Strategic Analysis: Impact of Israel’s anti-missile capability on grand strategy

During last week’s Operation Defensive Pillar,  Israelis and the world at large witnessed the unprecedented success of the Iron Dome air defense system. After all was said and done, Iron Dome operators successfully shot down more than 87 percent of incoming Grad, Katyusha, and Qassam rockets over Israeli urban centers, potentially saving countless lives.

An Iron Dome anti-rocket battery.

However, this new capability may cost Israel and its grand strategy for achieving a lasting peace with defensible borders in the long term. Ultimately, the Iron Dome’s success may have limited the Jewish State’s ability to act against terrorist groups, inciting such groups to execute more innovative methods of attack, thus making a sequel for operation Pillar of Defense ever more imminent.

After witnessing the tactical, operational, and strategic advantages the Iron Dome provided during eight days of heavy rocket fire, the debate over how the system affects Israel’s grand strategy continues nevertheless.

One of the more compelling arguments against wide scale use of the Iron Dome is rooted in the nature of the war that is fought between Israel and Palestinian Arab terrorists. Israel, like many Western countries, fights post-heroic warfare, characterized by the disinclination to make sacrifices, or to endanger. On the other hand, the actions of the terrorists can be differentiated as so called ‘heroic’ warfare in that sense, due to the high level willingness to target civilian population and yes, even to die for their cause.

By largely neutralizing the threat posed by rocket fire on civilians, the Iron Dome thus prevented Israeli decision-makers from engaging in a diplomatically and politically costly ground operation, as the needed justification for such action has mitigated along with the risk posed by rockets slamming into Israeli urban centers.

That said, the apparent overall success of the Iron Dome has in fact also counterproductive effects. In low-intensity conflicts between a state and non-state actor, victory is determined mostly by perceptions as opposed to military gains.  By utilizing the Iron Dome, Israel has significantly lowered the potential for casualties on its side, while continuing to inflict casualties on the other side. As a result, and in an attempt to display themselves as victors in the new environment created by the Iron Dome, Hamas terrorists intensified both the rate and range with which they fired missiles.

This is also likely to continue in the future, as promised shortly after the cease fire enacted on November 21 by a top terrorist leader who said that next time they will have longer range rockets with bigger warheads.

Iron Dome’s success also bore clear negative implications in the international arena, highlighted by the immense international pressure against a ground operation, yet coupled with support for Israel’s right to defend itself.  In the next round of hostilities,  Israel will have even more difficulty garnering international support for operations against terrorists from both the air, and on ground than it had in the latest operation.

If this new environment is to persist, world leaders will likely have trouble seeing Israel’s justification for wide-scale operations with an extremely low casualty rate among the Israeli citizenry, and the high civilian cost on the other side.

These same arguments over the justification of wide-scale operations may also be debated within Israel’s domestic political sphere. Before the deployment of the Iron Dome, Israel’s lack of casualties created a status quo in which as long as casualties remained low, Israel’s reaction towards militant aggression would remain very limited – usually consisting of aerial bombings, or artillery shelling of missile launch sites.

The Iron Dome increased the already high threshold in place, thus making only more severe acts punishable and further desensitizing the status quo. Such a scenario in fact increased the frustrations levels amongst Israeli citizens. If rocket attacks on Tel Aviv were previously perceived as a red line,  the Israeli government’s seemingly weak response after this prophecy was realized when militants fired at least ten rockets towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,  ultimately exposing israel’s weakness as it failed to respond in a manner suitable for every country that has both its political and financial capitals targeted.

Yet, despite the disadvantages derived from utilizing the Iron Dome, Israel will continue to build and develop the Iron Dome and other missile defense systems, as  there is one prominent advantage that trumps all – the essence of time. In crisis management there is no commodity more valuable than the time to make informed and calculated decisions allowing decision makers to effectively consider all options and alternatives.

The Iron Dome, at least in the short term, has bought Israeli leaders significant amounts of this invaluable commodity, one that will likely increase the potential and ability to save lives.

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