Israel’s U.S.-Supported Iron Dome: Evaluating its Effectiveness

Israeli warplanes attacked specific targets in the Gaza Strip early last week in response to missile fire, “in a new wave of what Palestinians have come to describe as ‘sporadic fire’ between the two sides,” according to Al-Monitor correspondent Adnan Abu Amer. The exchange of rockets and missile fire, though not as intense as during the period preceding last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense, has fixed renewed attention on the Egypt-brokered ceasefire signed last year between Israel and Hamas. The operation also led many to focus on advancements to the Israeli Defense Forces’ crown jewel, the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Of the six rockets fired from Gaza on Sunday June 23, only two were reportedly destroyed in the air, revealing some of weaknesses of the highly-praised Iron Dome defense system. Fully operational for the first time in March 2011, the Iron Dome is the “first system of its kind in the world that can intercept short-range rockets.” In 2011, the U.S. allocated USD 205 million to fund the system, designed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. In June 2013, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee “tripled President Obama’s request for missile defense collaboration with Israel,” stipulating that USD 15 million be reserved for funding enhancements to the Iron Dome. Funding for missile defense collaboration remains separate from the usual annual military assistance offered from the U.S. to Israel, like the USD three billion in aid through the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing program for fiscal year 2012.

Recent reports, like this detailed look into the Iron Dome’s track record and effectiveness in the National Interest, offer praise and criticism for the missile defense system. According to the National Interest, the Iron Dome’s scorecard “will need closer scrutiny as more technical and verified evidence becomes available, but there is ample justification for praise and expectations of continued operational success.” The Israeli Defense Forces’ own assessment of the Gaza border as a “totally different sector” after the installation of Iron Dome and one that “now faces an improved but still challenging security situation” echoes the National Interest’s overall positive appraisal of the Iron Dome. But doubts persist, such as those reflected in a March 2013 New York Times article that examines the “intensifying debate over whether Iron Dome’s feats of warhead destruction were more illusory than real.” A “growing chorus of experts” question the veracity of the Israeli Defense Forces’ initially claimed success rate of 90 percent for Iron Dome deployments. In evaluating the Iron Dome’s success rate, it’s important to also consider the high monetary cost of operating the system. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in an article critical of missile defense systems in general, “the Iron Dome system is particularly not a game changer if one considers its economics,” since “the cost of operating Iron Dome batteries in the [November] conflict was reportedly between $25 million and $30 million — to intercept some 400 rockets.”

As of April 2013, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. “has provided a total of USD 486 million to Israel for Iron Dome batteries, interceptors, and general maintenance,” part of funding that is considered “a vital component of the strategic bilateral relationship” between the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. Department of Defense recently pledged USD 220 million for fiscal year 2014 to support the Iron Dome, following a March 5 commitment from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to provide additional research and development funds for the jointly-funded project. Per the March 2013 Iron Dome Support Act, President Obama is “authorized to provide assistance to the government of Israel for the procurement, maintenance, enhancement, and sustainment of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.” Deployed as recently as Friday June 28 in the Northern city of Haifa, the Iron Dome will likely remain a key component of Israeli missile defense into the foreseeable future.

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