When missile defense was first muted at the height of the Cold War, the world was dominated by the two nuclear superpowers stocking enough nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles to wreak Armageddon on each other (and on the rest of humanity, too).
In the absence of political accommodation, the precarious global stability relied on the sheer terror of mutual assured destruction. Many observers feared that the introduction of strategic defense would create an illusion of a winnable nuclear war, thus upsetting the fragile stability and nudging the world toward a nuclear holocaust.
While strategists warned against destabilization, scientific opposition to missile defense focused on technical viability. Obviously, if missile defense doesn’t do the job, there is no point in deploying it and the strategic dilemma goes away.
Taking their cue from the immature technologies of the time, the scientists argued that hitting a bullet with a bullet was nigh impossible, and even if possible, easily frustrated by simple and cheap countermeasures. A rich scientific literature dedicated to missile defense busting sprang up, complete with exhaustive explanations of why missile defense is technically unviable and easily beaten.
Time passed and the world transitioned from the Cold War into the present era of regional conflicts and international terror. The dilemma of strategic defense versus global nuclear deterrence melted away. Technology made quantum leaps from desktops to tablets, from radio navigation to GPS, from dial phones to smartphones. Modern missile defense systems based on cutting-edge technologies are showing their mettle on test ranges and battlefields. Yet some of the old Cold Warriors have kept alive the fight to prove missile defense cannot work.
The latest example is Israel’s Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. Deployed in southern Israel since April 2011, it has already brought a handsome return on investment in saved lives and property. Its most spectacular performance to date was in November, when in the course of eight days of fighting, it downed hundreds of rockets about to hit Israel’s population centers, achieving a success rate of more than 80 percent of engaged rockets.
Compared with the 2006 Lebanon war, when an undefended Israel lay exposed to Hezbollah’s rockets, Iron Dome was a game changer, helping to minimize losses and damage and preventing further escalation.
Yet the notion that missile defense actually works has apparently irked some compulsive missile defense busters. Ted Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a persistent critic of missile defense on technical grounds, has circulated a preliminary report in which he concludes, albeit on the basis of admittedly incomplete data, that Iron Dome performed poorly, destroying no more than 5 percent to 10 percent of engaged rockets.
This astounding conclusion, accompanied by an explicit accusation of extended deception by Israel, is based on Postol’s own analysis of public domain images and video footage, as well as a series of assumptions he makes about Iron Dome’s performance.
One might ask: If only 5 percent to 10 percent of the engaged rockets were destroyed, where did the rest vanish to? In a rare case of agreement, Israel and Hamas released almost identical figures for the number of rockets fired from Gaza during the November fighting; between 1,500 and 1,600. According to Israeli sources, about 480 of them were about to hit within population centers. If no more than 10 percent of them were destroyed by Iron Dome, where did the rest of them — some 430 rockets — go?
Most of them did not hit the ground inside their intended targets, at least not in one piece. Postol’s preliminary report remains silent on this paradox.
So how did Postol reach such a radical conclusion? He made a series of assumptions on Iron Dome performance, most of them very wrong, and examined public domain video clips shot from smartphones and media cameras that showed the wind-sheared smoke trails of Iron Dome interceptors, but in which the engaged rockets remained invisible. From this half-blind sky picture, he guessed interception geometries that, when matched with his own gross underestimation of Iron Dome performance, yielded an intuitive estimate of a 5 percent to 10 percent success rate.
In reality, the success rate exceeded 80 percent, and the hundreds of Postol’s missing rockets were blasted in midair by Iron Dome. Since its first deployment in battle in April 2011, Iron Dome design teams have meticulously investigated every engagement, whether successful or not, re-creating the battle with the aid of a detailed sky picture obtained from Israeli detection systems.
The November engagements were played, replayed and cross-referenced with ground maps of impacts from warheads and debris. The results unequivocally support Israel’s published success rate. Postol’s estimates are simply wrong.
It is regrettable that obsolete Cold War thinking still energizes the obsessive busting of missile defense, which for Israel is an essential lifesaving measure against terrorist rocket attacks on civilian populations. Anyone who purports to support Israel’s right of self-defense should encourage its development and deployment rather than the other way around.
By Uzi Rubin, president of the Rubincon consulting firm and founder of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization. He was not involved in the Iron Dome program.