The recent war in Gaza exposes the limits of a key pillar of the country’s defense strategy.
In the recent war between Israel and Hamas, a cease-fire was achieved after 11 days of fighting. Both sides claimed victory, and both are expecting another round in the future. For Israel, a key to its success has been the Iron Dome air defense system, which uses radar and missiles to intercept rockets and other threats. This kept Israeli civilians relatively safe from the 4,340 rockets the Israel Defense Forces say were fired from Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is scheduled to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin today to seek up to $1 billion in emergency military aid to help replenish Iron Dome interceptors used in the war.
The recent conflict was different than previous wars in 2009, 2012, and 2014. It was also different than the two rounds of multiday fighting that took place in 2018 and 2019. What makes this round different is the unprecedented rocket fire Hamas unleashed and Israel’s diminishing returns when trying to counter Hamas.
Hamas and its backers in Iran think the recent war was a success. More than 60 rockets got through the Israeli air defense umbrella, and they were able to use barrages of rockets to go after strategic infrastructure. Iran’s Press TV boasted on May 14 that Hamas had targeted Iron Dome batteries and Israeli airports. Hamas used massive barrages of rockets in a new way, apparently designed to test or attempt to overwhelm the Iron Dome systems.
In several barrages, up to 140 rockets were fired in several minutes, saturating the skies over Tel Aviv, Ashdod, and Ashkelon. I saw several of these massive barrages from a highway near the Gaza Strip. The white smoke streaming from Iron Dome interceptors carved up the sky like a Jackson Pollock painting. It was impressive, but it also may represent an operational limit for using this kind of air defense system.
The message after the war is Israel’s air defenses may one day not be enough to hinder volumes of rockets. Israel won’t admit this, but there is a strategic peak for this technology.
The Iron Dome is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year. Prior to the recent war in Gaza, the system had intercepted more than 2,500 rockets. Developed by Israel’s Defense Ministry and the Israel Missile Defense Organization to meet the rising threat of rocket fire from Hezbollah in the wake of the 2006 war and to deal with threats from Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, it has become the bedrock of Israel’s multilayered missile defense. Pioneered by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, one of Israel’s defense industry giants, it now receives financial support from the U.S. government, and two batteries have been supplied to the U.S. Army.
Israel says the Iron Dome system has a 90 percent interception success rate. The government doesn’t say how many rockets were intercepted, but on May 15, it said the system had intercepted approximately 1,000 out of 2,300 rockets launched. Compare that to May 2019 when 690 rockets were fired from Gaza during brief fighting and 240 rockets were intercepted.
But Iron Dome batteries are not endless and neither are their interceptors. The concept of the Iron Dome was to protect civilians and give Israeli politicians a chance to decide what to do without being forced into a ground invasion. If 1,000 rockets fell on Israeli cities without a defense system, Israeli tanks would have to roll into Gaza to stop the rocket fire, as they did in 2009.
This time, Israel went with the tactical military game plan it was used to: precision airstrikes using munitions, such as U.S.-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The international ramifications for Israel are a strategic setback, eroding deterrence against Iran’s proxies amid the image that Israel appeared to be lashing out, killing more civilians despite the precision of its attacks. Despite years of intelligence gathering on the sites that Israel attacked, the outcome illustrates how Israel’s defense systems, like the Iron Dome, and its military superiority have left it without a clear long-term strategy.