How “Iron-Dome” has Transformed Prospects for Middle East Peace: An Analysis of Israel’s Missile Defense System and What it Means for Peace (written around 2014)

Sky Watcher

            What follows is extensive analysis of the vaunted “Iron-Dome” defense system. I have been thinking about what I call “Iron-Dumb” for some time, and I was happy when Obama made the point in Jerusalem that, “we’ve invested in the Iron-Dome system to save countless lives.” Of course, he also noted that, “no Iron-Dome is strong enough, to stop every enemy from inflicting harm.”

            So… it’s a great investment, but it doesn’t really work. It seems to me that nicely sums up over 60 years of US policy towards Israel. Maybe “happy” isn’t really the word I was actually looking for…

            In essence, Iron-Dome could be likened to current efforts to totally remake the GOP. The plan there is to totally transform the GOP without really changing it.  Iron-Dome has had a comparable impact on the situation in the Middle East.

              Iron-Dome is an outgrowth of one of the most outstanding examples of US/Israeli cooperation on mutual defense issues—the vaunted Arrow Missile Defense System. This multibillion-dollar joint boondoggle has sucked up countless US tax dollars—but it has also earned us some scattered, “Thank you’s” from Israel. That may seem a scant return on 3 billion dollars a year in US aid, but in the complex field of international diplomacy, that kind of reward is just priceless! If we come up with another billion dollars, the Israeli government might even be polite to vice-president Biden next time he visits.

            Last time I checked, the Arrow Missile Defense System had actually sold almost two units—both bought by Israel—and probably paid for by US taxpayer dollars in the form of aid to Israel. The US pentagon—well…they’re not so interested. Like the conflict between the people of Gaza and Israel, the relationship between the US and Israel is what we defense experts call “asymmetrical.” Non-defense experts should just think of it as a one-way street…

            In any case, I thought I would share what I learned about Iron-Dome and how it works. My information came from carefully watching mainstream media coverage of Israel’s most recent (and once again futile) effort to solve their security problem by a towering display of high-tech violence. It was called operation “bent lead pencil” or something like that. I’ll check the facts in a minute. Oh yeah, I also thought very carefully and critically about what I heard.

            Before I get into the highly technical “weeds” that so many less courageous “defense analyst” writers simply avoid, let me make a brief summary of my findings. In real life the “weeds” tend to hide what would otherwise be obvious, but in the complex world of US foreign policy (and the even more complex situation in the Middle East) we both need to ignore what is obvious, but also avoid looking in the weeds as well. Or something like that. Let’s just move on. To sum it all up, the “success” of Iron-Dome is pretty confusing.

Our Study’s Baseline: Operation Cast Lead, Dec. 27, 2007—Jan. 18, 2008.

            Of course, in a serious study of this kind you need to begin with what we in the profession of being “experts” call a “baseline.” Our baseline will be the Israeli operation in 2008, sometimes know as “that hideous and fruitless Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008” but forever known to the US Congress simply as operation “ahem, mumble, mumble…”, because they decided to never, ever, read the official “Goldstone” report or really acknowledge that either the attack or the report had ever happened.

            Nonetheless, through tireless firsthand journalism (i.e. what Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, might call ‘a quick check of Wikipedia’) we can gather that this operation lasted three weeks. About 1400 Palestinians died, many of them civilians, but some of them dangerous women and children (they are dangerous because you can never tell what they might do; like other Arabs of course, they are emotional, but being women and children makes this much worse). Many others, like a large group of newly sworn in police cadets (of whom Israel is always demanding that they help stop rocket fire into Israel) were also killed. I guess they should have gotten on the ball faster, but they were still at the swearing in ceremony.

            About 13 Israelis were killed—3 of them (Israeli civilians) BY ROCKET FIRE. Of the other ten Israeli casualties, 6 security forces were killed by ground fire and an additional 4 by “friendly fire.”

            I hope no one mistakes my intention here. I take every human death very seriously. Death is no joking matter. But I have to be honest. From these numbers we can see that (since the whole operation was supposedly a response to protect civilians from hostile rocket fire, Israel’s own countermeasures actually killed more of their own people than the violence they are trying to stop.   

            Those facts are so disturbing that a closer analysis of the three Israeli civilian deaths by rocket fire is clearly in order. In “Operation Cast Lead” about 750 rockets and mortars were launched from Gaza in the three weeks that the action persisted. Conclusion: those rockets aren’t very accurate. And just to introduce another point of comparison, on the average 4th of July (a single day) more Americans die or are injured from firework accidents than were killed by deliberate Palestinian rocket fire over a period of 3 weeks. Hmm. It’s almost as if the Palestinians were more interested in making a statement than in hurting anybody—still, accidents do happen.

            This conflict ended with both sides calling for a cease-fire and the “experts” agreeing that Israel had scored a significant “tactical success” while Hamas in Gaza had been dealt “a significant tactical defeat” (in the parlance of experts the word “tactical” has a precise meaning which is usually translated to non-experts as “meaningless” –unless it is being used specifically to confuse them).

Operation “Returning Echo.”

            This was an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) military operation in the Gaza Strip from March 9 until March 14, 2012. It was the worst outbreak of violence covered by the media in the region since the 2008–2009 Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead). I really don’t think there is any need to explain why, if Operation Cast Lead was such a huge success, this operation was ever needed at all, let alone why it was called “Returning Echo.” That’s just my opinion as an “expert.”

Operation “Pillar of Defense.” Nov.14, 2013–Nov. 21, 2013.  

            Finally!Now we can really get down to “Iron-Dome” and how it has transformed the struggle for peace in our time. In the period of eight days, Palestinians responded to Israeli attacks by firing over 1,456 rockets and mortars into Israeli territory. Or at least by trying to. They killed three Israeli civilians (all of them in one strike), plus two Israeli security forces and one Arab-Israeli (i.e a Palestinian).

            In other words, in spite of the “tactical success” of Operation Cast Lead and the continuing blockade of Gaza that causes so much suffering among civilians, and in spite of other military actions like Returning Echo, yes, in spite of all this, some people in Gaza were able to fire TWICE as many rockets in a THIRD of the time than they were able to fire four years before. From all that I guess we can deduce that the blockade and other Israeli defense policies are totally ineffective—except in making the civilian population of Gaza miserable and malnourished. So at last we come to Iron-Dome—the system on which Israel is basing their future.

How Iron-Dome really works:

            The Iron-Dome defense system works on a few simple, elegant principles. First, use incredibly sophisticated technology to identify incoming rockets and missiles and then, second, ignore the ones that won’t hit anything. As we have already seen, the vast majority of incoming rockets from Gaza never hit anything, and the few that do, do so entirely by accident.

            Right off the bat, that should give you an over 90% success ratio—before you even figure out how to turn the damn system on! That is truly a technological miracle. Next, the sky apparently fills with small projectiles—so many that even untargeted missiles (which like all things of Arab manufacture can be emotional and change direction if they lose a fin) might be shot down accidently. The system may also fire rockets of its own, but these technical details remain highly classified.

             In any case, don’t ever imagine that this “Iron-Dumb” system will make it irrelevant for Israelis to go into bomb shelters—quite the contrary! All the lead and the possibly damaged missiles, not to mention missiles that Iron-Dome might have missed (or have fired itself) are now falling like a dark rain over the countryside.

            So people must stay inside not only until that rain is done, but also until Israeli bomb squads have painstakingly pored over the debris. There is a reason for this: a tiny, tiny, fragment of an unexploded rocket is quite likely to be as dangerous as a Gaza launched rocket in full flight—even if it’s lying quietly out in the middle of the desert. If you step on it, for example, you might cut your foot.

            Let’s put it another way. One report claimed that “In eight days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in November, the Israeli military said it brought down 421 of 1,354 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Of those which landed, 58 hit urban areas while the rest fell in open fields, causing no damage.” Parse that statement carefully. 421 out 1,354 would only be around a 30% success rate. 58 out of 421 missiles would be a success ratio in the mid 80% range. But wait. We should also consider that 56 of those rockets that were targeted by the system also hit nothing—so if Iron-Dome really works, why were they targeted at all? Shouldn’t[g1]  they have been ignored? And how can we really tell if all those other rockets shouldn’t have been untargeted?

            Any way you cut it, that’s worse than the success rate we calculated for Iron-Dome if we just agreed not to turn the damned thing on! Also, if missiles are “downed” don’t they ever land? Apparently not! Apparently, Iron-Dumb just makes them disappear. Clearly, key data is missing. I guess we can only go on trusting the Israeli military. And that’s why they’re winning (at least in “tactical terms”)! America always likes to back a winner.

            In the final analysis, in Iron-Dome’s two “failures” in 2012, more Israeli civilians were killed than in our 2008 baseline. (I really hope that no one notices that one of these deaths was that of an Israeli –Arab. That might force me to try to explain why, since they don’t have the same rights as other Israeli’s, they are really counted as Israeli citizens at all. They don’t seem to count for much in elections…)

            But in the bigger picture, it is really hard to assess the net gain for Israeli civilians in all of this. In spite of the enormous “success” of “Iron-Dome,” the fact remains that more Israeli civilians were killed in Operation Pillar of Defense than in Operation Cast Lead. The one Arab-Israeli who was also killed by rocket fire should remind resistance minded Palestinians to think about the friendly fire problem too, but I really doubt it carries much weight in the calculations of the Israeli Defense Force.

            There are other important lessons as well. One Gaza rocket was fired at Jerusalem. It missed by miles, but logically, as Israel continues to expand what it considers its part of Jerusalem (really the entire West Bank) the city will become more vulnerable. It just makes sense—bigger targets are just easier to hit. (At least when those no-good-nicks in Gaza actually figure out a way to aim the rockets). If they ever do, and Iron-Dome has to really track and destroy almost 1,400 incoming rockets you might start to worry about the computers crashing.

            I also hear a lot of “defense experts” these days warning that much of this hostile rocket technology comes from Iran. We mustn’t take that sober assessment lightly. If Israel should launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s supposed “nuclear weapons program,” I really think that the people of Egypt, The Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Oman and Turkey should promptly take cover—who knows where those Iranian counterstrikes will land! Just look at the map! But my early analysis is that Israel will be relatively safe.

            One truly remarkable thing about the Israel response to Operation Pillar of Defense was that they announced the impressive statistics about Iron-Dome’s success rate almost as soon as hostilities ended. As a defense expert I would never, never, question the IDF about any claim they have made, are making, or ever will make. My point here is just to heap mountains of praise on the tight ship that they run.

            Think about it, in mere hours they apparently had forensic teams gather every scrap of every rocket that had been fired (both from Gaza and from Iron-Dome itself), and then painstakingly reassemble all the pieces. That’s really the only way you can tell if the rocket exploded when it hit the ground or was hit in the air and then hit the ground. It’s the only way to know if a missile landed or was downed. And even then, you can’t really know for sure if it was targeted or ignored. It’s all so confusing. So my hat is off to the IDF for sorting out this gigantic puzzle so quickly. It just reminds one that with unlimited US tax dollars, there is really nothing that a small, aggressive country can’t do! In the face of that kind of “can-do” attitude, I guess we should all take pride in simply taking their word for almost any claim they make!

            It also shows a distinctly new trend in the IDF. Prior to this, the idea of detective work was limited to dropping 2,000 lb blockbuster bombs on densely populated apartment buildings to get their targets. (You know the kind of thing we’ve all had to listen to before.) We are a sovereign nation, and we reserve our right to kick the door down on that building any way we see fit!”) So, this new-found IDF dedication to real detective work is truly laudable.

            In all of this, two facts emerge with startling clarity. First, the claim that Palestinians target civilians are just nonsense. Clearly they can’t really “target” anything. Second, much has been made of the fact that Palestinian resistance fighters are essentially using human shields because they insist on firing from densely populated urban areas. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on earth precisely because all the Palestinians that Israel drove from their homes had to go somewhere. So, while technically true, this charge is a little silly. It’s a bit like saying, “Now that you are on the last crumb of land left to you, you shouldn’t fight back from there! Don’t you people know any better! Just because WE have long ignored the rules of war ourselves, doesn’t mean that you can ignore them!” By the same logic, of course, Jewish resistance to Nazi extermination in the Warsaw Ghetto was a crime. But I digress.

The Bigger Picture:

            Any highly technical report like this is meaningless unless properly contextualized in what experts call “The Bigger Picture.” This includes considering purely political issues, issues that most experts naturally shy away from. Nonetheless, in my tireless quest for truth, I will make an exception this time. I would have been happy to take Judith Miller’s word for it, but she never answered my phone calls to the NY Times. Nonetheless, I feel that by trying to contact her, I did exercise what we experts call “due diligence.”

Lessons for Israel:

            The numbers show that more Israelis were killed by trying to stop the rocket attacks than were killed BY the rocket attacks. This includes both security forces and civilians. In fact, in both “Operation Cast Lead” and “Operation Pillar of Defense,” ALL the Israeli causalities came AFTER the operations to prevent Israeli deaths began. The easy answer for you, Israel, would be to simply stop trying to stop the rocket fire. Your efforts in this regard are counterproductive.

            We could go even further with our advice: you should stop trying to present a situation in which you can kill some 1,400 Palestinians, while only losing a handful of your own people as a “war.” In a real war, both sides have a fighting chance—or at least they both have armies.

            Next, you should get someone new to make up names for your operations: Nothing exposes your deep ties to the US more than these ridiculous names that both you and the Pentagon manage to come up with.

            Another point is this. Get your kill ratios in order! And do it now! Anyone who watched the war in Vietnam always KNEW that the US was winning because our “kill ratio” was always so disproportionate to the kill ratio of the resistance.  In “Operation Cast Lead” Israel’s kill ratio was 1,400 to 13. In “Operation Pillar of Defense” it dropped to a paltry 140 to 6. That’s a huge decline. Logic would dictate that you must go in and even up the score and …you know…re-level the playing field…but since the playing field is Gaza, and you already leveled Gaza in 2008 and it was never rebuilt …ok never mind.                                                                                                           As to your Strategic options, just give back the occupied territories and stop beating on Gaza. By making Israel smaller, you will make it almost impossible to hit with primitive home-made rockets. In the past, you argued that because your country was only ten miles wide at some points, you needed more land to create a “strategic buffer zone.” In the world of modern rockets, that argument is irrelevant. If you just let your neighbors live in peace, rocket fire would probably cease. Your current policy, which could be called the “now that we have taken this land and created Zion on it, we must get rid of all our neighbors to make Zion secure” policy just isn’t working. The bigger you get, the more neighbors you will have…

            And another thing. You have gotten a lot of aid from the US over the years. Can’t you do the right thing for the US and just ignore the occasional rocket? We were the first country to recognize your independence—just think of that next rocket as part of our Independence Day celebrations. It is no more an “existential threat” to you than our fourth of July celebrations are to us.

Lessons for Palestine:

            First, improve your messaging. I mean, stop firing rockets. The Israelis aren’t getting the right message from them. You suffer many more causalities when you fire rockets than you ever inflict. Population densities in Gaza are appalling, but the best way to reduce them would be to get your land back. Can’t you learn to ask nicely? Haven’t you ever heard of using the word “please?” (Oh. Sorry, on reflection I guess that never really worked.)

            I have already suggested that some people suspect that you aren’t really trying to kill people. So what are you trying to say? Sorry, I take that back. There is a rule that we must never talk directly to you, so forget I asked.

            Also, you really must try to think of more creative ways of using your resources. People in Gaza are starving, for God’s sake! Integrate yourselves into the world economy or something. For example, the Palestinians in Gaza must become better at understanding domestic politics here in the US. There is a great opportunity in America right now. You should mass produce your Qassam rockets for the EXPORT market. Given the way American consumers sucked up available assault rifles and ammunition in the wake of the Newtown school shooting tragedy, it is obvious that Qassam Rockets would simply fly off the shelves if properly marketed. In the American weapons market, there is a deep thirst for what we experts call “heavy weapons.” American gun buyers would be thrilled to find that they could all buy their own Qassam rockets at their local gun show! Even though the Newtown massacre killed more people than were killed by rocket fire in the entire time span between 2008 and 2012, small arms fire is beginning to feel…well…dated.

Lessons for the US:

            Import as many Qassam rockets as possible. Americans understand that the more weapons we all have, the safer we will all be. Qassam rockets have a special appeal in this regard. If the assailants in the last twenty or so major public shootings in the US had been armed with these babies, almost no one would have died.  

            Get someone to tell the Israelis to make up better names for these operations: We all know they got most of their training in the US (when they weren’t busy spying on us like that Pollard guy). Nothing exposes our deep ties to Israel more than these ridiculous names that we both manage to come up with.


            Now for the hard part. Like many studies of this sort, this one has some conclusions, but not an end. That would be the easy way…not the cowboy way!

            Point one is that relative security is just not good enough for Israel! As we all know Israel must have the privilege of always being absolutely safe from all threats of any kind! They just live by a different standard than we do. They’re…well…chosen. But I just want to say that the fact that friendly fire from Israel kills more Israeli troops than the hostile rocket fire that they are deployed to defend against does, raises some really serious questions. Furthermore, the fact that their enemies are able to hurt so few Israelis when they are supposedly trying so hard to do so, raises a very real question about whether war is really appropriate in this case at all. I keep writing to Congress pleading with them to suspend US aid to Israel—I keep asking them, please help Israel to help itself to stop killing their own! Alas. I get little response.

            So, in the end, I suppose that American taxpayers will just happily keep paying Israeli technicians to tinker endlessly with “Iron-Dumb.” It is essentially a jobs program for Israel—a sure sign of our unbreakable friendship. After all we apparently can’t even afford jobs programs for ourselves. (Heck, if you believe Grover Norquist, we can’t even afford to have a government, let alone jobs). But we are still the greatest country on the face of the earth! And as long as the US and Israel stand side by side together, never questioning our pet beliefs, we will never, never, allow “any daylight” to be shed on the issue of Palestine at all—and we will both especially not question our shared pet belief that we are both the greatest country on the face of the earth!

            Finally, if some people should mistakenly take my carefully chosen words to imply that we really ought to rethink this whole issue—or as some kind of similar “modest proposal”—I just want to say this. Like most experts, I would rather be accused of suggesting that we eat Irish babies as a way of coping with world hunger, than ever, ever, be accused of being anti-Semitic.

            As you can see, the technical analysis I have just shared helps explain why President Obama could claim that “Iron-Dumb” has saved countless lives and then turn around and say it can’t be relied on. It is easy to understand if you just think like an expert. The number of lives saved is too small to count, and “Iron-Dome” is a technologically dazzling rube-Goldberg machine that works chiefly by confusing our understanding of simple numbers. As an imaginary Israeli source proudly proclaimed to me (off the record of course) “It is an impenetrable shield that will allow no confusing common sense to enter.”

            I am constantly reminded of that famous saying, “those who don’t understand history and can’t read behind the lines are condemned to make history by repeating themselves.” Or something like that.

            The transformation of strategic realities in the Middle East that is the end result of the whole “Iron-Dumb” project simply can’t be calculated. I knew the minute that I saw the first data that more dominoes would fall, and even as I have been writing this, a new shoe has dropped.

            That’s right, as Jonathan Topaz reported on 3/31/13, “Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and Republican political strategist Ed Gillespie argued the U.S. must get serious on missile defense… Kristol warned that in the decades to come, North Korea could have “many more missiles and many more nuclear weapons.” He argued that the Obama administration needs to “get serious” on beefing up missile defense systems. Gillespie added that “we need missile defense, and we need for our friends to have it as well.” He commended the administration for recently recommitting to missile defense but criticized President Barack Obama for waiting so long.

            Finally! The GOP has a plan not just to remake their party, but to create new jobs as well! Amazingly, it’s all based on the success of Israel’s iron-dumb defense system. Isn’t it great that we can all learn from our past mistakes, make rational decisions, and move forward to make this a better world?

Technical addendum: My editors inquired why I sometimes refer to “Iron-Dome” and at other times to “Iron-Dumb.” The fact is, the nomenclature used in these technical discussions can be quite difficult to understand. The easiest way to explain this is that, even though I am an expert, I do my job and rely on others to do theirs. I am sure the makers of this computer knew what they were doing. I let the spell-check function sort out the details. Sometimes it says one thing, sometimes another. I just do what it says. As a general rule I think we need to have faith in experts and let them do their jobs. Otherwise, how will the stock of human knowledge ever be able to grow? My editors were content with this explanation, and that, I feel, is their job. I really do believe that we have all, working together, exercised “due diligence.”

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