Israel's Cutting-Edge Missile Shield— and Why the U.S. Should Support It

The "Iron Dome" is a modern technological marvel, and one that suits American as well as Israeli interests.

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An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near Ashdod, Israel. Reuters

Shortly before sunset on March 9, 2012, Palestinian rocket squads in the Gaza Strip fired four Grad-type Katyusha missiles at the southern Israeli communities of Ashdod, Gan Yavne and Kiryat Malachi.

The launches were immediately detected by specially modified Elta multi-mission radars attached to antimissile batteries in Ashdod and Ashkelon. Within sixty seconds, each of the incoming rockets had been neutralized. Over the next nine days, Israel's three operational Iron Dome batteries destroyed another fifty-two of seventy incoming Qassam and Katyusha rockets threatening populated areas near Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod.

The system's remarkable 76 percent intercept rate did not go unnoticed in Washington. Building on a $205 million contribution in funding for the project in fiscal year 2011, bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress on March 21 authorizes the Obama administration to release additional unspecified funds, upon request by the Israeli government, for the "procurement, maintenance and sustainment" of Iron Dome batteries.

Within a week of the bill's introduction, Pentagon officials announced plans to ask Congress for "an appropriate level of funding" to support the acquisition of additional Iron Dome systems based on Israeli requirements and production capacity (estimated at approximately four batteries per year). Though details of the grant-funding package have not yet been determined, U.S. and Israeli sources estimate that the request could exceed $500 million to cover production of up to ten batteries, each with a protective footprint that can cover a city twice the size of Haifa (24.6 sq miles). Talks with the United States on a new round of missile-defense funding should be completed by July 2012, at which point a decision will be made on whether to support full deployment or scale back expectations in a climate of fiscal restraint. Anticipating the need to make do with fewer units, planned advances are expected to eventually increase Iron Dome's intercept range from approximately forty-five miles to 155 miles, providing sufficient operational flexibility to defend the northern and southern borders from as far away as the greater Tel Aviv area.

With three systems currently deployed in the south, a fourth in the final stages of acceptance testing near Tel Aviv and three more units on order, the additional commitment of between six and ten batteries should be able to provide full, if not hermetic, coverage of threatened Israeli population centers by 2014. The implications of this development carry the potential to change the nature of strategic decision making in the region.

Effective deployment of a short-range missile-defense system deprives militants of a lethal tool of coercive diplomacy while simultaneously granting Israel's political leadership flexibility to react strategically to enemy rocket fire, free from domestic pressure to launch controversial "crushing-blow" reprisals. A problematic dependence on major military mobilizations and disproportionate retaliation can instead be replaced with a smarter, integrated approach that matches combined-attack operations (preemption, prevention and retaliation) with both passive and active missile defense (shelters and intercept systems). When properly coordinated in the early stages of conflict, this approach can act as a force multiplier, employing Iron Dome missile-defense systems to neutralize the threat from short-range rockets and freeing air force resources to focus on enemy strategic facilities and militant launch squads.

Presented by

Ian Siperco is head of research for a security-focused international political-risk consulting firm.

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