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Published on March 14th, 2013 | by Marsha B. Cohen

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Iron Dome, “Iron Dumb”?

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by Marsha B. Cohen

Americans will soon get to see their taxpayer dollars at work when Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system, funded largely by the US, is deployed during President Obama’s Israel visit.

Unless the inauguration of Pope Francis I causes an abrupt change in his itinerary , Obama will land in Israel on Wednesday, March 20. Immediately after an official welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres will show him an Iron Dome battery, set up at the airport so the President won’t have to travel to a site where the mobile anti-rocket system is being deployed.

The Iron Dome system may well be the quintessential metaphor for US-Israel relations in general, and for Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu in particular, the love child of a sometimes steamy, often frosty and increasingly strained affaire de coeur between defense spending and domestic politics. According to outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel has already received $270 million towards the construction of Iron Dome and — despite the hand-wringing and wrangling over budget cuts in Congress — is slated to receive another $680 million, nearly a billion dollars on top of Israel’s usual $3 billion in annual US military assistance. These figures are corroborated by a Congressional Research Report published last March, which points out that Israel receives 60% of all American Foreign Military financing.

JINSA (the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairswaxes rhapsodic about Iron Dome’s “affordability and effectiveness,” a claim that would make some of the system’s staunchest defenders blanch and its critics guffaw. Each interception costs $100,000 — two interceptors at $50,000 apiece targeting every incoming rocket that appears headed for a populated area of Israel —  hardly “cost effective.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) also uncritically enthuses that “the Iron Dome missile defense system is now hailed as a groundbreaking innovation, an example of the technological prowess of Israel, and an embodiment of the unique relationship between the Jewish state and the United States.”

The hagiographic account of Iron Dome on AIPAC’s website is however both incomplete and seriously flawed:

The idea for Iron Dome arose after Israel’s 2006 war with Hizballah, in which more than 4,000 rockets were launched into the country’s north. As rocket fire from Gaza targeting southern Israeli communities also intensified, it became clear that a system was needed to defend against short-range rockets and missiles.

Not exactly. Last November, the Wall Street Journal offered a much more detailed account of Iron Dome’s origin. Brig. Gen. Daniel Gold, the director of the Defense Ministry’s Research and Development department, had gone ahead and decided on the development of Iron Dome, calling for proposals from defense companies for anti-rocket systems in August 2004 — two years before the Second Lebanon War. He did so without any authorization from Israel’s political leadership. It was not until after the 2006 “Second Lebanon War” between Israel and Hizballah that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — under withering criticism for allowing Israeli civilians in non-border regions to come under rocket and missile attacks — backed Iron Dome, giving the project $200 million in December 2007. The rocket attacks during and since the 2008 invasion of Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) increased demand for a rocket interception system. The system went into operation in March 2011, shooting down its first rocket on April 7 and reportedly taking out 8 more rockets in the next three days.

According to AIPAC, by April 2011 “an Iron Dome battery was fielded outside the southern city of Beersheba and shot down its first rocket fired from Gaza. Since then the system has achieved an 85-percent interception rate and is constantly improving, as its developers enhance its accuracy and expand its range.”

Last week, Reuven Pedatzur, a highly respected Israeli security analyst who has been a sharp critic of the Iron Dome project since 2008 when he pointed out that billions had been squandered on the program, cited studies by missile defense experts that suggest Iron Dome’s successful interception rate may well be 5% or less — far below the 84% success rate cited by the Israeli Defense Forces and other defenders of the program. Pedatzur cites research done by three rocket scientists: Professor Theodore Postol, a world-renowned scientist and expert in missile defense and two other rocket scientists, Dr. Mordechai Shefer, formerly of Rafael, and a scientist he refers to only as “D.”, who recently worked for Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Patriot missiles. After investigating the performance of Iron Dome during Operation Pillar of Defense this past November, all three concluded that “Iron Dome’s rate of success did not come close to the figure of 84% as reported by the IDF”:

According to the three scientists, who conducted their research separately by analyzing dozens of videos filmed during the operation, most of the explosions which look as if they were successful interceptions, are actually just the self-destruction of the Iron Dome’s own missiles. The scientists point out that in every case the explosions, seen as balls of fire during the day and clouds of smoke at night, were round and symmetrical. In the case of successful interceptions, in which the incoming missile’s warhead is destroyed, there should have been another ball of fire or cloud of smoke. They also uncovered a strange phenomenon whereby the Iron Dome’s missiles followed identical trajectories, and self-destructed at precisely the same time. In some of the videos, it appears that the Iron Dome’s missiles made a very sharp turn shortly before self-destruction. That cannot be, say the scientists, as there is no way that the missile defense system could “remember” that it needs to turn in the direction of the incoming Grad missile a quarter-second before it self-destructs.

Pedatzur also noted that these scientists discovered 3,200 civilian damage reports that were filed for destruction caused by incoming rockets. Could the 58 rockets that the IDF admits were not intercepted by Iron Dome have caused so much damage? Compared with the damage from rockets during the Second Lebanon War before Iron Dome was deployed, Pedatzur considers that unlikely. Furthermore, Israeli police reports counted 109 cases of rockets falling in populated areas, twice as many as the number claimed by the IDF. Pedatzur compares the exaggerated success rate of Iron Dome to the initial 96% interception rate claimed for the Patriot missile system during the aftermath of the Gulf War. Professor Postol later found the Patriot success rate to have been zero.

Nonetheless, AIPAC has even bigger dreams for the future of Iron Dome: “Now that the Iron Dome has proven itself, Washington will have the ability to use it in its own defense efforts against short-range rocket threats in the Persian Gulf and South Korea.”

The real challenge — and achievement — of Iron Dome has been getting the US to pay for the anti-rocket system. The WSJ‘s Charles Levinson and Adam Entous report that Israel’s Defense Ministry approached the George W. Bush administration with a request for hundreds of millions of dollars for the system, only to receive a cold reception at the Pentagon. Experts voiced doubts about the system’s effectiveness and argued that even if it worked, such a system would be too expensive. (Most Israeli military and defense officials were also dubious.) A team of US military engineers sent to Israel by the Defense Department to meet with the Iron Dome system’s developers were unconvinced by the technology and skeptical about the prospects for its performance. They recommended that Israel adopt the American-made Phalanx system being used in Iraq.

In 2008, US Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama visited Sderot, a town near the Gaza Strip that came under severe rocket attacks during Operation Cast Lead and whose residents were constantly running for cover from incoming Qassam rockets. Obama won the election and took office as President and shortly thereafter an Iron Dome prototype successfully intercepted an incoming rocket during its first field test. Colin Kahl, appointed by Obama to overseeing US military policy in the Middle East at the Pentagon, decided to reconsider the Iron Dome’s merits — military and political.

Having raised the hackles of Israel’s newly installed Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by calling for a settlement freeze and prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Obama wanted to set things right with Israel. “Top Obama administration advisers saw supporting Iron Dome as a chance to shore up U.S.-Israel security relations and balance some of the political strains,” according to Levinson and Entous. In September, Kahl dispatched a team of missile-defense experts to reconsider Iron Dome. The team presented its findings to Obama a month later: “the team declared Iron Dome a success, and in many respects, superior to Phalanx. Tests showed it was hitting 80% of the targets, up from the low teens in the earlier U.S. assessment.”

In 2009, the US agreed to provide $204 million for the Iron Dome system’s development. The National Jewish Democratic Council pointed to Iron Dome as one of the means by which Obama had restored Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge — eroded during the Bush years. An additional $680 million over three years was allocated for the purchase of additional batteries in May 2012, during talks between Barak and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Barak met with Obama’s new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel earlier this month, during which time Hagel was said to have pledged continued US support for Iron Dome. Israel eventually hopes to triple the number of Iron Dome batteries deployed in defense of military as well as civilian targets.

If Obama had favored funding an Iron Dome program for any other country, you can be sure that Republicans would be shrieking about the administration’s increasing of the deficit by borrowing funds to expend close to a billion US taxpayer dollars on a system with a success rate that been grossly exaggerated. Furthermore, as Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has pointed out, the US government has no rights to the Iron’s Dome’s technology, which is owned by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., an Israeli government-owned, for-profit company.

Consider all this next week when you see Netanyahu and Peres showing off the Iron Dome to President Obama.

Photo: The Iron Dome CRAM launcher near the Israeli town of Sderot. Credit: Natan Flayer.

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About the Author

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Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



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