David’s Sling would protect against medium-range rockets, while the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems were intended to engage long-range ballistic missiles.

Investment in defense aroused opposition this time around as well. Many IDF officers saw the system as a threat to the IDF offensive war-fighting concept. What’s worse, they argued, missile defense could even damage Israel’s deterrence, as it would take money from the offensive capabilities on which that deterrence rests.

It didn’t take long for the Iron Dome to affect how Israel fought. The Gaza operation that took place before Iron Dome’s operational deployment, the 2008/9 Operation Cast Lead, saw a significant ground maneuver by IDF infantry and armored forces.

An infantry soldier on the Israel-Gaza border at the height of Operation Cast Lead, Jan 6 2009. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An infantry soldier on the Israel-Gaza border at the height of Operation Cast Lead, Jan 6 2009. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

After the Iron Dome was deployed in 2011, Israel fought two more major conflicts against Hamas. In the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF relied entirely on stand-off firepower and did not maneuver at all, while the limited ground advance in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge was part of a defensive effort against tunnels, and was not meant to defeat Hamas in the field.

Still, praise for the Iron Dome rained down.

“By neutralizing most rockets headed for populated areas,” wrote Israel’s ambassador to the US Michael Oren in The Wall Street Journal, “the Iron Dome gives decision makers invaluable time to find diplomatic solutions. If salvos of rockets were pummeling Israeli homes, hospitals and schools, Israeli leaders would be under immense pressure to order ground operations that could yield significant casualties. By denying the terrorists a decisive offensive advantage, Iron Dome will save lives and prevent wars.”

Kulanu MK Michael Oren seen at a conference organized by NGO Monitor, entitled “15 years of the Durban conference,” held at the Knesset on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It should be noted that the IDF had been moving away from ground maneuver since the 1990s, relying on precision strikes that would not put IDF soldiers directly in harm’s way. But there was a recognition that the IDF needed to urgently fix its ground maneuver capabilities after the 2006 debacle, and the success of the Iron Dome robbed maneuver advocates of much of their momentum.

Whose Iron Dome?

Defensive initiatives that have made the IDF more effective in the past were properly integrated into existing concepts, complementing Israel’s decisive offensive capabilities. But Iron Dome was never properly integrated, and remains something of a standalone capability.

Much of this situation can be traced to the particular interest the political echelon has taken in the Iron Dome.

“The IDF does not believe in the possibility of achieving victory in a war, campaign or a limited conflict through the defense,” wrote IDF Dado Center researchers in 2015. “A victory always entails an offensive.”

But military offensives create problems for Israel’s political leaders, who have to face international investigations like the Goldstone Report after Cast Lead, and the anger of allies. “The political echelon regards defense as enabling a reduction in the need to take the offensive and thus defense belongs to the political, not the military, toolbox,” wrote the Dado Center researchers.

Judge Richard Goldstone (second from right) at public hearings in 2009 about alleged Israeli violations committed during Operation Cast Lead (photo credit: UN/Flash 90)
Judge Richard Goldstone (second from right) and Christine Chinkin (right) at public hearings in 2009 about alleged Israeli violations committed during Operation Cast Lead. (UN/Flash 90)

The question of who the Iron Dome belongs to comes to the fore in the matter of whom it is meant to defend. Political leaders pushed for Iron Dome to focus on the protection of the population — which includes, not coincidentally, the entirety of their potential voters — while the military wanted the system primarily for its original purpose: the defense of strategic infrastructure that enables the IDF to continuously function in war.

As Israel faces round after round of Hamas rocket fire at its civilians, its leaders  point to the Iron Dome as evidence of the success of their approach, which is based on pounding Gaza with fire from the air force and artillery in order to restore deterrence. But as the prime minister and others declare victory in front of Iron Dome batteries, Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s capabilities continue to grow.

The range and precision of the Gaza terror groups’ rockets steadily expand. In 2012, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv came under fire, and in 2014, it was Haifa’s turn. In the same conflict, Hamas even succeeded in temporarily shutting down Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, for several hours cutting off from the world the country with the mightiest military in the Middle East. This was unthinkable only a few years before. Again in 2021, Ben Gurion operations have been temporarily suspended more than once.

A traveler stands in front of a departure time flight board displaying various cancellations at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (photo credit: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Now Hamas and Islamic Jihad fire barrages of hundreds of rockets at Tel Aviv,  and don’t seem especially deterred after a decade of operations that ended with Israel’s leadership proclaiming that deterrence has been strengthened.

Technology as strategy

It may seem bizarre to call into question a system that has saved hundreds of Israeli lives, all the more so on a day when it is actually saving lives, but the picture is not that straightforward. Millions of more Israelis have come under threat since Iron Dome first made its appearance, not to mention the Gazan civilians whose lives Hamas deliberately put at risk by firing at Israel without fearing a decisive response.

Imagine for a moment that the Iron Dome was never developed. Israel would face two possible principal approaches to the Gaza question. It could seek a political solution with Hamas through the mediation of Egypt and other third parties, or it could embark on a decisive ground campaign in an attempt to rid Israelis of the rocket threat from Gaza once and for all. For much of Israel’s history, its concept against sophisticated terrorist networks rested on ground raids and larger operations, and it often succeeded, including against the PLO in southern Lebanon in 1982 and Palestinian groups in the West Bank in 2002. Such an operation in Gaza would undoubtedly be costly in blood and treasure in the short term, and would necessitate some sort of longer-term Israeli presence or arrangement to introduce PA security forces, but could potentially bring a solution to the Hamas threat.

An IDF soldier stands guard in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Flickr)

Instead, with the illusion that the technological wizardry of the Iron Dome grants it a hermetically sealed bunker to shelter in for as long as it needs to, Israel has thus far chosen to let the Gaza problem fester. Even if the lion’s share of the blame can be placed at the feet of the cruel and corrupt Hamas government, millions of Gazans still live in dire economic circumstances on Israel’s border. Even if one argues that it’s not Israel’s fault, or even Israel’s responsibility, it is hard to see the downside in a new reality that would allow Gazans to prosper and travel while not posing a danger to Israelis.

And that same Hamas government holds a sword over the necks of millions of Israelis, many more than it did in 2011. Not only is no solution at hand, the very fact that Israel doesn’t have one is not even discussed. Israel has been through four rounds of elections over the past two years, and none of them featured any debate about what to do about Gaza, an issue on which Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister for the entirety of the Iron Dome era, would be vulnerable.

“What was once a tactical defense mechanism to temporarily protect the civilian population has become a strategy unto itself,” wrote Tel Aviv University political theorist Yoav Fromer.

The Iron Dome is an Israeli technological breakthrough, and Israel should be proud of the system. When sirens sound and the booms of Iron Dome interceptions reverberate across Israeli cities, the entire nation thanks God and the visionary developers for the missile defense system. Circumstances and even morality demanded that such a solution be found. But until it is integrated into a concept alongside the IDF’s offensive might, and a political approach that at the very least broaches a long-term solution to the Gaza challenge, it can only provide temporary shelter for Israeli civilians while dangers continue to multiply just across the borders.

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