An expert's point of view on a current event.

Israel’s Iron Dome Won’t Last Forever

The recent war in Gaza exposes the limits of a key pillar of the country’s defense strategy.

By , the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.
The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts missiles.
The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system (left) intercepts rockets fired by Hamas toward southern Israel from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 14. ANAS BABA/AFP via Getty Images

In the recent war between Israel and Hamas, a cease-fire was achieved after 11 days of fighting. Both sides claimed victory, and both are expecting another round in the future. For Israel, a key to its success has been the Iron Dome air defense system, which uses radar and missiles to intercept rockets and other threats. This kept Israeli civilians relatively safe from the 4,340 rockets the Israel Defense Forces say were fired from Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is scheduled to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin today to seek up to $1 billion in emergency military aid to help replenish Iron Dome interceptors used in the war.

The recent conflict was different than previous wars in 2009, 2012, and 2014. It was also different than the two rounds of multiday fighting that took place in 2018 and 2019. What makes this round different is the unprecedented rocket fire Hamas unleashed and Israel’s diminishing returns when trying to counter Hamas.

Hamas and its backers in Iran think the recent war was a success. More than 60 rockets got through the Israeli air defense umbrella.

Hamas and its backers in Iran think the recent war was a success. More than 60 rockets got through the Israeli air defense umbrella, and they were able to use barrages of rockets to go after strategic infrastructure. Iran’s Press TV boasted on May 14 that Hamas had targeted Iron Dome batteries and Israeli airports. Hamas used massive barrages of rockets in a new way, apparently designed to test or attempt to overwhelm the Iron Dome systems.

In several barrages, up to 140 rockets were fired in several minutes, saturating the skies over Tel Aviv, Ashdod, and Ashkelon. I saw several of these massive barrages from a highway near the Gaza Strip. The white smoke streaming from Iron Dome interceptors carved up the sky like a Jackson Pollock painting. It was impressive, but it also may represent an operational limit for using this kind of air defense system.

The message after the war is Israel’s air defenses may one day not be enough to hinder volumes of rockets. Israel won’t admit this, but there is a strategic peak for this technology.

The Iron Dome is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year. Prior to the recent war in Gaza, the system had intercepted more than 2,500 rockets. Developed by Israel’s Defense Ministry and the Israel Missile Defense Organization to meet the rising threat of rocket fire from Hezbollah in the wake of the 2006 war and to deal with threats from Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, it has become the bedrock of Israel’s multilayered missile defense. Pioneered by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, one of Israel’s defense industry giants, it now receives financial support from the U.S. government, and two batteries have been supplied to the U.S. Army.

Israel says the Iron Dome system has a 90 percent interception success rate. The government doesn’t say how many rockets were intercepted, but on May 15, it said the system had intercepted approximately 1,000 out of 2,300 rockets launched. Compare that to May 2019 when 690 rockets were fired from Gaza during brief fighting and 240 rockets were intercepted.

But Iron Dome batteries are not endless and neither are their interceptors. The concept of the Iron Dome was to protect civilians and give Israeli politicians a chance to decide what to do without being forced into a ground invasion. If 1,000 rockets fell on Israeli cities without a defense system, Israeli tanks would have to roll into Gaza to stop the rocket fire, as they did in 2009.

This time, Israel went with the tactical military game plan it was used to: precision airstrikes using munitions, such as U.S.-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The international ramifications for Israel are a strategic setback, eroding deterrence against Iran’s proxies amid the image that Israel appeared to be lashing out, killing more civilians despite the precision of its attacks. Despite years of intelligence gathering on the sites that Israel attacked, the outcome illustrates how Israel’s defense systems, like the Iron Dome, and its military superiority have left it without a clear long-term strategy.

For many observers, these wars in Gaza may seem to blend together because the broad brush strokes are similar—but this one marks the beginning of a new era. Although the Iron Dome system was key to preventing rockets raining down on Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, and other Israeli cities that were targeted, it made clear there was no solution to the overall problem Hamas poses by controlling Gaza and firing rockets into Israel from the enclave.

This impasse creates a kind of Catch-22 standoff. Israel won’t lift a coastal blockade of Gaza unless Hamas leaves power and weapons smuggling stops. Countries like Iran continue to supply Hamas with weapons and know-how, expanding the rocket arsenal of Hamas. Hamas wants to use Gaza as a launchpad to claw its way back to relevance in the West Bank where the internationally recognized Palestinian National Authority is in charge. The Palestinian National Authority postponed elections, which haven’t been held for a decade and a half, in late April, perhaps contributing to Hamas’s timed calculations about the desire for a war to lift its flagging image. Israel helped provide Hamas with the casus belli it wanted when it sent police into Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan on May 9.

So what changed on May 10? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing political extinction, having failed four times to form a government and on the verge of losing it as opposition parties announce they are ready to form a coalition united by little beyond their dislike of Netanyahu. Hamas believes it transformed tensions in Jerusalem into a huge success through the recent campaign. It boasts it has hundreds of miles of underground tunnels and suffered minor damage. Meanwhile the Israeli military said it handed Hamas a setback by targeting 60 miles of underground tunnels and bunkers Hamas used to move munitions. It targeted two-dozen Hamas commanders as well.

The recent war with Hamas illustrated that although the Iron Dome worked as expected, it was not a magic wand to win a war or deter an enemy.

But abroad, Israel’s diplomats warn their embassies are understaffed and can’t cope with the fallout from the war. And Israel’s success over the last year at achieving peace with two Gulf states and Sudan may have suffered a setback. At the same time, Israel’s chief rival, Iran, said the “Zionist regime is collapsing.” Iran even sent a drone into northern Israel during the recent fighting, also testing Israel’s defenses.

Israel’s nightmare of a multifront war is around the corner, and the country’s adversaries know it. The Iron Dome is a tactical response to a real regional threat. Israel expects Hezbollah to fire 2,000 rockets a day in the next war. Israel has drilled to strike up to 3,000 targets a day in a future conflict, and it has increased the capabilities of its multilayered air defense systems for such a scenario.

The recent war with Hamas illustrated that although the Iron Dome worked as expected, it was not a magic wand to win a war or deter an enemy, and Israel’s precision airstrike doctrine to confront threats still left dozens of civilians dead in Gaza. That toll was not acceptable to many in the international community, and pressure was put on Israel to stop the fighting.

Israel’s Iron Dome has kept the country out of most major ground wars in the last decade. Now it may have reached a strategic peak, which means Israel’s top brass need a new game plan.

Seth J. Frantzman is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East. He has covered the Middle East for the Jerusalem Post, Defense News, and other publications. Twitter: @sfrantzman