Beersheva, Israel — Israelis had been waiting for this moment ever since the 2006 Lebanon War when cities in the north were naked against a barrage of Katyusha rocket fire from Hezbollah.
Just days after two Grad rockets from Gaza slammed into Beersheba and just missed Ashdod, raising worry about a new war with Hamas, the army finally deployed Sunday the first battery of the so-called Iron Dome short-range missile intercept system.
But it was an awkward inauguration.
After a public outcry questioning why a system declared operational in July 2010 wasn’t in use, the military was forced to hustle a 20-missile battery out of the warehouse.
Amid confusion, controversy and efforts by leaders to lower expectations, Brig. Gen. Doron Gavish faced reporters in the shadow of a missile battery stationed on a grassy desert expanse on the outskirts of Beersheba, and declared: “This is a unique system. There is no other system in the world that shoots missiles against rockets.”
But he also said that Iron Dome would not provide an iron-clad protection against the rockets. Yes, the system is operational, but he emphasized that the Air Force still needed to test how it works in real time and that the roll out would be gradual. Only two batteries are being deployed.
“Iron Dome is a very capable system,” he said. “But it is important to emphasize that we are still testing.”
Just hours before, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned the public that Iron Dome could not protect every Israeli household.
“I don’t want to create the illusion that the Iron Dome system that we are deploying today can give a full and comprehensive answer,” he said. “The real answer to the threat of rockets is the integration of offense with defense.”
The Iron Dome system has been hailed as yet another example of Israeli technological might. Developed by the state-owned military company Rafael, it gives the military the ability to detect and hunt down short-range missile threats within seconds.
The system is the third tier in a multilayered “active” defensive system (as opposed to the “passive” defense of bomb shelters) that includes the Arrow missile for long-range ballistic missiles from Iran and the Patriot missile for medium-range Scuds, which Syria has.
But Israel’s government has mismanaged public expectations, say observers. The announcement last year of Iron Dome becoming operational featured footage of the final testing, with a play-by-play narration showing the interceptors ignoring the errant missiles and continuing on to collide with the real threats.
The publicity suggested that Israelis finally had a defense against the short-range rockets that stymied public life during wars with Hezbollah and Hamas. But in reality, Israel only has a few of the batteries and they had never been used in real time.
Israel’s media reported complaints from residents and mayors of cities in southern Israel who griped about why the army didn’t have more than just one battery being deployed, and why in Beersheba rather than Sderot or Ashkelon.
“There was a lot public pressure, and political pressure. It was over-hyped as a technological solution,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. “Iron Dome was presented as a solution, and no technology is going to have the successes that were expected in the public selling.”
Steinberg added that the military was also hesitant to roll out Iron Dome out of concern not to allow Hamas and Hezbollah to study its capabilities. There was also concern about how the public would handle a botched intercept.
“If the first few efforts were failures, there would be a lot of criticism, because Israelis don’t have the patience to understand how complex the issues are,” he said.
The increased security provided by the system is expected to boost public morale, relieving pressure on political leaders from knee-jerk responses.
One Iron Dome battery is enough to protect a medium-sized Israeli city from rockets with a range of up to 44 miles, but it is insufficient to shield Israel’s largest metropolitan areas such as Beersheba, Haifa and the suburbs around Tel Aviv.
The system is said to be able to make decisions within seconds whether or not missiles are headed toward strategic targets or population areas, so as not to waste interceptors on Kassams and Katyushas, which fall in uninhabited areas 80 percent of the time.
Despite the high expectations for Iron Dome, the muddled rollout this week reflects a long-held Israeli strategic paradigm that stresses attack capabilities rather than defense. That helps explain why Israel has historically hesitated to distribute gas masks or upgrade shelters and has played catch-up on development of “active” defense systems like the Iron Dome.
It also explains why Israel appears to be short on budgetary funding for the production of the Iron Dome systems. Though the Obama administration promised about $200 million, the money hasn’t been approved yet, said one expert.
“The defense element is secondary in the overall strategy — we say offense, offense, offense,” said Meir Elran, a director of the Homeland Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “This has always been the policy of the Ministry of Defense and the government of Israel. There is some willingness to invest in defensive capacity, but this is always being introduced slowly, reluctantly and under pressure.”
The government’s handling of Iron Dome “is a kind of a game, which is meant to say, ‘It’s a great system, but take into consideration, it’s not total protection and we need more,’” Elran said. “The politicians don’t have an answer to the issue. If you want to introduce an active defensive system, you have to invest a lot of money in it. … If you take a whole squadron of the F-35 [fighter planes] you can buy a whole defense for the entire country.”
One criticism that got more attention this week is the cost effectiveness of the system: can Israel afford a defensive solution that costs millions compared with the relatively crude rockets from Gaza that terrorize southern Israel? Proponents say that in assessing the cost effectiveness of the rocket, one must measure the cost of the rocket against the damage caused by the rocket attacks and the economic costs of the interruption of business as usual.
In the city of Ashkelon, probably one of the leading candidates for a missile-defense system, preparations are under way for a drill to simulate the response to a worst-case scenario like multiple rocket hits, said a municipal official. Municipal planners say the Iron Dome deployment is at best a partial defense.
Alan Marcus, the city’s director of strategic planning, said the municipality has “no expectation” of a foolproof defense.
“These missiles are extremely expensive,” he said, “and [the Palestinians] have homemade rockets in an unlimited supply. We hope [Iron Dome] will prevent some big ones. It isn’t designed to make an absolute shield.”