Israel 2012 vs. London 1944

What the buzz bomb can tell us about Iron Dome.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Rockets raining down on cities. Missile defenses valiantly trying to intercept them. Air strikes to knock out missile sites.

Gaza 2012? No, London 1944. It was nearly 70 years ago when the first rocket campaign against cities began, as German V-1 "buzz bombs" (so named for the sound of their engines) rained down on England.

The V-1 was a guided rocket (actually more a drone), but with a guidance system so primitive that only about half of those fired could be expected to land within eight miles of their target. That accuracy rate seems comparable to Hamas’ collection of homemade projectiles and Iranian-supplied Fajr-5 rockets, which are landing in southern Israel — as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — seemingly at random.

Like the Israelis with their Iron Dome anti-missile missiles, the British created an elaborate air defense system of fighters (that actually knocked down the bombs by ramming them), barrage balloons, and massed anti-aircraft guns in southern England that destroyed nearly three-quarters of the 400-mile-per-hour V-1s. (It was the V-2 missiles arcing in on a suborbital trajectory that were unstoppable.) That seems to be about the same rate at which Iron Dome is hitting the targets it tries to shoot down.

Nevertheless, British defenses could not intercept every V-1. Like the Israel Defense Forces, which must use $50,000 missiles to stop cheap homemade Hamas rockets, the Royal Air Force had to create massive and expensive defenses to stop the V-1s. And like Israeli civilians, the British public had to live with the expectation that a bomb could land at any moment.

I gained a sense of how hard it is to stop a rocket offensive by playing a simple board game. "War with a Vengeance," published last year by Against the Odds magazine and designer Paul Rohrbaugh, is a solitaire game of the German V-1 onslaught, with the human player controlling the British defenses while the game controls the buzz bombs. It is a simple game, with the rules printed on a 17 x 22-inch map depicting the northern French and southern English coasts, which are connected by rows of "flight path boxes" that show potential V-1 trajectories.

Most of the 100 cardboard pieces are of buzz bombs, which award the Germans victory points for each V-1 that lands on one of four British target areas (with triple points awarded for hitting London). The British have a limited number of Royal Air Force fighters, anti-aircraft batteries on land and at sea, and barrage balloons to stop them. The problem is that the British can never be sure where to allocate their defenses, because they don’t know where the rockets will land. Dice are rolled each turn to determine how many V-1s are launched by each of the five German launch sites in France. More dice are rolled for each V-1 in flight to determine the exact flight path that it takes (or whether it crashes on the way). That path can randomly change as the rocket streaks over the English Channel, so it’s not clear which target will be hit almost until the buzz bomb strikes. Thus the British have the choice of concentrating their defenses around London at the expense of the rest of southern England, or spreading their defenses thinly. They can also divert bombers from supporting the Normandy invasion to striking V-1 sites, but the damage is only temporary. In the end, stopping the buzz bomb onslaught is as much guesswork as strategy.

Iron Dome is supposed to be better, with computers that can discern which rockets will land on populated areas and prioritize them for intercept. Yet Israeli cities are being struck and civilians killed, which suggests that either Iron Dome is being saturated or that it can’t always predict where a rocket will land.

The irony is that while smart bombs are supposed to be the pinnacle of warfare, it’s the dumb bombs that are the real pains. If the V-1s or Hamas rockets were precision-guided weapons, the British and Israelis could guess their enemies’ likely targets and concentrate their defenses accordingly. But when a rocket has an equal chance of striking an empty field or an apartment building, it is difficult to know which can be ignored and which must be destroyed. Low-tech is low-tech, but it is an effective way to wage warfare.

 Twitter: @mipeck1

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