Should the U.S. Rely on Iron Dome for the Long Term?
The U.S. Army’s recent acquisition of two Iron Dome short-range air defense batteries from Israel provides a much-needed solution to one of America’s critical security needs.
While Israel financed the development of the first two Iron Dome systems, the United States provided funding for continued improvement, production and deployment. For many years, America has provided Israel billions of dollars for its national security including funding for missile defense capabilities. The partnership has been nothing short of gamechanging to how Israel defends its home front from rocket attacks. Now that the U.S. military has its own Iron Dome, it can fill a much-needed security gap in U.S. air defenses.
As the former head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, I had a close relationship with the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Missile Defense Organization, and valued their constant pursuit for innovative defenses. Much of the annual funds that the United States provides to Israel flows through the MDA, giving me a tremendous appreciation for the complicated rocket threats that Israel faces on its borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
To address rockets coming from very short distances, Israeli innovation developed the Iron Dome, which is in actuality two systems: a counter-rocket, artillery and mortar system; and a very short-range air defense system. If Iron Dome’s radar senses an incoming rocket, it determines whether there is a threat to Israeli populations and, if so, fires a Tamir missile to intercept the incoming projectile.
Iron Dome has stopped over 2,000 rockets fired at Israeli population centers with a remarkable success rate, an achievement that also shifted U.S. thinking about homeland missile defense. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States defended its military forces abroad with the Patriot PAC-3, but there was pushback about the merits and efficiency of homeland missile defense. Now, Washington has awakened to the potential for innovative air defenses.
In 2007, I visited Sderot — an often-shelled town in western Israel near Gaza — shortly after rocket attacks had forced residents to take shelter. At that time, Iron Dome was just in its development stage, but it would become operational within four years. When I viewed what remained of the projectiles in Sderot, I found the Palestinians had been using cheap materials. The poles of street signs became fuselages, with their sheet metal signs being makeshift fins.
Trying to stop rockets that took only a few hundred dollars to build with expensive defensive interceptors is very cost-inefficient. While a Patriot missile costs roughly $3 million, the Iron Dome interceptor costs a much more efficient $40,000.
Iron Dome also secures very short ranges that existing U.S. systems were not designed to cover. Existing Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems already provide U.S. forces with the ability to intercept short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. For example, Iranian proxies have launched dozens of rockets against U.S. forces in Iraq similar to the ones that Palestinians launch from Gaza against the Israelis. There is also a possible application on the Korean Peninsula where THAAD systems can guard against higher-level attacks but are inefficient at protecting Seoul from very short-range North Korean missile attacks.
Additionally, the Israelis have deployed a naval version of Iron Dome to protect offshore natural gas resources that the U.S. Navy should explore acquiring. Last year the Marine Corps successfully tested and integrated the Iron Dome system. The question before Washington is whether Iron Dome should be the technology the United States relies upon in the long term for its indirect fires protection capability.
In August, Israel-based Rafael and U.S.-based Raytheon announced a joint venture to establish an “all-up-round” (the designation for completely assembled weapons) facility in the United States to build Iron Dome, Tamir interceptors and launchers, and a U.S. variant of Tamir called SkyHunter.
The Army has said it will use SkyHunter as an interim solution to its indirect fires protection capability needs but has wanted an all-in-one solution for air defense; whereas Iron Dome is an in-the-hand solution to specific issues it currently faces in Iraq and elsewhere. The fact is that Iron Dome is the most proven and affordable option against very short-range fire.
Reportedly, part of the holdup was a request from U.S. officials for Iron Dome proprietary source code. Yet, there are technological solutions to this problem that do not require the Israelis to turn over financially and operationally valuable source code. One option could be through technical escrow accounts, which would allow trusted national security officials to process integration without putting Israeli ingenuity at risk. At the same time, the United States does not need proprietary Israeli intellectual property to derive use from the air defense system. Integrating the Iron Dome within U.S. defenses would be ideal, but there are still discreet interoperable uses for the system, similar to how the Marines reportedly connected it to their Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar.
It is excellent news that the Army has acquired the Iron Dome. However, limiting the purchase and deployment undervalues its potential to protect American troops. Washington and Jerusalem should work together so that the U.S. military can implement more of these gamechanging defenses.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III served as the director of the Missile Defense Agency and is a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s U.S.-Israel Security Policy Project.
Originally published in Defense News