Drawing the wrong lessons from Israel’s “Iron Dome”

Yes, it works. No, we can’t build one with a range of 10,000 miles.

It was inevitable: once Israel’s “Iron Dome” system shot down Hamas’s rockets, missile defense advocates were going to make the illogical leap to the conclusion the Israeli success means that Ronald Reagan’s original conception of national missile defenses against ICBMs has been vindicated. (Surprise: It was Max Boot, whose piece on this in Commentary got a lot of folks on the Right all irrationally exuberant.)

But one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other. As Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares acidly put it, comparing what Iron Dome has done with what national missile defenses would require is “like being good at miniature golf and thinking you can win the Masters.” Or to quote that great political theorist, Samuel Jackson, from Pulp Fiction: “it ain’t the same [expletive] ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same [expletive] sport.”

There are three things wrong with the “Iron Dome proves missiles defenses work” argument.

First, it’s not really a missile defense system in the sense that national defense advocates want people to think it is. Yes, it shoots things down; so do anti-aircraft batteries (which is what the Patriot system was supposed to be in the first place). But it’s not intercepting hypersonic targets in space from thousands of miles away.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying what Iron Dome does is easy or simple. I’m not an engineer, so I’m even more impressed. (Hell, I’m amazed when my car’s seat warmers work, and I think my funky Keurig coffee maker is a high-tech miracle that moves me to tears.)

But fighting short-range rocket attacks is one thing, fighting space wars against ICBMs is another entirely. I rather like the newspaper Haaretz’s description of the system as a “rocket swatter,” which captures the feel of what Iron Dome does compared to a “Star Wars” concept.

Yes, I realize they do look alike: the enemy fires a barrage, the good guys zero in on the rocket motors, and computers do a lot of math to throw a lot of explosions up in front of where they think the warheads will come down.

But we’re talking rockets here, kids, not space-faring missiles. Iron Dome’s interceptors fly under their own guidance, and zero in on things that, by ballistic missile standards, are fairly slow and clunky, as MIT’s Ted Postol points out:

The actual speed of these Hamas rockets is in the range of 500 meters per second. Scuds that can travel 600 kilometers are traveling at 2,200 meters per second. An ICBM is traveling at 7,000 meters per second, so 13 or 14 times as fast.

Postol is kind of unhinged, even obsessive, at times about missile defense, but his facts on the missile speeds are still facts. More to the point, intercepting something going 10 times as fast as a Hamas rocket isn’t ten times harder, it’s multiple orders of magnitude harder. (When I was learning to juggle — yes, I did — I read once that on a scale of 1 to 10, juggling three things is a 4 or 5, and juggling four things is a 32. So, something like that.)

Now, the fact that Iron Dome shoots down any of these is a feat, but it’s still a defense against a relatively primitive form of attack — one with no decoys, no maneuver, no blinding attacks before launch, or the barrel of other tricks that can assist an ICBM strike — and even in a crowded area like Israel, the warheads are small enough that it’s often safe to blow things up in the sky. That leads to the second problem with the whole analogy:

These are not nuclear weapons.

Let’s stipulate, for the moment, that the Israeli claims of an 80+ percent interception rate are accurate. (That sounds remarkably high to me, but again, I’m not an engineer.) And let’s say we could develop a national missile defense even half as good. The fact is that it won’t matter, because it’s less than 100 percent.

The good old days.

There’s an ugly little secret about the way Star Wars was conceptualized in the 1980s: it wasn’t really designed to protect people. (I’m not sure even President Reagan really thought that was possible.) Rather, it was probably going to end up protecting U.S. ICBMs, since the whole notion was to introduce uncertainty into Soviet first-strike planning against those weapons. A massive attack on the United States would have to be planned right down to the minute, and space-based defenses, working or not, would be one more monkey wrench in the works.

Future ICBM threats, however, will come in two flavors: small and tiny. (Unless we go to all-out war with the Russians, in which case we’re all screwed.) If the launch is more than a few missiles, then there’s no system on earth that’ll stop it, now or in the future, and something is going to get through. If the launch is tiny — maybe just one or two — then you’re still gambling with hundreds of thousands of lives that you can stop the missile every four out of five tries (if that).

I’m veering close to cheap-shot territory here, because I know that the immediate reaction to this argument is to ask whether I’d rather intercept four out of five, or zero out of five. But that, in itself, is a dishonest question as well: my goal is not to play this game because where nuclear weapons are concerned, one miss is equivalent to missing them all.

Think of it this way. Imagine playing a little drinking game — that’s the only way you’d do this — with a buddy you know is a great marksman. He balances an empty vodka bottle on your head, both shoulders, and both knees, and puts five bullets in his clip. He then says: “I’m so good that I only miss once in five shots.”

Good luck. Because even if he misses only once, he might as well have hit you all five times. (Or you’ll wish he had, at any rate.)

That’s where missile defense advocates really go off the rails. They all kind of turn into Walter Matthau’s character in Fail Safe, Dr. Groteschele (who in turn was based on either Herman Kahn or Henry Kissinger, depending on whom you ask), and they ask, as Kahn did, whether you’d rather have 100 million dead or 40 million dead. High interception rates are thus cited as though they would somehow compensate for the interception failures.

And those failures will happen, no matter how good the system is. I’ve had emails from people in Israel living through this mess who have noted that an 85% interception rate is great, unless you’re living near the other 15% that made it.

I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that I think that regional, theater-based missile defenses are a good idea. If there’s a chance of knocking something down by sitting right on top it — or right offshore, more accurately — with a loaded interceptor, I’m all for it.

But when we’re talking about defending populations against nuclear missiles, even at intermediate range (under 1500 miles or so), all of this math just isn’t good enough.

And that’s the third problem with the “Iron Dome = Mini-Star Wars” analogy: the politics of shooting down Hamas’s rockets aren’t the same as the nerve-shredding business of nuclear deterrence. The Israelis and their military commanders are pretty happy about Iron Dome, and well they should be, since it’s allowing them to mitigate the damage from some primitive rocket attacks.

But this is the same Israel that has made it clear for some thirty years that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be the spur for a preventive military attack on Iran. And why? Precisely because where Iran is concerned, we have to assume that “possession equals use,” and there would be no way to defend against an Iranian ballistic launch, no matter how good the systems get.

One that got through in Israel. Add anywhere from 10 to 300 kilotons, and do the math.

Right now, there’s a lot of happy reports in the Israeli press about the number of rockets that have been shot down. But if these rockets were nuclear missiles, the Israelis would be sweating out the existential fear that their state was going to be eradicated on the first — and eventually inevitable — missed shot at one of those incoming radar blips. That’s exactly why they’ve made it clear they’re not going to take that chance.

Neither would an American President. Would an 80% effective ICBM defense — that will never exist, but let’s go with the number anyway — change the President’s thinking about risking a nuclear attack on the United States? “Don’t worry, sir, we’re pretty sure we’ll get at least 20 of the 25 Chinese ICBMs, so only five cities will get hit. Figure 3.5 million casualties and the crippling of the United States as a major power for a few decades or more. Er, depending on the breaks.”

Does anyone really believe that? And more worrisome, do we want to approach the business of nuclear deterrence as if we believe it? Wouldn’t we rather simply make clear that the United States has only two modes of nuclear war: “On” and “Off”?

I know that by saying this, I’m advocating cutting down the President’s choices during a crisis. But that’s exactly my intention: to prevent a President from gambling on some kind of lucky rabbit’s foot of a defense system and getting jammed up in a crisis he or she had no intention of sparking had no one sold the White House on the lunacy of shooting down nuclear missiles in global combat.

And before I get charges of being a weak sister on all this thrown at me, my answer is not to simply tolerate small-force or rogue missile attacks. The real answer is one that nobody likes, because it’s expensive and risky and requires large conventional forces: the way to achieve a 100 percent defense rate against rogue missiles is never to allow the creation of a nuclear-armed rogue missile.

Stopping those programs before they bear fruit is the only sure way to douse this threat. We could get a lot further, and put an end to a lot of partisan bickering, if we could get past the defense obsession, because it’s short-circuiting better and more realistic alternatives, as unsavory as they are.

Recall, for example, that it was former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and his former subordinate Ashton Carter who in 2006 said that the West should blow up North Korea’s newest ICBM on the launching pad rather than let the Norks test it. Considering that Perry is now part of the “Gang of Four” trying to push Global Zero, and Carter is the current #2 man at President Obama’s Pentagon, this is not exactly the position of a bunch of kooks on the loose. But as long as someone’s out there peddling national missile defense as an alternative, we can keep kicking the hard decisions down the road just a little longer.

Look — regional air defenses against small conventional rockets are a good thing. But they’re not comparable to throwing the dice on stopping nuclear-armed ballistic missiles traveling at immense speeds, and capable of permanent and massive damage. So let’s be glad for Iron Dome, wish the Israelis the best (and encourage them to keep working on it), and pray for the folks getting those rockets rained down on them. But let’s not confuse this with some fantasy of stopping nuclear missiles.

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  1. I think I’m comfortable standing by the assertion that the nuclear destruction of five U.S. cities, and the attendant fallout and chaos, would pretty much remove the United States as a first-rank power. We’re still cleaning up after Katrina and Sandy — and those were made out of water, for heaven’s sakes.

  2. I agree with the main premise of your article that the successes of Iron Dome should not be irrationally translated (or somehow transferred) to mean that ballistic missile defenses against a far more complex intercontinental threat would be as effective. But I disagree that the only options we should leave our national leadership is “on or off”. Maybe I’m to much of an optimist, but I can’t bring myself to believe that the limited ICBM defense that has already been fielded (10 or 20 interceptor missiles) will somehow sway the strategic calculus of our national leaders who know full-well the shear numbers of nucs at the hands of our “friends” Russia and China. But it should provide at least some measure of deterrence for countries with limited means like North Korea (assuming they can keep it in the air for more than a few seconds). While not the case with larger more nuclear established states, it could keep an option on the table for our senior leaders that otherwise would have to resort to “on or off” with countries having “Great/Dear/#-Un” Leaders.

  3. All you had to say was: “As Max Boot put it …”

    Any person, faction, or party who takes Max Boot seriously these days as a defense analyst deserves what it gets.

    BTW the IDF never wanted Iron Dome – viewing it as a very expensive solution to a relatively minor problem (ie cheap unguided rockets with small warheads) – but now they are stuck with it, since it has been sold by the gov’t as such a success.