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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: The Iron Dome defence system – a strategic game changer?

Key Points

  • On 5-6 January 2010, Israel successfully tested its new Iron Dome defence system, which is due to be deployed this year in order to combat short-range rocket attacks. Israel’s southern communities have been waiting desperately for a solution to Hamas’s rocket onslaught for almost a decade. Last week alone saw a spike in Gaza-based terror activity, in which Palestinian militants fired 20 rockets and mortars at Israel. Israel regards this as a clear and ongoing threat.
  • Israelis feel that past territorial withdrawals have led to less secure borders and much greater vulnerability to attack on its peripheries. The Iron Dome the potential to help facilitate a new security environment that is conducive to advancing the peace process. Negotiations are likely to revolve around the issue of how Israel can withdraw from more Palestinian territories with firm security guarantees and the new system will play an important role in this regard.
  • Whilst no missile-defence system can offer complete protection, many analysts believe on balance that the introduction of the Iron Dome will mark a major strategic shift. Not until it is fully operational will its effect on militant groups become clear.

Introduction

Last week Israel successfully carried out comprehensive tests of its new
Iron Dome defence system. The system is designed to intercept short-range missiles and rockets of the type fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups from the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. Israeli defence experts believe that deployment of the Iron Dome could mark a major strategic breakthrough for Israel. It may also help to create significant opportunities for diplomatic progress towards a future Israeli-Palestinian peace. Shortly after becoming Israeli defence minister in mid 2007, Ehud Barak told Haaretz that he sees an effective anti-missile system as a necessary precursor to a major Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, which is seen as integral to any bilateral peace agreement. This document looks at how the Iron Dome fits into Israel’s strategic thinking and at its potential political advantages.


Test phase complete

Development of the Iron Dome, at a cost of more than $200 million, has been led over the last two-and-a-half years by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems (Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. is also reported as Rafael Armament Development Authority and Rafael Industries). The system uses radar technology created by Elta Systems to rapidly track incoming rockets with a range of between 2.5 and 45 miles and destroy them with small guided interceptors.

Field tests carried out on 5-6 January 2010 in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Defence were the first to examine the system as a whole, as opposed to the individual components. They were considered successful because they demonstrated its capacity to neutralise the rockets preferred by Israel’s most significant regional adversaries: Hamas’s mortar shells and Qassams and Hezbollah’s Katyushas, and even the Iranian Fajr which, according to Haaretz, has been smuggled into Gaza. A key technological advantage of the system, which emerged from last week’s tests, is its reported ability to shoot down ‘critical threats’ to populated areas or sensitive targets, while ignoring those heading for open ground.

Operational deployment of the Iron Dome within an air force battalion of the IDF is expected to commence in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, the most frequent target of Hamas rocket fire in recent years. Some reports say this will begin within the next two months; Israeli officials say they plan to be
operational by the middle of 2010. Rollout of a meaningful number of intercept batteries in the Negev desert and along the northern border with Lebanon may take at least another year, and perhaps longer depending on how resources are distributed.

How can the Iron Dome help foster peace?

In considering how the Iron Dome may help foster peace, it is important to take stock of the wider context in which this complex and expensive anti-rocket system is being implemented. In the last decade, and particularly the last four years, Israel’s search for a means of destroying threats in-flight has intensified considerably. Israel unilaterally withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000 and the Gaza Strip in August 2005. It has since been drawn back into both theatres, withdrawing again at the end of each conflict: first, against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 and second, in Operation Cast Lead against Hamas at the turn of 2009. Since the Gaza disengagement, over 6,400 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel from Gaza, including 20 at the end of last week. More than 4,000 Katyushas landed in Israeli territory in the war with Hezbollah.

Both militant groups see ballistic weapons such as missiles and rockets as their optimal weapon against Israel, which possesses far superior conventional firepower. But they have proved adept at using relatively primitive rockets to great effect in terms of striking fear into densely populated communities in Israel. They are committed to strengthening their arsenals, and Hezbollah is now thought to have in excess of 40,000 rockets.

In short, Israelis feel that territorial withdrawals have led to less secure borders and much greater vulnerability to attack on its peripheries. A related concern within the Israeli security establishment is that Palestinian militants will at some point attempt to duplicate these tactics from the West Bank. This would enable them to easily target Israel’s densely populated areas in and around Tel Aviv and, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has
warned, strategically vital sites such as Israel’s international airport. When Netanyahu accepted the concept of a Palestinian state last June, he also spoke about “ironclad security provisions for Israel” as part of the deal in order to prevent “Qassam rockets on Petach Tikva, [or] Grad rockets on Tel Aviv” and ensure a genuine peace.

The Iron Dome is already playing a role in alleviating some of these fears among opinion formers. If it proves operationally successful upon deployment, this could help facilitate an environment conducive to advancing peace talks. For instance, defence ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror remarked last week that “With the new system, Israel can eliminate one of the biggest potential threats on the Ben Gurion airport in a future peace deal with the Palestinians.” Other defence insiders have expressed hope that it will help lead to peaceful negotiations. In such a scenario, it may be easier for Israeli leaders to negotiate territorial concessions. Furthermore, an effective missile defence system should help the Israeli public to feel more secure and look more favourably at territorial concessions.

Israeli defence analysts admit that no missile-defence system is foolproof. Nonetheless, many still believe on balance that the new system offers a major strategic shift in terms of the missile threat, both for Israel and its enemies. Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad secret service, Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, Uzi Rubin, founder of Israel’s missile defence organisation, and Pinchas Buchris, the outgoing director-general of the defence ministry, have all remarked that Hamas will be compelled to rethink its strategic approach in light of the anti-missile system. Halevy assesses that, together with Egypt’s new steel wall designed to prevent smuggling into Gaza, Hamas is facing new realities this year. Ahmad Yousef, a Hamas official, responded only indirectly to news of Israel’s Iron Dome test last Thursday, commenting that Hamas “can adjust to any new circumstance.”

Israel, meanwhile, wants to avoid being drawn into further rounds of conflict on its enemies’ terms. A crucial element in the thinking behind an effective anti-missile system is that it would facilitate strategic rather than reactionary military engagement. It will enable Israel to act on its own timetable, rather than that of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and other Palestinian elements complicit in rocket attacks, which Israel assumes will continue to try to derail any future diplomatic process. Israeli decision-makers would be able to operate more flexibly, and perhaps under less political pressure, when engaged in peace negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

An evolving defence doctrine

Missile defence is intended to enhance rather than supplement traditional elements of the IDF’s defence doctrine, including intelligence and operational planning and home-front preparedness. That preparedness is still evolving. When it emerged early last year that the Iron Dome would fail to protect communities which lie closest to the Gaza border, the government of Ehud Olmert approved the fortification of 3,600 homes in the area, although thousands more remain unfortified. And last week the Israeli cabinet voted to allocate additional funds for the production and nationwide distribution of gas masks, a project which is also expected to take two to three years to implement.

Finally, the Iron Dome itself represents one part of a multilayered missile defence umbrella which is still not yet complete. The intermediate layer of Israel’s missile defence, known as ‘Magic Wand’ or ‘David’s Sling’ (and more recently as the ‘Qassam Scepter’), is supposed to handle missiles with longer ranges than those covered by Iron Dome but shorter than the long-range ballistic missiles covered by the Arrow and Patriot systems. This intermediate layer has not yet reached an advanced stage of development, and is not expected to do so until 2012 at the earliest.

Conclusion

The Iron Dome is about to become a major part of Israel’s defence doctrine, which continues to evolve in the face of what Israel perceives as growing regional threats. It is an expensive investment being made to counter first and foremost the short-range rockets fired from Gaza that have menaced southern Israel for the best part of a decade. Whether or not this anti-missile system will prove to be a ‘game-changer’ will only become clear once it comes into operational use. But if this technology can help to diminish the rocket threat as last week’s tests indicate it can, Israelis would feel more secure. And if present US efforts to revive bilateral peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in early 2010 are successful, the Iron Dome will help provide a new security dynamic which potentially affords durability to that diplomatic process.