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Israeli Anti-Missile System Faces Fire at Home and Delays in U.S. Funding

It has been promoted as a cutting-edge technological marvel and marketed as the ultimate solution to the misery Israeli civilians experienced facing rocket attacks from Gaza militants.

But as the Iron Dome rocket defense system moves into its final stages of development, Israelis are questioning its effectiveness, and American lawmakers are seeking assurances that the system they are poised to fund will indeed be used to protect citizens in the battered Negev city of Sderot, close by Gaza, and not just to defend military bases.

Some in Israel fear that a system originally promised as a protective shield for civilians is being shifted instead to protect strategic military assets. And this has, in turn, prompted some questions from members of Congress who have been crucial to obtaining U.S. funding for the project.

New Jersey Democrat Steve Rothman, a member of the House Committee on Appropriations’ subcommittee on Defense, told the Forward that an Israeli shift away from deploying the system to primarily protect civilians could lead Congress to review its expected $205 million funding decision.

In the event of such a shift, he said, staying upbeat, “I know the president and Congress would be most anxious to consider a new Israeli use for those monies.”

“When we decided to fund it, we assumed it would be deployed to protect Sderot and similar places,” a congressional source familiar with the discussion told the Forward. An Israeli diplomatic official said in response that lawmakers were recently reassured that Israel’s policy remains unchanged and that Iron Dome is still viewed as a means to protect citizens under attack.

The low-key questions from America’s lawmakers come against a backdrop of uncertainty, because of Congress’s recent failure to approve funding for Iron Dome, as had been expected, at the end of its recently completed session. The delay was due to an unrelated budget dispute between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. But this has pushed the request for funds for Iron Dome onto the table of the newly elected incoming Congress, which has vowed to make austerity and budget cuts its priorities.

Nevertheless, speaking under usual diplomatic rules of anonymity, an Israeli diplomat said that Congress’s strong bipartisan support for funding the program meant that Israel had nothing to worry about, despite the unfortunate delay.

Israel’s need for a short-range, rocket-interception system has been apparent since the 2006 Lebanon War, in which Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia group, showered thousands of short-range rockets on Israel’s northern region. The urgency for such a system only intensified after Hamas, the Islamist party that governed in Gaza, increased its firing of Qassam rockets toward Sderot and neighboring towns in Israel’s southern region.

Iron Dome, which has been in development since February 2007, is supposed to be capable of protecting against multiple simultaneous rocket attacks by detecting their launch and firing interceptor missiles at the incoming fusillade. If successful, Kipat Barzel, (Hebrew for “Iron Dome”), would be the most advanced system in the world to handle short-range rockets.

Developed by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Iron Dome has so far cost more than $200 million, a sum that does not include the expense of producing and deploying the batteries. According to Israel’s Defense Ministry, the system is expected to be operational “within weeks.”

The Obama administration, aware of Israel’s urgent need to come up with a solution to the problem presented by Hamas rockets, supported granting $205 million in funding for Iron Dome last spring. President Obama initiated the push for funding in Congress last May, in a step seen as vote of confidence in the system and as part of Obama’s move to bolster Israel’s security capabilities.

While running for office, Obama visited Sderot and voiced his solidarity with its residents, then under daily rocket attacks. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” he said during a July 2008 press conference held on a hill facing Gaza.

The House of Representatives was quick to support the president’s funding request by a vote of 410–4. But as 2010 drew to an end, disputes between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate derailed the Senate budget bill, which included the Iron Dome funding provision. For Israel, this meant that the funds it had expected to receive for Iron Dome will be delayed until the new Congress revisits the appropriations budget early this year.

Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, questions have been brewing regarding the system’s efficacy and costs and the real purpose of its development.

Gadi Eizenkot, commander of Israel’s Northern Command, said on November 30 that Iron Dome was not necessarily intended to protect civilians and that its primary deployment should be in military bases. His statement reinforced the concerns of Sderot residents who had already noticed that Iron Dome’s radar system was positioned at a nearby air force base, not in the city.

Local leaders are seething. “We are frustrated; we are angry,” said Alon Schuster, head of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council.

On November 1, Schuster’s regional council, along with three other councils — Eshkol, Hof Ashkelon and Sdot Negev — petitioned the high court to force the state to deploy the system in the areas’ defense. “If it was promised [the government] would protect us, they should protect us — it’s very simple,” said the petitioning attorney, Eduardo Wasser.

Yiftah Shapir, senior research fellow and director of the Military Balance Project at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, believes that Israel will eventually deploy Iron Dome around Sderot and nearby towns — not because it can actually protect citizens, but rather because of political pressure.

“Of course, no politician can stand in front of citizens and say openly the real truth: ‘We do have the capability, but I’m not going to defend you because of a, b and c,” Shapir said. The logic in producing it and deploying it near towns may not be sound from a military point of view, but that is “one of the prices we have to pay for being a democracy.”

But experts, Shapir included, suggest that even if communities such as Sderot convince or compel the government to deploy the system around their towns, it could prove a hollow victory. Even if the system worked effectively, Shapir warned, it could not guarantee the neutralization of all missiles, meaning that “people would still be living on edge” — listening for sirens and running to shelters.

More serious is a charge that the system could be easily overwhelmed. Shapir explained: “I don’t know how many rockets the system can intercept — it’s highly classified — but let’s say it’s 50 rockets a minute. Given that rockets are so cheap on the enemy side, what’s the problem with launching 51 or 60?”

Martin van Creveld, author of 21 books on military history and strategy, including “Countering Terrorism,” pointed to the high cost of using Iron Dome, which reaches $100,000 for each interceptor fired. “The ‘exchange rate’ must be 1,000 to 1 as Qassams can probably be made for $100,” van Creveld said. At such cost ratios, the system offers Israel’s enemies a way to quickly drain the Jewish state’s economic resources, he said.

Currently, rockets from Gaza are being fired into Israel at a rate far lower than when Iron Dome was commissioned, and most hit open spaces. But van Creveld believes that as soon as it is deployed, “the secret will be out.” Gaza militants could gather information about the system, for example, by firing rockets at Israel and then amassing intercept missiles that fall on the Gaza side, which they then could pass to Iranian allies. The Iranians could then attempt to reverse engineer it. “They would say, ‘Wonderful.’ This is just what we needed,” van Creveld said.

The Ministry of Defense insists that such pessimism is misplaced — but the ministry says it can’t reveal the reason. “Those claims are from people who are not familiar with the system,” a spokesman told the Forward, adding, “For security reasons, we cannot relate as to why those claims are false.” He declined to discuss when and where the system would be deployed, saying that the information was not for public consumption. Further questions about plans for use of the system were referred to the Israel Defense Forces, which declined to comment.

Despite such doubts about efficacy, cost and placement, experts say that Israel is sure to receive the funding from the United States in the end. Dov Zakheim, undersecretary of defense in the second Bush administration, predicted that political shifts in Congress would not affect the future of Iron Dome, since even budget-cutting Republicans are not seeking to slash the defense budget, and because “we’re not talking here about huge amounts of money.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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