Although Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted its first missile in April 2011, it officially came of age last November during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, the latest iteration of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Of some 500 Gaza-fired rockets and missiles that Iron Dome’s radar identified as likely to hit populated areas, as opposed to falling into the sea or open fields, about 420 were shot down, for a success rate of 85 percent. In the process Iron Dome provided the majority of Israel’s population with a deep sense of security: Though they were being targeted by Palestinian fire, Israelis felt an effective countermeasure was in place to protect them.
In the weeks since the most recent round of hostilities ended, the Iron Dome system has received nothing but high praise. Hailed as a product of “Jewish genius,” the “one clear winner in the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas” and a “military revolution,” the system is reportedly now being considered for purchase by numerous governments, including South Korea, Singapore and Turkey. But if the technological breakthroughs and military advantages gained in fielding the system in a relatively short time have rightly attracted attention, other issues have been ignored.
First, Iron Dome cannot address the threats it was initially designed to counter: mortar and artillery shells as well as very short-range rockets, such as the Qassam, used by Palestinian militants. It was primarily these types of weapons that plagued the populated areas of southern Israel in the months and years before Operation Pillar of Defense, and the only two Israeli military casualties in the recent operation were due to such rocket fire. Moreover, the various Palestinian factions inside the Gaza Strip will continue to use small, short-range weapons like the Qassam. Though they carry small warheads and are very inaccurate, these projectiles are cheap and simple to manufacture and easy to hide, transport and operate. Existing systems for addressing this threat, including ones using chemical lasers and Gatling guns, were dismissed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense in favor of Iron Dome.