The “star” of the Operation Pillar of Clouds thus far is the Iron Dome rocket defense system. Iron Dome, deployed to defend southern Israel from rocket attacks, has destroyed a substantial number of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. Iron Dome discerns between rockets targeting inhabited and uninhabited areas, allowing the latter to fall harmlessly. On Sunday, Max Boot published a post at Commentary arguing that the success of Iron Dome vindicates Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era advocacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
There are several problems with this account. First, while the technical issues associated with hitting (relatively) slow-moving subatmospheric rockets share some space with the problems of hitting ballistic missiles, Iron Dome is not a missile defense system; it doesn’t resemble national ballistic missile defense in anything but a superficial way. Ballistic missiles behave differently in flight than rockets, and can carry payloads (nuclear weapons, for example) which make Iron Dome’s seemingly impressive 90 percent success rate appear altogether irrelevant. As Reagan’s critics pointed out at the time, shooting down 1,250 Soviet nuclear missiles matters little if the surviving 150 missiles, carrying upwards of 600 nuclear warheads, destroy the continental United States.
Second, Ronald Reagan did not, of course, invent missile defense; the Soviet Union fielded a system while Reagan was still Governor of California, and the Army began studying missile defense 1950s. Attributing every missile defense system (as opposed to the useless, unworkable Star Wars system) to Reagan represents nothing more the conservative hagiography. To be sure, Reagan’s ambition did lead the United States to pour immense amounts of national treasure into missile defense systems that remain essentially untested in combat situations, but the systems fielded today bear little-to-no resemblance to Reagan’s vision.
Even on its own terms, the strategic success of Iron Domes remains in serious question. Whatever tactical success Iron Dome achieves comes at considerable cost. An Iron Dome battery runs $50 million, with each missile in the neighborhood of $40,000 to $100,000 (estimates vary). Even the more sophisticated rockets launched by Hamas cost considerably less. Israel is, of course, a much wealthier society than Gaza, and enjoys the backing of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, so Israeli policymakers may decide that the extra security is worth the cost.
Israel may also have pinned its hopes on the idea that Hamas will simply give up the rocket game in the face of Iron Dome’s impressive batting average. However, If we read Hamas’s strategic intent in launching the rockets as much in domestic as international terms—launching rockets demonstrates resolve in the face of Israeli strength, improving Hamas’s standing vis-à-vis Palestinian political competitors—then where (or whether) the rockets land simply doesn’t matter very much. Given that from 2009 to 2011, over a thousand Palestinian rockets resulted in ten dead Israelis, it’s a good bet that Hamas fires rockets not as part of a slow motion effort at genocide, but rather for these reputational reasons. Most of the rockets won’t do $40,000 worth of damage even if they land in populated areas (although of course a very few will inflict considerably more destruction). Moreover, Hamas may determine that forcing Israel to pay $40,000 to shoot down cheap, ineffective rockets is well worth it’s time and effort, even if 90 percent of the rockets are destroyed on the way down.
As of Saturday, the BBC estimated that Israel had spent $29 million on interceptors alone, not counting the five $50 million dollar Iron Dome batteries deployed to protect the south. Against a missile barrage of the extent launched by Hezbollah in 2007, costs would quickly become astronomical. Israeli defense planners may find that however technologically impressive Iron Dome proves to be, it does no more to resolve Israel’s basic strategic problems than the imaginary Star Wars system of the 1980s.