Israel’s Iron Maginot Line System

August 4, 2014

Is Israel’s Iron Dome a success or a failure? That depends on who you ask and on what level of war you look at. Its tactical success is unclear at this point, but the scale of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge suggests that it is a strategic failure. A more nuanced answer may also include the fact that it represents a squandered opportunity for political progress.

To many people, the Iron Dome system appears to be a modern miracle. Israeli officials tout the system as having “very, very high” success rate in intercepting the numerous rockets launched from Gaza, allegedly something in the range of 90%. The Washington Post reports that “it has allowed residents across the south [of Israel] to carry on with a measure of normality,” and quotes an Israeli as saying, “I can’t even explain with words how great it is…Now I can go out. I still get scared, but not like before.” There is even worry that Israeli citizens are too complacent now for their own physical good. Clearly, Iron Dome has had a major calming effect on the Israeli population.

On the other hand, there have been claims that it does not actually perform as advertised. John Mecklin recently wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that Iron Dome is a “public relations weapon” but a technical failure. He maintains that when studied afterwards its performance always turns out to be less impressive than originally claimed. To further his argument he cites estimates from MIT scientist Ted Postol, a well-known missile defense skeptic, who states that Iron Dome may only be intercepting 5% or less of the rockets it fires at.

From one perspective, whether or not Mecklin and Postol are correct is irrelevant. Consider some history. As I wrote last year, during Operation DESERT STORM, the United States deployed Patriot missile systems to Israel to protect it against Iraqi ballistic missiles.  After the war, the U.S. military claimed 50% effectiveness for the Patriot system.  The very same Ted Postol challenged these numbers and argued that the real effectiveness was close to 0%.  Eventually, the Defense Department lowered its estimates to 40%.  Neither figure is very impressive, tactically speaking. However, in a strategic sense, the Patriots worked perfectly. They had a political impact by the sole virtue of their presence (combined with a vigorous but even less technically successful Scud hunt in western Iraq): they kept Israel’s Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak from striking Iraq and thereby probably saved the anti-Saddam coalition.

2012 brought a similar story. In November of that year, Hamas fired more than 2200 rockets at Israel. The new Iron Dome system swung into action. Israeli defense officials claimed some 80% effectiveness at that time. Later, an engineer at Tesla Laboratories in the United States concluded that the system succeeded only 30-40% of the time.  Postol weighed in saying that Iron Dome’s successful interception rate had actually only been somewhere between zero and 10%.  Nevertheless, whatever the technical truth, the defenses mostly succeeded on a political level. The Israeli air campaign against Hamas targets in Gaza lasted only eight days and Israel saw no compelling need for a ground invasion.

This time Iron Dome appears to be performing as well or better than in 2012 at the technical level (though whether that success rate is high or low is unclear), yet it is failing politically and strategically. This is evidenced by the extent of Israel’s offensive operations against Gaza. Israeli forces reportedly hit more targets in the first day and a half of the present bombing campaign than it did in the whole eight day bombing campaign in 2012. As I write this, the bombardment continues on both sides and Israeli troops have been in Gaza for just over two weeks. The war has already gone on three times longer than it did in 2012 and casualties on both sides are far higher than they were in that year.

Why the difference between 2012 and 2014? Brent Sterling’s 2009 book, Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors? What History Teaches Us about Strategic Barriers and International Security, may help us find the answer to that question. He writes that we must consider both the internal and external effects of strategic barriers. The Maginot Line is one of several examples he analyzes. As we all know, France built the nearly impregnable Maginot Line during the inter-war years along the Franco-German border. Sterling notes that the French military understood that the line could be circumvented, but that its very existence nevertheless contributed to a defensive orientation and encouraged “false optimism” among the French population, many of whom incorrectly believed that the line covered the entire northern border. As for the external effects of the Maginot Line, German planners were affected to the extent that they realized that they certainly should not throw the Wehrmacht against it. Accordingly, when Germany decided to invade France in 1940, it went through the Benelux countries, neatly avoiding the entire problem. Rather amusingly, Sterling quotes an Army Corps of Engineers study as saying that “a fixed and static barrier system can be viewed as a puzzle contrived for the prospective attacker to solve.”

More broadly, Sterling finds that the governments that build strategic barriers such as Iron Dome often intend to buy time. This they hope to do by shifting the military balance of power and by creating a sense of safety among their population.

The parallel to today’s war is easy to see. Israel definitely bought time and in addition it created a possibly excessive sense of safety among Israelis. The external entity, Hamas in this case, was also affected though not deterred by what happened in 2012. Rather it solved the puzzle and adjusted to the Iron Dome strategic barrier by preparing to assault Israel along a completely different axis: underground. Indeed, it dug a remarkable set of “terror tunnels” into Israel, an undertaking that may have cost up to 40% of its budget. Already some observers are calling the existence of the tunnels, or at least their extent, an intelligence failure on the part of Israel, though at this point it is unclear, at least from the outside, that that is true.

By building these tunnels, Hamas got one step ahead of Israel and largely erased the strategic advantage of Iron Dome by forcing a far bloodier war than took place in 2012, thereby inflicting greater human, military, and political costs on Israel.

The tragedy is that Israel did not succeed in politically capitalizing on the time that it had bought with the stunning success of the Iron Dome system in 2012. Sterling notes that this has been a common failure historically, often engendered by an excessive perception of reduced threat. In fact, he calls strategic barriers a “wasting asset,” one whose value decreases over time. The logic of this suggests that right after Iron Dome performed so apparently spectacularly in 2012, Israel should have pushed hard to settle the underlying Israeli-Palestinian disputes. This did not happen.

Obviously, the depressing history of the Israel-Palestine problem suggests that such an effort probably would have failed. On the other hand, it just might have succeeded, and certainly the situation would not be any worse now had Israel given it a try.

 

Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.

 

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces