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IDF Says Massive Hezbollah Rocket Threat May Obviate Highly Anticipated Iron Dome Defense System

By Jacob Levkowicz, JINSA Research Associate

On July 12, Israel’s highly anticipated Iron Dome anti-rocket system passed its final operations test, following months of speculation and political haggling in both Jerusalem and Washington. While the test may have helped eliminate concerns about system’s ability to respond to short-range rocket threats, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) leadership has indicated that ground operations would be still be necessary in the face of a large barrage of rockets and analysts continue to claim that Iron Dome’s high cost may well prevent it from ever entering serial production.

Rocket Threat Places Israel’s Civilian Population on the “Front Lines”

The rocket threat from Gaza and Lebanon poses several challenges to IDF planners who traditionally have placed the civilian population within the conceptual innermost “security shell,” far removed from the front lines of combat. The findings of a recent round table discussion featuring high-ranking Israeli defense officials and representatives from JINSA, the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center of the Pentagon’s National Defense University, and the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), however, shatter this illusion. Discussion centered on the implications of civilian population centers becoming the new front lines of combat.

The Iron Dome interceptor is launched toward an incoming target rocket  in the latest successful test of the system.The Iron Dome interceptor is launched toward an incoming target rocket in the latest successful test of the system.

The whole idea of a war with “fronts” has changed. Hezbollah and Hamas operate from within civilian populations and both groups directly target civilians. Rockets fired from Gaza or southern Lebanon can reach Israeli cities within a matter of seconds. Most high-ranking officials in the Israeli political and defense establishment share the view that the rocket threat bypasses Israel’s conventional military capability to take war to its enemies. The Iron Dome system, an attempt to address these security concerns, is designed to intercept these short-range rockets, prioritizing those that are likely to strike civilian population centers.

Critics Cite High Costs, Funding Unclear

The Obama Administration has expressed support for the Iron Dome initiative. In a speech last Friday, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro noted that the administration has allocated $205 million for Israel to purchase Iron Dome batteries. This sum is unlikely to fulfill the projected requirements of 16 to 18 batteries to fully protect Israel from the Negev to the northern border. For this reason, many observers, including Dr. Reuven Pedatzur, a lecturer at the Political Science Department at Tel Aviv University and a defense analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, criticize Iron Dome’s prohibitive costs and its apparent inability to target rockets with a range of less than five kilometers. Now it seems that the IDF has its own doubts.

In a radio interview on July 21, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, a former IDF deputy chief of staff, attempted to cool the Israeli public’s response to the July 12 test, explaining that Iron Dome is at best 80 percent effective at intercepting incoming rockets. He also explained that cost issues would prevent Iron Dome from being permanently deployed on the southern and northern borders.

Israel would only be able to procure and maintain a handful of batteries with the $205 million U.S. grant and the IDF has no plans to fund multiple Iron Dome batteries. Ha’aretz estimates that each intercept missile could cost approximately $40,000 and each Iron Dome battery $500,000, while Hamas’ Qassam rockets cost roughly $150 each to produce.

Senior IDF officers, including Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, continue to insist that the IDF should not have to pay for the system from its budget, and alternate sources of funding, potentially from sales of the system to other governments, have been touted as a solution. India has expressed interest in either the David’s Sling, a medium-range missile intercept system being developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. in partnership with the Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company, or the Iron Dome system, also produced by Rafael. The Israeli government, however, has banned the transfer of David Sling’s technology to foreign customers, a major hang-up that could derail sales negotiations. With funding issues a priority, however, the pressure to reach a deal is high. Singapore has also expressed serious interest in the Iron Dome system.

Ha’aretz reported on July 21 that Gantz, “who observed the trials Monday, was impressed with the system's capability, but was doubtful this would alter the army's view on funding.” His comments suggest that the IDF continues to focus on preparing for conventional ground and air assaults against renewed attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah. Gantz expressed this view previously in a May 31 interview with Defense News, then hinted at further confrontations in Lebanon and warned that Israel has learned from the mistakes of the 2006 Lebanon War and is prepared “to keep all [its] horses in the stable for as long as possible, because when [Israel] let(s) them out, it will be painful [for the enemy].”

It is widely believed that Hezbollah has upwards of 50,000 rockets stockpiled, so Iron Dome would not be able to respond adequately in the event of an all out Hezbollah attack. Critics of the project continue to deride it for raising hopes. In a July 21 op-ed in Ha’aretz, Pedatzur wrote that “While elation at this technological achievement is justified, we must remember that Iron Dome does not provide a solution to ‘all the threats’…and those who attempt to present it that way are both doing an injustice to the truth and deceiving the people who rely on them for their safety.”

In fact, if Hezbollah attempted another rocket assault like in 2006 an IDF ground assault would remain a necessary element of Israel’s response. Sadly, that day may not be too far off, as Gen. Gantz noted to Defense News, “deterrence has a limited shelf life.”

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