Opinion

The Great Debate

Israel’s Iron Dome is more like an iron sieve

By David Axe
July 25, 2014

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in Ashdod

Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome defense system is more like an iron sieve. It fails to destroy all but a few of the rockets that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups fire at Israeli communities. But Israel’s early-warning civil-defense systems have proved highly effective.


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The radar-guided Iron Dome missile, meant to intercept and smash incoming rockets in the seconds before they strike their targets, works just a small fraction of the time, according to a detailed analysis carried out by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Ploughshares Fund.

Ted Postol, a physicist at the university and an expert in missiles and missile defenses, has found evidence that only about 5 percent of Iron Dome engagements result in the targeted rocket being destroyed or even sufficiently damaged to disable its explosive warhead. In the other 95 percent of cases, the interceptor either misses entirely or just lightly damages the enemy munition, allowing the rocket’s intact warhead to continue arcing toward the ground.

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of AshdodPostol based his conclusion on a careful analysis of amateur videos and photos of Iron Dome interceptions over the past three years. He admitted that most of his data is from a previous round of fighting in 2012. “The data we have collected so far [for 2014], however, indicate the performance of Iron Dome has not markedly improved,” Postol wrote on the website of the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Richard Lloyd, another weapons expert, has also run studies that call into question Iron Dome’s high success rate. Other military analysts support his findings, though the Israeli government dismisses them, as it does the Postol study. An Israeli spokesman told the BBC, “The system saves lives.”

It should go without saying that guiding a missile to strike a particular spot on another missile is a very, very difficult achievement. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency likens rocket-on-rocket interceptions to “hitting a bullet with a bullet.”

The Israeli military, having spent billions of dollars on the system, appears to be exaggerating Iron Dome’s success rate. “Since the beginning of the operation, more than 1,260 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel,” the Israeli Defense Forces said on July 16, nine days into the latest spasm of violence pitting the Jewish state against Palestinian militias.

The entrance to an underground bomb shelter is painted red near apartment blocks made from reinforced concrete in the Israeli town of Sderot“Approximately 985 rockets hit Israeli territory and 225 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system,” the IDF stated, “with an overall success rate of 86 percent.”

Postol rejected that assessment. “The Israeli government is not telling the truth about Iron Dome,” the physicist asserted. Postol said if Iron Dome has such a high success rate, the Israeli government should release all the data it has.

When it comes to analyzing the effectiveness of missile defenses, Philip Coyle, who ran weapons testing at the Pentagon under the Clinton administration, told MIT’s Technology Review, Postol’s is “the best work that anybody has done outside the bowels of the Pentagon.”

Israel deployed the first Iron Dome missile battery in 2011. Each battery consists of a command post, a radar array and several launchers, each with 20 missiles. The United States has contributed more than $1 billion to Iron Dome’s development in exchange for access to the technology.

There is a lot of money – and credibility — invested in the system’s success.

Israel has so far purchased nine Iron Dome batteries from the manufacturer Rafael — and plans on buying several more. Each Iron Dome missile reportedly costs somewhere between $40,000 and $100,000, compared to less than a $1,000 apiece for the militants’ Qassam rockets.

Israeli police survey the scene after a rocket fired from Gaza landed in AshdodThe Israeli government has said the key point is not the cost but preventing Israeli deaths.  “When we work, we do it to save lives,” Major Shay Kobninsky, a military Iron Dome commander, said in an official release.

“Every rocket intercepted would have hit populated areas,” the IDF added on its official blog. But Postol insisted that Iron Dome has not saved any lives. The fact that the Palestinian rockets kill so few Israelis — just two civilians have died in the recent attacks — is due to what Postol calls “civil-defense efforts.”

“Israel’s low casualty rate from Hamas rockets,” Postol wrote, “is largely attributable to the country’s well-developed early-warning and quick-sheltering system for citizens under imminent rocket attack.” Military radars and infrared sensors detect rocket launches the instant they happen. Air-raid sirens alert civilians to head for underground bunkers.

Iron Dome, Postol added, “appears to have had no measurable effect on improving the chances of Israelis escaping injury or death from Hamas artillery rocket attacks in Israel.”

By the time a rocket enters Iron Dome’s 40-mile engagement zone, it’s already arcing downward toward its target. One way or another, a part, or in some cases all, of the rocket is going to strike the ground. Iron Dome must strike an incoming rocket head-on to wreck its warhead and minimize the rocket’s destructive potential.

People react as air raid siren sounds, warning of incoming rockets, and explosions are heard overhead, in Tel Aviv“If the Iron Dome interceptor instead hits the back end of the target rocket, it will merely damage the expended rocket-motor tube, basically an empty pipe, and have essentially no effect on the outcome of the engagement,” Postol asserted. “The pieces of the rocket will still fall in the defended area; the warhead will almost certainly go on to the ground and explode.”

Israel is not alone in pouring vast sums of money into ambitious missile-defense systems. The United States spends around $10 billion annually on a wide range of rocket interceptors that, like Iron Dome, have performed poorly in tests and combat.

Both countries want to be able to shoot down anything their enemies fire at them. But if Iron Dome is any indication, the technology just isn’t ready.

 

PHOTO (TOP): An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, July 8, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

PHOTO (INSERT 1): An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, July 9, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

PHOTO (INSERT 2): The entrance to an underground bomb shelter (L) is painted red near apartment blocks made from reinforced concrete in the Israeli town of Sderot, April 7, 2014.  REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Israeli police survey the scene after a rocket fired from Gaza landed in Ashdod, July 14, 2014. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

PHOTO (INSERT 4): People react as air raid siren sounds, warning of incoming rockets, and explosions are heard overhead as the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system intercepts rockets fired from the Gaza, in Tel Aviv, July 16, 2014.  REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

 

 

Comments
17 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Typical Israeli government lies, also used against Hamas to claim they are using human shields to justify murdering the Gaza population:

[ Postol rejected that assessment. “The Israeli government is not telling the truth about Iron Dome,” the physicist asserted. ]

Posted by saharadweller | Report as abusive
 

These allegations seem crazy to many Israeli’s who remember the damage and loss of life sustained during 2006 war where a similar number of rockets were fired on Israel from Lebanon. Either the Hamas rocket launchers are totally incompetent or the Iron Dome works as claimed. I believe the Iron Dome works.

Posted by davidkr | Report as abusive
 

This opinion piece is pretty lame. The only thing Axe does here is recycle another guy’s (Ted Postol) opinion piece. Isn’t this Plagarism?

Posted by USARealist | Report as abusive
 

All I can say is that this afternoon I saw two Iron Dome missiles knock down two rockets over Tel Aviv– rockets fired by Hamas.

I don’t know where the author gets his informations– I think seeing is believing, but I’m pretty sure he’s never been withing a thousand miles of Tel Aviv or Gaza.

Posted by the.grey.wolfe | Report as abusive
 

This is a pretty weird post. Mostly a rehash of old claims. Postol has staked his career on discrediting antimissile defense systems. Any system that actually works threatens his credibility and his career. Predictably, he has become the darling of Israel-bashers in the blogosphere and elsewhere. If I were an Israeli, I would be damn happy Iron Dome is protecting me.

For the other side of the story, here’s an article from Haaretz:
http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/where-hav e-all-the-gaza-rockets-gone.premium-1.51 0341

Posted by NoBubbaTX | Report as abusive
 

Let me get this straight… 5 percent of the counter missiles are successful… no wait, 15 percent are successful. No wait, 85 percent land SOMEWHERE in Israeli territory but not necessarily on target.

Quite the scientific analysis here.

Posted by Choke | Report as abusive
 

Postol is not the only space scientist that claim the Iron Dome to be a hoax of Israel’s PR. And yet, according to Israel, Hamas and Postol himself hundreds of rockets are being shot on Israel and for some (probably non scientific reason) the demage is almost zero. So the logical conclusion is that something else protects Israel from the rockets, God perhaps? I really do not care who is “responsible” but since i saw with my own eye several direct hits by the Iron Dome and since other such systems as the Arrow or the Magic Rod are working as well Postol must be wrong

Posted by Nofit | Report as abusive
 

As someone living in Israel, I don’t need this article to know how ineffective the iron dome is. Only about 5% of the rockets are actually taken down. Luckily for us, they are vastly inaccurate.

Posted by Navalny | Report as abusive
 

Well then, all the more reason for Israel to take out Hamas definitively

Posted by Redford | Report as abusive
 

Postol bases his analysis on ‘amateur videos’. Could “scientific rigour” possibly not be entirely compatible with “amateur videos”? In any other circumstances this would be laughable.

Posted by smirkingman | Report as abusive
 

If the heads of the Isreali government took off masks to reveal they are the same people who ran the US into this world war against competing systems and philosophies to ensure a purer and more moral future, except that they only care about money and power over the people, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. The current power in Israel has no ears for reason, as reason belongs in another political party, or for the weak, or the poor, or whatever philosophy one needs to believe to vilify peace. If they (or we for that matter) had true consensus, there would be no war, at least, not this reckless kind. Of course, that’s assuming those making war don’t want to kill civilians to move the rulers, like in the really old days lasting until the 20th century, before countries became rules by dictators who could care less what their people say until revolution is whispered (which these days could just be voting for the competition), then their own people become the enemy. I think we’re done being their people.

Posted by epockismet | Report as abusive
 

As other pundits have noted, take out Hamas and there are a number of far more onerous groups of zealots who will take their place. Anyone who thinks pure force will solve a centuries old conflict are part of the problem, not any solution.

Posted by ArghONaught | Report as abusive
 

“Postol based his conclusion on a careful analysis of amateur videos and photos of Iron Dome interceptions over the past three years. He admitted that most of his data is from a previous round of fighting in 2012. “The data we have collected so far [for 2014], however, indicate the performance of Iron Dome has not markedly improved,” Postol wrote on the website of the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.”

Why post this story? It is misinformation at best even with this disclamer.

Posted by TheNewWorld | Report as abusive
 

Based on amateur videos? Another classic case of looking for evidence to support your pre conceived conclusions. Don’t make any effort to find the facts, just watch a few vids then attach your MIT creds and act like we should all believe this garbage. Really, MIT should be ashamed to be associated with this type of sloppy, lazy, analysis. How about actually doing a real study with actual data of launches and impacts and comparisons from previous wars casualties. This story is not worth the ink to print.

Posted by fudgehammer | Report as abusive
 

As an earlier writer commented, Postal has made a career of bashing antiballistic missile systems. Understand this, Postal want to maintain or increase the nuclear weapon arsenal. He has an agenda. What he does not have is facts. Perhaps he should go to Israel and witness the system from Ashkelon, which has received hundreds of Hamas rockets and virtually no damage. Is that all luck? Not one person has been killed in the area covered by Iron Dome in Israel. Of the three civilian deaths, two were from mortars (range too short for Iron Dome) and one Arab Israeli died in the desert in a rural area not covered by the system. That is from approximately 2000 rockets fired this year.

Posted by Ashdodi | Report as abusive
 

The author of this article should be very interested to read a recent book entitled “The Angelia Project”. This event is eerily familiar to that book’s plot line.

Posted by BillDuncan | Report as abusive
 

I’m sad to see David Axe has just become a clickbait article writer. There’s not a shred of fact or credible evidence in this article. It’s all based on “analysis of amateur videos” lol. The interceptions happen high in the air and you can’t tell squat from an amateur video. I’ve watched many. Look at how much damage rockets did before and after Iron Dome. Not just the casualties but the damage also. It’s a shocking difference.

Posted by NOOOOOOOO | Report as abusive
 

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