Questions raised about Iron Dome success
1991 Gulf War
In the months leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, the United States rushed Patriot anti-missile systems to Israel. The purpose for the defensive deployment was to give Israel the ability to defend itself against SCUD missiles which Saddam Hussein said he would launch at Israel if war broke out.
The United States mobilized an impressive international coalition against Iraq, and that coalition included several Arab countries. It would have been very difficult to keep these countries in the anti-Iraq coalition if Israel, for its own reasons, were to attack Iraq, too.
The Patriot missile were meant to allow Israel the ability to defend itself from Iraqi missiles without attacking Iraq.
During the war, Iraq launched more the forty SCUD missiles at Israel. Some of them landed in urban areas, doing some damage but killing no one. After the war, Raytheon, the maker of the Patriot, claimed that the reason for the relatively little damage done by the SCUDs was the effective interception of most of them by the Patriot missiles. The U.S. and Israeli governments supported this claim.
Postol, however, analyzed the Patriot’s performance and concluded that claims made on behalf of the system were vastly exaggerated: he was able to prove that no interceptions occurred, and that not even one SCUD missile was hit by a Patriot missile.
The BBC reports that Postol’s criticism of the Iron Dome relies on the nature of the warhead carried by the interceptor missile and the observed trajectories of the launches he has studied.
Postol was not given access to official videos of the Israeli military, but instead relied on hundreds of videos of Iron Dome launches and supposed interceptions which were taken by both journalists and Israeli citizens living in the areas attacked by Hamas.
Postol says that the only way Iron Dome can guarantee the destruction of the warhead of an incoming rocket is to hit it head on.
“If the interceptor is flying a crossing or diving trajectory compared to that of the incoming rocket,” he told the BBC, “then you are not going to destroy the warhead. Even hitting the incoming warhead side-on will probably not have sufficient energy to detonate it,” he argues.
Postol says that he cannot categorically say what was the performance of Iron Dome during the November operation, but that “all the available evidence unambiguously indicates a drastically lower level of performance than the 84 percent claimed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).”
His view is that the successful hit rate on incoming warheads could be as low as 5-10 percent.
Postol also says that if the IDF wants to make a more convincing case for its claim that Iron Dome was 84 percent successful, than it should provide the official videos and other data to back up this claim.
Postol is quick to admit that, politically, the Israeli leadership may have been wise to ascribe such a high rate of success to Iron Dome: it relived some of the pressure from a besieged population to invade Gaza, an invasion which would have had “an enormous cost to both sides.”
“Continuing such a deception,” he argues, “can only result in the misappropriation of limited defense assets”.
Postol adds that “as an American supporter of Israel’s right to self-defense”, he does not feel comfortable seeing the United States spend money on a weapon system “that hardly works” (Iron Dome is an Israeli design, but it was developed and built largely with American funds).
A spokesman for Israel’s ministry of defense responded to Postol’s critique by telling the BBC that the IDF strongly rejected the “unsubstantiated study published recently regarding the performance of Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ system.”
“The baseless claims do not in any way reflect the performance of ‘Iron Dome’ in the last year and a half, since it has been put into operational service.”
“The population of the center and south of Israel,” the spokesman added, “experienced — first hand — the system’s achievements during Operation ‘Pillar of Defense’, which proved itself with an interception rate of over 80 percent.”
“The security establishment is more than content with the system’s impressive results and will continue to acquire more ‘Iron Dome’ batteries,” he added, concluding that, in short, “the system saves lives.”
Haaretz reports that two other scientists, working independently of each other and of Postol, studied the performance of Iron Dome and reached conclusions similar to that of Postol. One of them is Mordechai Shefer, who used to work for Rafael, the other is identified only by his Initial, D’, who used to work for Raytheon.