Still, regardless of what Iron Dome’s recent success rate, as well as what the total number of intercepts might be, the IDF has already admitted that it has not been able to bring down all of the incoming rockets flying at Israel from Gaza. There have also been reports of these defense systems being overwhelmed by the volume of these recent attacks, rather than this being a case of the IDF just ignoring some of the rockets, which are all unguided, that might appear headed toward areas where they are assessed to present little to no threat.
Hamas and PIJ both seem to have been stockpiling rockets, at least in part, with an eye toward being able to carry out these kinds of saturation attacks to get around the defensive shield Iron Dome provides. Both groups receive support from Iran, as well as Syria, which has included smuggled shipments of artillery rockets. Palestinian militants, with outside support, have also been able to locally fabricate increasingly longer-range rockets within Gaza, as well.
There are also reports that rockets are being fired from Gaza at very low trajectories, rather than along more typical higher-angle ballistic ones. This could be another way of at least attempting to circumvent Israeli defenses.
It’s also important to note that a relatively intact seeker section from a Tamir interceptor was recovered in Gaza in November 2019. However, there are no clear indications one way or another that Palestinian militants have been able to operationalize any information they, or their benefactors in Iran, may have been able to glean about Iron Dome’s capabilities and limitations, as a result.
No matter what combination tactics Palestinian militant groups may be employing, Iron Dome also faces more basic capacity and logistical limitations when faced with multiple barrages involving dozens, or even hundreds of rockets, carried out in relatively short time frames. It’s not clear how many Iron Dome batteries Israel has in service, in total, but, as of 2014, the plan was to eventually field at least 15 complete systems.
If a single Iron Dome battery has three or four launch units loaded with 20 interceptors, that means it only has between 60 and 80 Tamirs ready to fire at any one time. With 15 batteries each with four fully-loaded launch units, the total number of interceptors available would be 1,200. While the batteries are no doubt positioned to provide some overlapping zones of protection, no single one is anywhere capable of being able to respond to rocket attacks in all the areas that the entire defensive network covers. In other words, the number of interceptors at the ready during a localized attack is probably limited to the a single battery or a small number of the total batteries deployed.
In addition, it is known that the IDF’s concept of operations, at least in some cases, though perhaps not when responding to saturation attacks, involves firing two Tamirs at a single target to increase the likelihood of a successful intercept. The launchers themselves are designed to be relatively fast to reload, with the interceptors preloaded into arrays of launch canisters, but the process is not instantaneous, especially during a barrage where the battery itself is being targeted.
So, it’s not at all hard to see how repeated high-volume attacks in a particular area could overwhelm Iron Dome batteries. Clearly that reality is not lost on those prosecuting these attacks.
There is also the matter of the cost differential, especially if saturation attacks persist, as they have in this recent fighting, which can begin to drain existing stocks of Tamir interceptors and prompt the need to replenish them. The exact unit cost of the current generation Tamir interceptor is unclear, with past reports putting that price tag at between $40,000 and $100,000. Even at $100,000, they are very low cost when compared to other anti-missile interceptors and other surface-to-air missiles.
At the same time, even at that lower price point, if Israel has fired more than 200 of them in the past few days, that is more than $8 million worth of Tamirs. By that same calculation, 1,000 successful intercepts would mean firing off missiles worth a total of $40 million.
During the last major conflict between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza in 2014, Israeli received approximately $225 million in emergency aid from the United States specifically to boost its Tamir stockpiles. That conflict lasted around seven weeks, during which the Palestinians fired at least 4,564 rocket and mortar projectiles, according to the IDF.
While we don’t know the exact cost of the different types of rockets Hamas and PIJ have been firing at Israel, they are unguided weapons and are almost certainly orders of magnitude cheaper than Tamir interceptors. Past reports have said that Hamas’ older, lower-end Qassam rockets have cost between just $500 and $600 to make, each.
The cost disparity of employing Iron Dome against these lower-end threats is underscored by the fact that, for years, Iran’s annual total support for Palestinian groups in Gaza, not just including military assistance, was valued at an estimated $100 million. There were reports in 2019 that authorities in Tehran had bumped that up to $30 million a month, which, if true, would have been a massive increase in funding, in exchange for intelligence regarding Israeli missile capabilities. Those reports came months before the Tamir seeker section was recovered in Gaza in November of that year.
There are of course other cost considerations to take into account. Each rocket that an Iron Dome battery successfully intercepts prevents potential loss of life and property damage within Israel. The 2014 Gaza War led to nearly $40 million in insurance claims over damage from rockets and mortar rounds and around $1 billion in estimated indirect economic losses. With all this in mind, it is hard to argue against Iron Dome on cost grounds. It has been a highly effective and life-saving system, so far.
Iron Dome’s capabilities and its costs notwithstanding, it’s important to note that no missile or rocket defense system is perfect. Though they offer added layers of defense, they can only also present clear incentives to opponents to simply field more weapons to try to overwhelm them. This reality applies to trying to protect against threats ranging from lower-end unguided rockets to intercontinental ballistic missiles. I think it is safe to say we are seeing this strategy play out in Israel right now, at least to some degree.
No matter what, at least based on the current cycle of rocket attacks and Israeli retaliation, it seems very possible that the total number of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza in this new conflict will approach or exceed the figure from the war in 2014, and do so in a far more compressed timeframe. With that in mind, it seems equally likely that this current fighting will provide an array of new data, which will be of interest to Israel and its opponents, as well as other purchasers and prospective purchasers of the system, on the overall utility of Iron Dome against continuous larger-scale attacks.
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