x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Isreal's Iron Dome: safety net or money pit?

The recent unveiling of Israel's new ground-to-air missile defence system, known as Iron Dome, has led to debate over its cost and effectiveness.

JERUSALEM // Israel's ground-to-air missile defence system, known as Iron Dome, is being called a success after as many as nine rockets fired by militants operating in the Gaza Strip were shot down since it was first deployed late last month.

Media and officials are praising the system as an important step towards protecting Israelis from the threat of missile bombardments by neighbouring enemies.

Israeli and Palestinian analysts also caution, however, that while the system is a technological achievement, Iron Dome's roughly $200 million (Dh7.34bn) worth of sophisticated radars and powerful Tamir missile interceptors are neither impenetrable nor fail-safe. Experts believe that missile salvos will inevitably penetrate its cover. This was evidenced, they said, by the other 120-plus projectiles fired from Gaza that averted the system over the past week.

"It's a good boost for confidence, but for the foreseeable future it's not yet a game changer," said Shmuel Bar, the director of studies at Israel's Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya.

"And in any case, it cannot replace actual proactive efforts to stop the shooting of rockets." Proactive strategies could include pre-emptive military strikes against militants.

The system is designed to counter relatively short-range weapons, anywhere from a few kilometres to more than 70km, including Iranian-made rockets and mortars launched from Gaza or by Hizbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. Even though these kinds of weapons rarely kill Israelis, they regularly cause mass panic and inflict significant destruction, particularly in the south. Residents of communities that border Gaza, such as Sderot, must regularly take cover in neighbourhood bunkers and fortify their homes and schools to withstand the frequent strikes.

One of Iron Dome's two missile batteries positioned in southern Israel is thought to have made history on Thursday when it destroyed a Grad rocket fired from Gaza. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported it as the first time a short-range weapon had been intercepted by a missile defence system.

Yet during a visit to rocket-besieged areas in the south on Sunday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to play down the public's expectations of the system.

While praising it as a "most impressive technological achievement", he also said that Iron Dome "will not be able to protect every house, every installation, every site in the state of Israel".

Even with an anticipated $205 million of US funding for Iron Dome, there are serious doubts about the cost-effectiveness of deploying its missile batteries across the country. Each battery is estimated to cost at least $21 million, and analysts put the number of batteries required to adequately protect Israeli cities at 20. The estimated price tag for firing one interceptor missile is $100,000.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said Hamas was probably gloating over the system's enormous price tag. Mr Abusada said the Islamist group is fully aware that its arsenal of crudely fashioned projectiles, mortars and longer-range rockets costs a fraction of this sum, and yet it still managed to sow fear among Israelis last week in spite of Iron Dome's deployment.

"The bottom line here is that Israel has no solution to the launching of mortars and rockets from Gaza on its citizens," he said. "And Hamas will waste no time in trying to smuggle in more weapons for the next war with Israel."

Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier general in Israel's air force, said with a limited deployment the system had advantages, such as providing enough cover to buy Israeli leaders time to devise a well-planned military response during developing crises. He used as a counter-example Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon when the country's leadership responded to the estimated 4,000 projectiles fired on Israel by Hizbollah "without a clear idea of the objectives of the military campaign". While not regarded as a loss, Israelis are highly critical of the handling of the month-long air and ground campaign against Hizbollah.

With the relative cover of Iron Dome, said Gen Brom, Israeli leaders "will be under less pressure to react immediately, because when you react immediately, you tend to make a lot of mistakes".