Revolutionary response

Iron Dome — the newly beloved missile defense system that nobody wanted

How a misfit defense minister pushed through a project that defied the IDF’s offensive spirit, and that proved crucial in the latest Gaza-Israel hostilities

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An Iron Dome launcher deployed next to Ashkelon (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90 )
An Iron Dome launcher deployed next to Ashkelon (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90 )

Iron Dome is a celebrity.

People long for pictures of it in action, and scanned the skies in recent days for the intercept missile as it rose up to strike the incoming rockets from Gaza.

Were it not for Iron Dome, and with over 300 rockets fired from Gaza between Friday and Tuesday, military officials said, Israel might now be deeply embroiled in a ground operation in the Gaza Strip. Alternatively, were it not for Iron Dome, they said, Israel might not have made the decision to blow up Zuhair al-Qaissi in his car in Gaza City on Friday, no matter how great the concern that he was about to orchestrate a major terrorist infiltration from the Sinai.

But the truth of the matter is that for years, the Israel Defense Forces, despite its name, had no interest at all in investing in defensive measures – neither the fortification of towns nor the acquisition or development of anti-rocket defense systems. Only a Supreme Court decision, followed by a grisly war with Hezbollah and finally the determination of a maligned, ridiculed, misfit of a defense minister managed to turn the tide.

A soldier standing near an Iron Dome battery, part of Israel's missile defense system (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
A soldier standing near an Iron Dome battery, part of Israel's missile defense system (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Israel first came under the threat of rocket fire after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Jordan-based PLO squads began firing on Israeli civilians in the Beit She’an Valley. Since then, the country has faced enemies determined to use rocket and missile fire as a strategic weapon, a terror-inducing threat that can keep the mighty Israeli army at bay.

Rocket fire, and the desire to push the PLO guns out of range, was the reason for the Lebanon War in 1982. Rocket fire was the reason for Operations Accountability and Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah in 1993 and 1996, and though rocket fire did not trigger the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the army’s inability to stop the fire for the duration of the 33-day conflict dictated the course of events. And yet the IDF, Uzi Rubin wrote in a recent paper for the BESA Center, assessing the strategic threat of rockets from Gaza, continually belittled the efficacy of defensive anti-rocket systems.

“The army thinks about war in terms of tanks and planes,” said Rubin, who headed Israel’s missile defense organization within the Defense Ministry for years and was the chief engineer of the Arrow anti-missile system. “Deep down in their hearts they always think it’s not their problem,” he said in a telephone interview, discussing passive and active defensive measures.

After Operation Grapes of Wrath, a 16-day campaign during which 770 rockets fell in northern Israel, the United States began developing a laser-based anti-rocket system called Nautilus. By October 2000, a full year before the first Kassam rocket landed in Sderot, it had passed a field test in New Mexico. Yet the IDF continued to invest in offensive tools like smart bombs, unmanned aerial vehicles and squadrons of gleaming new fighter jets, weapons that could target what air force commander Dan Halutz called “the food chain” of the rockets.

In 2004 the director general of the Defense Ministry, Amos Yaron, told Haaretz, “We are not going to spend astronomical sums of money (on something) that will not bring about any type of breakthrough in this realm,” he said, referring to Nautilus and other anti-rocket systems.

By the time Amir Peretz came in to office as defense minister in May 2006, the funding for Nautilus had stopped entirely.

As a resident of Sderot, “as someone who raised a family in the city, and as someone who came from the civilian world,” one of the first questions Peretz grappled with upon taking office was the IDF’s inability to stop the short range rocket fire on southern Israel, he said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

“I was told in no uncertain terms that defensive systems were incompatible with the offensive spirit of the IDF,” he said.

Both the chief of the General Staff at the time, Halutz, and the director general of the Defense Ministry whom Peretz himself appointed, Gabi Ashkenazi, argued that the rocket fire from Gaza was a tactical weapon, capable of harming morale and inflicting statistical wounds, but not a strategic threat to the state.

“I said that threats to morale were strategic in nature,” Peretz recalled. “Sure, more people might die in a big car accident than in a wave of rocket attacks, but the effects (of death from rocket fire) reach every single house in Israel.”

Amir Peretz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Amir Peretz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

During the Second Lebanon War, Peretz and the rest of the military and political leadership made decisions while under fire. Many of them were poor. A general sense of coherence was absent. Iron Dome, Peretz reflected, is a political tool, not just a military one. “It allows people to make decisions without panic.”

During that war, rocket fire killed 53 Israelis and drove a quarter million residents from their homes. Yet in a 2006 meeting with the prime minister, Peretz said, Halutz and Ashkenazi still remained opposed to developing a missile-based defense system against rockets. Nonetheless, Peretz instructed Ashkenazi to look into the many options of rocket defense systems and to report back to him with the results.

In February 2007, with funding for just one year and without the requisite signature of the finance minister necessary for all multi-year projects, Peretz authorized the development of Iron Dome. At a midnight meeting in his office, he said, he reached an agreement with Rafael defense systems officials: They’d “scrape together” $50 million and the Defense Ministry would “scrape together” another $50 million – out of an annual budget of some $15 billion – and production would start immediately. Working at a feverish pace, Yossi Drucker and his team of engineers managed, incredibly, to present the IDF with an operative system that had passed all field tests by May 2010.

During this latest round of violence, Israel’s three Iron Dome batteries attained an unofficial success rate of 90 percent. Most experts believe that the anti-rocket systems managed to stave off a potentially destabilizing and costly ground offensive. Military sources on Sunday described its impact as revolutionary. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent part of Sunday watching it in action, meeting with its operatives, praising their work. And yet, Rubin said, we refuse to learn from history.

“It was the defensive action” – the retreat from Moscow – “that allowed (Russian chief of staff) Kutuzov to defeat Napoleon,” he said. “It was Churchill’s decision to place the defensive anti-aircraft guns within central London during the Blitz that lifted the morale of the public. Yet Israel, he said, “has been shamefully slow” in acquiring the seven or so additional batteries it needs in order to defend the crucial areas of the country.

“When it comes to planes,” he said, “we never buy them one by one.”

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