For All The Hype, Does Israel’s Iron Dome Even Work?

FILE - In this file photo taken July 5, 2014, an Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in the costal city of Ashkelon, Israel. Israel says its punishing air assault on Hamas militan... FILE - In this file photo taken July 5, 2014, an Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in the costal city of Ashkelon, Israel. Israel says its punishing air assault on Hamas militants, their property and their weaponry has delivered a devastating blow to the Islamic militant group. Yet rocket fire at Israel has continued almost unabated. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File) MORE LESS
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As war between Israelis and Palestinians raged in Gaza again in recent weeks, President Barack Obama signed a bill to provide another $225 million to Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. But what if the U.S. government is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a system that isn’t nearly as effective as it is claimed to be?

It seems unthinkable by the official record. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest praised the system by saying it has “saved countless Israeli lives.” Time magazine wrote in 2012, a year after the system’s premiere, that Iron Dome was the “most-effective, most-tested missile shield the world has ever seen.”

The federal government has so far given its closest Mideast ally about $700 million to develop the system, the Defense Department told TPM, and the Israeli military says Iron Dome — which fires missiles to take down incoming rockets heading into Israeli population centers — has a success rate of about 85 percent.

But independent research by an MIT professor who specializes in ballistics has called that official figure into question. In fact, according to the analysis by Ted Postol, the Iron Dome system might actually disarm as little as 5 percent of the rockets it attempts to intercept. The number could be higher, depending on a number of variables, but the bottom line argument is that the system is not nearly as successful in stopping rockets being fired into Israel as official sources suggest.

Postol’s name should lend some gravity to his claims: He was one of the central figures in debunking the high success rate of the Patriot missile system alleged by the U.S. military in the early 1990s, using a methodology very similar to the one he’s now employed to analyze Iron Dome. A House subcommittee that rebuked the military’s claims about the Patriot system relied heavily on Postol’s research.

“Among people who really know what they’re talking about, I don’t think this is subject to dispute,” Postol told TPM by phone. “The only way that there would be controversy about this is if you had a political agenda.”

Three Iron Dome rockets explode to intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants. Thursday, July 10, 2014. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis).

In layman’s terms, Iron Dome’s operations are actually rather simple. It is designed to detect incoming rocket or missile fire from a threatening source. If the missile is heading toward a populated area where it poses a real danger to lives or property, Iron Dome fires a missile of its own. When the Iron Dome missile reaches its target, it detonates and would ideally destroy the incoming rocket. In theory, that’s what the system is supposed to do. But Postol’s analysis suggests it doesn’t do it very well.

Postol’s research can be read in full in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The essence of his analysis is this: Iron Dome’s missiles almost never approached Hamas’s rockets at the right trajectory to destroy the incoming rocket’s warhead. Postol looked at publicly available photographs and videos of attempted Iron Dome intercepts and examined the geometrical information they reveal to gauge the system’s effectiveness. Its missiles are designed to explode near the rockets and thereby detonate the threatening explosive as well.

In order to do that, Postol wrote, Iron Dome’s missile must approach the incoming rocket head on from the right angle. His geometrical analysis of attempted intercepts shows that Iron Dome’s missiles frequently approach the incoming rockets at an angle that makes it impossible to destroy the warhead. And if the warhead is not destroyed, but merely knocked off course, the warhead will likely still explode when it lands, putting lives and property in danger.

But is this the proper standard to apply in judging Iron Dome’s effectiveness? Other experts concurred to TPM.

“I don’t know by what other criteria you could possibly judge it,” George Lewis, a Cornell University scholar who blogs at Mostly Missile Defense, told TPM of the destroyed warhead metric. “There’s really no other sensible criteria.”

Part of the problem, Postol and others say, is that the IDF is notoriously vague in how it defines the kind of “success” that results in Iron Dome’s official 85 percent success rate. That hasn’t stopped the figure from being repeated, often without caveats, by news outlets like the Associated Press as tensions in Gaza erupted again into armed exchanges between IDF and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Other analysts say that Postol’s findings undermine the story being told by the Israeli and U.S. governments.

“He’s done something that nobody else has done,” Philip Coyle, a former Defense Department official during the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told TPM. “Taken publicly available information and put together enough of a story that at least it casts doubt on the claims that Iron Dome is 90 percent effective.”

“I think that Postol’s analysis is important and needs to be taken seriously,” Coyle continued. “The people who operate it should be reading it carefully for ideas that they could use to make it better.”

The White House referred questions about Iron Dome’s effectiveness to the Pentagon, which in turn referred questions to IDF. “It is an Israeli-designed and managed system,” a Pentagon official told TPM. “You would really have to speak to them on something like this.”

The IDF did not return multiple requests for comment, including clarification about how it defines Iron Dome’s success. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which manufactures Iron Dome and reported a $366 million profit in 2013, also did not return multiple requests for comment. Raytheon, the U.S. defense contractor which recently inked a deal to manufacture components of the system, referred questions about its effectiveness to Rafael.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visit an Iron Dome rocket defense shield battery in 2012. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov).

Iron Dome was born out of Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon, The New York Times reported in 2012, after the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah fired thousands of missiles into Israeli territory and killed more than 40 civilians. The system’s first units were rolled out in March 2011.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Iron Dome “a great achievement” in April 2011. “We also welcome the deep commitment of the American people, the Congress and the administration to the State of Israel,” he said at the time.

It was Iron Dome’s performance in 2012 as Israel and Hamas exchanged fire that lead to the kind of plaudits offered by Time’s Mark Thompson in November 2012.

“The lack of Israeli casualties suggests Iron Dome is the most-effective, most-tested missile shield the world has ever seen,” he wrote, referencing the minimal (only a half dozen or so, at the time) Israeli civilian deaths from rocket fire since the system launched.

Three years after its debut, the system continues to receive praise from U.S. lawmakers in both parties. Even the notably unconventional Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) stressed his support for Israel last week by pointing to his vote for the new round of Iron Dome funding.

“The House will always support Israel’s right to defend itself, and today we’ve kept that commitment by backing emergency funding for Iron Dome,” House Speaker John Boehner said on Aug. 3. “This will help protect Israeli citizens from rocket attacks by Hamas, which still has thousands of rockets in its arsenal.”

But what seems to go consistently unmentioned in these discussions about funding for the system are these questions of effectiveness raised by Postol’s research and forwarded by others. His findings and other criticisms have been covered by news outlets like NPR and the New York Times, yet they remain on the sidelines in the official debate — or lack thereof — about Iron Dome.

An Israeli soldier is seen next to an Iron Dome rocket interceptor battery deployed near the northern Israeli city of Haifa in 2013. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov).

Even so, there are some who dispute Postol’s methodology. Yiftah Shapir, writing for the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank, noted that, among other things, “it is very difficult to conduct precise analyses, and it is generally difficult to learn from the film about the geometry of the missile’s flight.”

“Debating various aspects related to Israel’s defense establishment, weapon systems, and strategic choices is both legitimate and welcome, if deliberations are based on reliable data,” Shapir wrote in March 2013. “However, there is a major difference between legitimate criticism and adamant claims that the Israel defense establishment’s claims about Iron Dome are fraudulent, and that these lies are typical of the defense establishment. Such mudslinging is unreasonable and unacceptable.”

Postol says that his methodology, particularly his understanding of how Iron Dome is supposed to work, is based on publicly available documents, video and data, including some produced by Rafael, as well as his expertise and that of his peer Richard Lloyd, a former Raytheon engineer who has critiqued Iron Dome. Postol and other weapons experts acknowledge that the evidence he relies on might not be perfect, and without more transparent data from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), it is difficult to be more precise.

Cornell’s Lewis similarly said he “can’t vouch for the details” and noted the problem of evidence. Compared to the Patriot missile system, which was also debunked thanks to video footage, Iron Dome is much harder to analyze on video, Lewis said, because the missiles involved are much smaller. That isn’t a refutation of Postol’s work, he said, rather simply an acknowledgement of the difficulties involved in analyzing the system.

“Only a small cadre of technical people and managers really know exactly what’s going on,” he said. “It all depends on what they’re telling their people.”

But if Postol is onto something, what is the problem and — more importantly — can it be fixed? He doesn’t pretend to know, and those who would aren’t talking openly about it. But based on his early observations of the July 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, Iron Dome hasn’t gotten any better at destroying warheads, Postol said.

“There are problems in the system that we observe but don’t understand,” he said. “We are beginning to wonder if there is something more fundamental. Something is seriously wrong. It’s hard to assume that there’s just a software problem that can be fixed.”

But what about the very limited Israeli civilian casualties? Postol attributed the extremely low number of civilian casualties, even facing bombardment, to the country’s fine-tuned early warning system and extensive network of bomb shelters. Given that the rockets fired by Hamas are comparatively speaking unsophisticated, effective civil defense measures look like the best explanation of the comparative safety of Israel’s civilian population, he argued. Postol also says that Israel has not released any data that suggest any of the reductions in property damage that would be expected under Iron Dome.

Other experts agreed that these more traditional safety efforts are central to the low number of civilian casualties in Israel.

“There is an awful lot of nowhere, even in these urban areas. These rockets can land in the town and not do much damage, and they aren’t lethal enough to produce serious casualties,” Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told TPM. “But Israel is much more sensitive to causalities than a lot of countries are in times of war.”

Israeli explosives experts carry the remnants of a rocket fired by Palestinians militants from Gaza after it was shot down by Iron Dome. (AP/Oded Balilty).

And lastly, one might ask Postol, what the harm is. Some of Iron Dome’s defenders have note that the simple fact of its existence gives “a big morale boost” for the Israeli citizenry.

He has a ready answer for that as well. He relayed the story, reported by Haaretz shortly after a November 2012 attack, of a young man who refused to go into his local bomb shelter because he wanted to photograph Iron Dome in action. He was killed after a Hamas rocket got through, reportedly because of an unspecified malfunction in the system, and struck his apartment building. Two other civilians were killed by the same strike.

“One of the dangers is giving people a false sense of security,” Postol said.

The entire debate — as Postol, Coyle, Cordesman, Lewis and even Shapir acknowledged — recalls the controversy over the Patriot missile system that took center stage during the first Gulf War. The U.S. military initially claimed that the Patriot missiles, which were also designed to intercept incoming missile fire, had a success rate of up to 90 percent, as Slate recounted in 2003.

But skepticism, caused by one missed intercept that left 28 American soldiers dead as well as the analysis of Postol and others, led to a much more sobering reassessment. It was eventually concluded by independent sources, including the Government Accountability Office, that Patriot missiles were intercepting as little as 5 percent of the missiles it targeted. There were again questions of how to define “success”: Postol and others wanted a destroyed warhead; the military settled for getting their intercept missile within the right range.

Now history is repeating itself in criticism of Iron Dome. And it’s important to remember that everybody has an angle. Postol, despite some initial praise for Iron Dome before his analysis, has garnered much of his career acclaim for his work debunking official statistics on missile effectiveness.

Israel, on the other hand, is trying to project strength to its citizens and its enemies, while keeping U.S. dollars flowing to (presumably) improve the Iron Dome system. Rafael and Raytheon have hundred of millions of dollars in profit to be made from the continued construction and use of Iron Dome. And the U.S. government likely doesn’t want to admit that it might be spending that much of its taxpayers’ money on something that isn’t working very well.

And on top of all of those conflicts of interest, the real data simply isn’t being released. Coyle, Cordesman and Lewis acknowledged that Postol’s analysis raised real questions about Iron Dome. But in the absence of more transparency from Israel, that’s all there is: questions. The fog of war, mentally and physically, complicates any undertaking to objectively assess the system.

“Postol raises an interesting argument, but it’s not something you could empirically validate without information from Israel,” Cordesman said. “The problem with all of this is none of us has any data. There are a lot of strong opinions out there, but as yet, no substantive data.”

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