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Iron Dome

[ 57 ] November 20, 2012 |

I have some thoughts on Iron Dome over at Open Zion:

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.

An aside: I’ve done a lot of writing on security issues in a lot of different places, and at times I’ve made a variety of errors; over-simplification, getting facts wrong, presenting analysis that ended up being flawed in some way, etc.  As far as I can recall, however, I’ve never set out to dis-enlighten readers; to actively attempt to leave them less informed than they were before they read what I offered.  Max Boot is not a stupid man; he writes a great deal about security affairs, and some of his early books present interesting, if not authoritative, interpretations of US defense policy and military history.  In this column, he actively set out to disinform his readers about missile defense, about Iron Dome, and about Ronald Reagan; there is no way that you can read that and come out more knowledgeable about any of those issues than you were before you started.  Jonathan Schwartz’s thoughts on the evolution of Walter Russell Mead seem relevant here; the conservative intellectual apparatus rewards writers almost exclusively on the basis of producing effective propaganda.*

*edited for clarity

Comments (57)

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  1. dollared says:

    Thanks, please do this some more. We really need to work harder to punish and discredit propagandists.

  2. steve says:

    “the central motivating mechanism in the conservative intellectual apparatus is the rewarding of effective propaganda.”

    I like your style.

  3. I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on here. Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear his coalition is unwilling even to seriously discuss a settlement for a Palestinian state, and his coalition is ascendant. What’s more, he’s made a mockery of any attempts to get him to the table, usually by announcing new settlements when whatever well-intentioned US diplomat arrives to discuss the situation. Hamas has concluded that they have nothing to lose from the rocket firings, and a lot to gain. If Israel strikes back disproportionately, if they overextend themselves with an invasion or some such, all they do is further isolate themselves from the int’l community. Also, better to lose it all at once than one little piece at a time is a bit of a cliche, but one that often appeals to self-styled revolutionaries.

    The only real hope for peace is that Netanyahu makes some sort of big blunder that costs him the election. This is…not an entirely vain hope, considering his history. Though in the grand scheme, a defeat might only be a blip.

  4. MikeJake says:

    Is there a market for Iron Dome outside of Israel?

  5. salacious says:

    I dunno: if Iron Dome knocks down enough Hamas missles, won’t that deprive the missle strikes of their domestic political value for Hamas? It’s hard to look tough when you also look impotent.

    Of course, if this happened it would probably just shift Hamas to alternative tactics for demonstrating resolve. But that’s another conversation…

    • Robert Farley says:

      The rockets are already exceedingly ineffectual in causing real damage, which makes me think that effectiveness isn’t the real consideration. And in any case I don’t think that the logic here is particularly difficult to explain to Palestinians; forcing the use of counter-measures is even more beneficial than allowing the rockets to hit.

      • salacious says:

        I guess that this is ultimately a sociological question about what radical Palestinians care about. But my gut sense, at least, is that getting your missiles smacked out of the air has a psychological impact than simply failing to destroy your target. If Hamas’s goal is largely symbolic, then it’s important to analyze the symbolism!

        Also, your economic point is well taken in the abstract, but imagine trying to make an argument that complicated to an average American voter–I don’t think it would penetrate. Also, if Hamas was firing so many rockets(tens of thousands?) that the economic inefficiency of the interceptors started doing serious damage to Israeli finances, we would probably be seeing a far more aggressive offensive response by the IDF. So I’m not sure the abstract economic point has much practical purchase.

        • Robert Farley says:

          ” Also, if Hamas was firing so many rockets(tens of thousands?) that the economic inefficiency of the interceptors started doing serious damage to Israeli finances, we would probably be seeing a far more aggressive offensive response by the IDF. So I’m not sure the abstract economic point has much practical purchase.”

          All this means is that Iron Dome itself has, at best, no practical effect. Right now, rockets cannot sufficiently threaten the Israeli economy in order to start doing serious damage to Israeli finances, except when launched in such numbers that Israel undertakes an aggressive response. What Iron Dome does (if I’m right) is increase the marginal cost of each rocket to Israel. That Hamas cannot bankrupt Israel either way doesn’t mean that Iron Dome is strategically an effective or ineffective system.

          The point on symbolism is well taken, and we’ll see; again, I suspect that Palestinians are already aware of how ineffectual their rocket fire is, and yet they remain willing to take risks in order to launch rockets. Increasing the marginal cost of each rocket to Israel may or may not increase the incentive to launch, but I doubt it will decrease.

          • Jake says:

            I enjoy takedowns of neocons as much as the next guy, but this all seems a little forced.

            The US government values a life at something around $5M for the purpose of cost-benefit analysis. If a Katyusha fired by Hamas has a 1% chance of killing someone, it’d theoretically be worth spending $50k to avoid. That’s in the ballpark before even considering injuries and property damage.

            But where did the idea that the Palestinians are launching rockets in a desire to inflict economic damage even come from? It doesn’t seem like they are targeted to maximize property damage. More likely that they are trying to make the Israeli government look weak, to provoke the Israelis into a ground invasion that will be unpopular in Israel and in the rest of the world, or to gain negotiating leverage when they offer to stop.

            If the Israeli government can keep its citizens feeling safe without putting pictures of tanks rolling through Gaza on the front page of newspapers throughout Europe and the Middle East, that’s worth a lot.

        • McAllen says:

          Is “Every time we fire a rocket it costs them at least $40,000″ really that complicated an arguement to make?

          • Marc says:

            Actually it looks like it costs at least $120,000 each time a rocket is determined to be a threat, as the videos I’ve seen appear to show three interceptor missiles being launched at each target. But, they don’t try to intercept every rocket, as some number (most?) fall into the ocean or uninhabited areas.

            Also, while effectiveness against the “homemade” Qassam rockets (which have a material cost of $800 according to Wikipedia) is apparently pretty good, it’s still not clear how effective Iron Dome is at protecting against longer range (faster descending) missiles. And, sooner or later there will be attempts at adding chaff, dummy rockets, or other means of overwhelming the system…

            • Fred says:

              Probably closer to zero cost as the US already subsidizes Israel to the tune of $3 billion annually not counting military assistance. I’m sure the congress is going to go ‘all in’ to replace all the rockets fired and then some.

      • cpinva says:

        true, but only up to a point.

        forcing the use of counter-measures is even more beneficial than allowing the rockets to hit.

        the rockets themselves are a finite resource, expending them solely for psychological effect is only useful if they actually have the intended effect. i assume the intention here is to bring israel to the negotiating table, and put a stop to new settlements. so far, that strategy has been pretty ineffectual.

        on the flip side, hamas is betting that israel, not wanting to be a complete world pariah (which hamas itself has no apparent concerns about), will continue to restrict its responses to carefully identified targets, with extremely narrowly focused attacks. this to avoid, as much as reasonably possibly, undesired collateral damage. i’m guessing hamas is making a huge mistake, resulting ultimately not only in its destruction, but the deaths of 1,000′s of not-so-innocent parties (except the children, always innocent). i’m guessing they also think iran will come to their rescue, i’m guessing they would be wrong.

        the interesting part is that israel doesn’t need to send one soldier or one plane into palestinian space, to accomplish the goal of ultimate destruction, it can be done right from the border, or really, from 20 miles away, if it wants. it could also utilize wwII technology, updated, to flatten everything within a five mile radius of the border: updated katyusha rocket technology. that which hamas has been using itself, to negligible effect.

        a dozen katyusha rocket batteries, lined up across the border, each loaded with 20-30 high explosive projectiles, all launched simultaneously, would have a devasatating effect, both physically and psychologically, on everything organic & inorganic, and hamas could do nothing, assuming any of them survived the first wave. they wouldn’t survive the second. the third would simply be for effect. and, best of all, very cost-effective, far cheaper than “Iron Dome” could possibly be.

        “but wait”, you say, “the israelis wouldn’t want to be accused of murdering huge numbers of innocents, it would kill them in the eyes of the world.” not really. the only people it would kill them with, are those who already hate them, and why should they give two nanny-goat shits what they think?

        but what of iran, surely they would attack israel, wouldn’t they? nope, not on a bet. because they know they’d get their asses kicked, if not by israel, then by the US, who have sufficient naval assets, sitting in the gulf, to take out most of an invading iranian force, before it ever got close to israel. that iranian force, subject to the same shortages as the iranian people, wouldn’t be as formidable a fighting force as it might have been a couple of years ago.

        is this an optimal outcome? probably not. on the other hand, it might actually have some unintended benefits, from a terrorism point of view. think of all the jihadists, around the world, who would suddenly break off whatever they were doing, to get to the palestinian authority, and directly fight israel, giving us and them (israel) a prime opportunity to wipe out most of them, conventionally, in one place.

        • Hanspeter says:

          giving us and them (israel) a prime opportunity to wipe out most of them [jihadists], conventionally, in one place

          Assumes there’s a finite set of jihadists that’s not replenishable.

  6. salacious says:

    “That Hamas cannot bankrupt Israel either way doesn’t mean that Iron Dome is strategically an effective or ineffective system.”

    Absolutely, no quibbles there. However, the argument I was trying to make was the second-order point about the attractiveness of the “damage Israel economically” rationale for Palestinian decisionmakers. “Bankrupt the enemy!” is a (somewhat) attractive slogan; “force the enemy to be economically inefficient!” is not.

    • salacious says:

      Sorry, this was in reply to Farley @ 7:23PM above.

    • You’re overthinking this. Put yourself in the position of a pissed off Palestinian. Which of the following is going to have a greater impact on you:

      1. Fffff-whoooossssshhhhhhhh! Yeah, we launched a rocket! Go rocket! Go get ‘em!

      2. Conversation about the effectiveness of the rocket, the number of rockets, the psychological effect apart from the actual damage, how Iron Dome might change the equation, blah blah blah.

      Gaza is a not the comment thread of a really nerdy blog.

      • salacious says:

        Yes, this was exactly my point…

        • Cody says:

          I don’t think it was your point. Joe is saying that simply launching the rockets is what brings the benefits, not the effects of them.

          In this case, the Iron Dome is making no difference. They still get to watch the rockets launch, and never really cared what happens when they land.

  7. Anderson says:

    “However, If we read Hamas’s strategic intent in launching the rockets as much in domestic as international terms”

    I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s a provocation aimed at a disproportionate Israeli response, with the hope of political rewards therefrom.

    The striking difference in 2012 is that Egypt is a democracy now, and Hamas may have hoped that Egyptian public opinion will force Morsi et al. into breaking their treaty with Israel. Worth a try, surely, from their p.o.v.

  8. Andrew says:

    So the argument might not be the mean, but the variance. With Iron Dome, each Hamas rocket costs Israel $40,000 to engage and destroy. Without Iron Dome, many rockets cost $0 but a few cost enormously more. Similarly, you can argue that homeowner’s insurance is a bad deal because the average cost of insurance is more than just absorbing the losses, though the point of insurance is that some low-probability losses can be ruinous.

  9. Observer says:

    Can you imagine rockets hitting US targets all summer from Mexico or Cananda? What do you think the reaction of the US military would be?

  10. e.a.f. says:

    I wonder why Hamas has chosen this time to start this “no win” situation. Mind you, It detracts from what is going on in Iran, Syria & Egypt. It may force other countries to take a position, on a matter they have been avoiding. Hamas may be attempting to determine how much support they have or to simply cause Israel to spend a lot of money over a little problem. It does nicely test the Dome system. If another country then decides to send something more serious, they will have worked out some of the problems with sending missiles to Israel. When people are involved in wars they don’t look at what their governments are doing in other areas. To do so is unpatriotic.

    Whatever the reason for sending rockets into Israel, there just wasn’t any real need for it. All that is going to happen is innocent people on both sides of the conflict will be killed.

    • wengler says:

      Rocket attacks from Gaza are nothing new. As are Israeli incursions into Gaza.

      The difference is that in the US, rocket attacks that are used as the pretext of a punitive raid are NEWS!!! and the everyday ‘targeted killings’ or whatever euphemism is popular these days are…well what is some celebrity doing right now?

      Personally I think the Palestinians are the last neighbors that the Israelis can reliably punch around without much fear of major reprisal. Feeling secure is very important to voters.

      • Observer says:

        The Palestinians have been lobbing rockets into Israel all summer long hitting border towns and the Israelis have been sitting there taking it like the French.

        Now, Iran has supplied Hamas with rockets with twice the range and they’re able to now target Tel-Aviv and even Jerusalem.

        The game has changed.

        • Malaclypse says:

          the Israelis have been sitting there taking it like the French.

          4.29% of the total French population died in WW1. But manly man JenBob just knows he is a manlier man than the French. Because unlike Jenny, the French lost to Hitler. Jenny knows that he won’t ever wuss out like that.

        • Now, Iran has supplied Hamas with rockets with twice the range and they’re able to now target Tel-Aviv and even Jerusalem.

          The game has changed.

          The Palestinians can now hit nothing from a greater distance?

          • Observer says:

            I will take a swing at your face and you successfully dodge the punch. I swing again and again getting closer and closer to breaking your face each time. This goes on for a good while.

            So, because I have not yet landed the punch that knocks your lights out, you’re not supposed to defend yourself?

            Even Obama has acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself in this conflict.

    • Walt says:

      Influence the upcoming Israeli general election, presumably.

    • Njorl says:

      What I’ve heard is that Hamas did not choose this time. Other Islamist groups in Gaza did.

      Israel holds Hamas responsible for everything coming out of Gaza. Other groups in Gaza, and less controllable elements within Hamas took the initiative in the recent rocket attacks. When it became apparent that they could not stop them and would be held responsible, the Hamas leadership joined in.

      • ajay says:

        These missiles are eighteen feet long. If you are the government of a country as small as Gaza and you and your thousands of heavily-armed militiamen and police are still unable to stop people from launching fourteen hundred eighteen-foot-long ballistic missiles from your territory, you are doing a pretty bad job of governing. Or, of course, you just don’t want to stop them.

  11. Barry says:

    “Jonathan Schwartz’s thoughts on the evolution of Walter Russell Mead seem relevant here; the conservative intellectual apparatus rewards writers almost exclusively on the basis of producing effective propaganda.*”

    Serious question – when has Walter Russell Mead *ever* had anything to say true and worth reading?

  12. asdfsdf says:

    “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 competitor”

    So both Hamas and Israel are both launching rockets as internal shows of strength and resolve?

  13. Dave says:

    ISTM that the Netanyahu govt is intent on making clear to the popn of Gaza that they have no way out, that Israel will fuck them, hard, if they so much as breathe out of line, and that no engagement that does not begin with a grovelling acceptance of permanent serfdom will suffice.

    Under such circ’s, anyone who’s ever seen a Hollywood film knows what the Gazans will do.

    Or if you want to get more classical about it, this is how the Spartans treated the helots, which worked just fine, until it didn’t, and Sparta became just a memory…

  14. Cody says:

    Whoa! I read like 3 sentences in the Max Boot article and am already upset.

    Ronald Reagan should be thanked for missile defense? Even if it was an amazing technology, I was unaware he was an engineer. Has Zombie Ronald Reagan been working all these years to perfect this technology?
    This explains where he has been hiding. However, I’m still in doubt he individually woke up one morning, though “I bet I can shoot rockets out of the sky with other rockets!” then began laboring over the physics of the issue. I’m also rather skeptical he would have been able to develop the proper targeting technology, but he is a Republican I suppose. So obviously it’s all thanks to him.

  15. herr doktor bimler says:

    Boot is not a stupid man; he writes a great deal about security affairs, and some of his early books present interesting, if not authoritative, interpretations of US defense policy and military history.

    Isn’t Max Boot the one who reckons that “fall[ing] on his sword” is “samurai-style”? His knowledge of military history is such that he cannot tell the difference between the Samurai and the Romans?

    Perhaps a career of mendacity erodes the intelligence.

  16. [...] Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley wondered if there might be economic motivations to the Hamas missile attacks on Israel, if Hamas was trying [...]

  17. [...] Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley wondered if there might be economic motivations to the Hamas missile attacks on Israel, if Hamas was trying [...]

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