Is Israel Really as Good at Shooting Down Rockets as it Claims?

Israel's "Iron Dome" anti-rocket system is one of the most reliable defense tools on earth. It stops almost every deadly missile tossed its way. It is a miracle of modern civilization. These are claims repeated by reputable Western news sources. But what if they're bogus?

Iron Dome is the much-ballyhooed air-defense battery, built by Raytheon and an Israeli defense contractor, that the tiny nation has used to counter rocket attacks from Gazan rebels. Much like the Patriot missile in Iraq I, and the C-RAM in Iraq II, the Iron Dome has become a legend of the current conflict. For more than two years, Israeli officials have asserted that Iron Dome successfully kills 90 percent of the rockets lobbed at their homeland.

That's a figure virtually unheard of in air defense. Yet it's a figure that keeps getting repeated by reporters, subtly suggesting a victory for technologically advanced civilizations over their discontents—reminiscent of the myths surrounding Israel's miraculous irrigation of the desert lands that had lain fallow under Arab control. Iron Dome's iron reputation has real consequences here in the United States—where Congress just decided to give Israel $352 million for more Iron Dome systems, twice as much as the DOD had recommended.

Its reputation, though, is built more on rumor than on evidence. Defense One reports:

Israel's claims about the anti-rocket shield's effectiveness, specifically that it is able to intercept 90 percent of the rockets that Hamas has sent into Israel, are tantamount to fraud according to MITscience, technology and national security expert Ted Postol.

In a paper submitted to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, obtained prior to publication by Defense One, Postol explains at length the 90 percent number is fetched from thin air.

Postol's work is based on a lot of math, but it points out what's intuitive: Shooting a missile head-on at another missile is really hard. And if the Iron Dome's projectile doesn't meet an incoming one at just the right trajectory and speed, it either misses, or simply knocks a still-live rocket off course in its fall to earth:

His paper shows that given low engagement rate, low warheard destruction rate and issues of missing data, the actual success rate for the Dome falls much closer to a miserable 5 percent.

In fact, it's possible that the Israelis have been counting near-hits and glancing blows as successful kills—in much the same way the United States did with its Patriots in 1991, which were never the formidable Scud-busters the U.S. media made them out to be.

Still, only a few Israelis have been hurt or killed by the thousands of rockets launched from Gaza in recent weeks. Postol says that's less attributable to Iron Dome than to Israel's militarization—the ready availability of bomb shelters, the will of the population to use them in an orderly way, and the effectiveness of warning systems, including a mobile app that alerts you of an incoming threat. (Go figure: It turns out that silly "Yo" phone app may actually have been good for saving lives.)

Of course, evidence of Iron Dome's actual success rate is out there—but the Israeli government isn't rushing to share it:

It also means that that a lot more rockets are hitting buildings in Israel than the government is acknowledging. The proof of those collisions is out there, says Postol, and it will reveal itself in the future in form of increased insurance claims for property damage. If the Israeli government were eager to show the Dome's effectiveness, they could just release verifiable insurance claim numbers and put the issue to bed, says Postol. But "The Israelis have been unable to provide any evidence of any reduction in ground damage that would surely have to accompany the amazing success rates that they have been claiming."

When asked if he believed that the Israeli government is deliberately perpetrating an act of fraud against the American people, he answered simply that the facts on the ground do bear out that interpretation of events.

Whatever works to protect everyday people from falling rockets is a good thing. But how well a system works, and how its effectiveness is sold to a credulous public in the furtherance of political and fiscal goals, is well worth scrutinizing. Israeli officials "are taking advantage of the predilection of Americans to support them," Postol told Defense One. "It's ultimately disrespectful to the American people."

Update: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where Postol has published his work, sent along two additional links: First, a detailed scientific slideshow that explains the physics behind why Iron Dome isn't working as advertised; and second, an overview of Iron Dome as a "public relations weapon," sold as a vindication of ballistic missile defense systems a la "Star Wars." "Iron Dome is high-tech," writes BAS editor John Mecklin. "So is the public relations campaign around it, a reality that more of the world news ecosystem could beneficially take note of."

[Photo credit: AP Images]