I cannot tell if what is playing out the skies above Gaza and Southern Israel right now seems more like it is out of a dystopian science fiction novel or the Bible. Regardless, these videos of Hamas and affiliated militia groups’ rockets climbing their way into Israel territory, while Israeli Iron Dome Tamir interceptors arch their way into the air to pummel them, is both terrifying an somehow visually stunning at the same time. The only way I can sum up the sight of this real world deadly version of the arcade game Asteroids is “creepy.” The fact that both sides inability to solve their differences, even on the most superficial level, has led to continuous indiscriminate rocket barrages on innocent civilians and the fielding of an incredibly elaborate modern marvel of super-defense technology whose missiles literally costs 150 times more to expend than the threat they are designed to counter is mind-blowing. None-the-less, Iron Dome is an awe-inspiring piece of technology, a great hallmark of man’s ingenuity, albeit one that was born out of the absolute darkest of necessities.
It will be interesting to see what the final statistics look like concerning Iron Dome’s overall performance during this conflict. At this time the IDF is claiming that 300 rockets, out of over 1000 fired so far in the conflict, have been engaged by Iron dome, of which 85% have been successfully intercepted. Keep in mind that Iron Dome only engages targets that are deemed a threat to populated areas and are within its engagement envelope. The statistics reported by the IDF would also correlate with the stated performance over the short history of the weapon system, although these statistics can be skewed for both technical and even political reasons as we learned of the MIM-104 Patriot’s performance during the first Gulf War. Still, just by looking at the incredible videos posted below, and many other accounts, the claim of an 80+% kill rate seems plausible.
Blowing through hundreds of rounds of missiles that cost as much as a loaded Mercedes SUV each may not be the best way of countering the over-border rocket threat to Israel. Northrop Grumman is already offering a laser based system, called “Skyguard” that is proposed to provide higher kill probability performance and even faster engagement capability, all at around $1000 a shot. The Skyguard concept also has the capability to shoot down surface to air missiles at airports, allowing even for dual capabilities (counter rockets and artillery and shoulder fired surface to air missiles) in places like Israel where both threats persist. The system itself would, like Iron Dome, cost hundreds of millions of dollars field and time to fully develop, although Northrop Grumman says it could be fielded in a limited form in under two years. At the time Israel says it is sticking with improving Iron Dome, not that they could really afford another systems such as Skyguard even if they wanted it. Like its Iron Dome cousin, the vast majority of funding for Skyguard would have to come from the United States. Regardless, speed of light counter rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) countermeasure technology is clearly the future of this segment of defense weaponry, and if the threat persists the technology will eventually make its way into the IDF’s arsenal.
Israel’s offensive, dubbed “Security Pillar,” is clearly aimed at reducing the threat posed by contraband rockets fired out of the Gaza Strip as well as “removing” key Hamas and affiliated militant groups’ lieutenants from the chain of command. This operation may have actually begun some weeks ago with the strike on a series of shipping containers stored in the center of a munitions plant in Khartoum, Sudan, thought to house Iranian provided longer-range Fajr-5 rocket components destined for Gaza. As the rockets continue to fly and the damage and body count rises it seems that both sides are on the brink of a protracted conflict should Israel begin a ground assault on Gaza. It is unclear exactly what such an escalation would accomplish on a short-term basis aside from giving the IDF the ability to hit targets that are deemed of too high a risk to strike from the air when it comes to innocent causalities. Known rocket launching sites are monitored regularly and fired upon after a launch occurs, although it is said the Hamas rocketeers have vastly improved their abilities to launch such rockets clandestinely. There are reports of launch sites buried in desolate and urban areas, where the rockets are pre-staged and fired remotely. A ground offensive may be effective at finding some of these sites and neutralizing them but it would seem that once they are destroyed the area would have to be occupied to ensure that such emplacements are not simply rebuilt. Seeing as the upper echelon of Hamas’s rocket capability is now able to reach Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, it may be the IDF’s priority to go specifically after this longer-range capability and neutralize it at all costs. This could include special forces raids on suspected rocket assembly facilities and smuggling routes. It is clear that having rockets rain down periodically on Israel’s economic center and capital would be incredibly crippling and if these larger, more advanced rocket systems continue to proliferate unchecked, nowhere in the country would be safe from their reach.
One could also look at an Israeli ground offensive as a way to break what is a siege of sorts on both sides at this time, a game of whose projectile stockpiles can last the longest. It is thought that Hamas has between 9,000 and 13,000 rockets on hand. Surely Israeli airstrikes have erased some of that inventory as over 1,000 have been shot in just the last week. So Hamas’s stockpiles could be comparatively famished but in no way have they been neutralized. Seeing as Iron Dome has shot at a third of the rockets fired from Gaza so far, if you extrapolate that out to half of Hamas’s inventory, roughly 5,000 rockets, that would mean that if things continue at their current rate Israel will have to field some 1500 Tamir interceptors to keep Iron Dome in action. Does Israel even have that many missiles available? So this could become a game of techno-siege if the conflict does not progress or digress, with both sides waiting to see who will deplete their projectile stockpiles first, one offensive (Hamas) and the other defensive (Isreal) in nature of-course. With Iron Dome out of action Hamas could claim an incredible victory over Israel’s military might, beating their magic shield for all the world to see, rockets once again falling on innocents without defense. On the other hand, if Israel won the siege, Hamas would have blown through almost their entire rocket stockpile, thus temporarily eliminating the threat going forward, allowing Israel to claim victory via completing its primary objective during this operation.
If this conflict morphs into a bloody urban battle through the streets of Gaza than the region may be plunged into wider conflict, with tensions already building in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and even Jordan over this operation. With a much more formidable Hezbollah in Lebanon than what Israel faced about a half decade ago and a desperate Assad regime in Syria, that needs anything to distract the world from their own brutal war and to galvanize their politically fractured populace, a second front could erupt on Israel’s northern border. Additionally, both players can be seen as proxies of Iran to some degree, which would love to keep Israel bogged down in conflict while it continues to develop its nuclear weapons program unmolested. On Israel’s southern border with Egypt, the stability of the Mubarak days are long gone. Now a the Muslim Brotherhood, who is closely affiliated with Hamas, runs the show and thus Israel’s increasingly fragile peace treaty with Egypt hangs perilously in the balance. Even Jordan to Israel’s east is doing what it can to ebb the currents of the Arab Spring, with anti-Israeli sentiment on the rise. In other words, if Israel plays its hand in too heavy of a fashion they may find themselves surrounded once again by actively hostile neighbors. Would such a dangerous geo-political situation be a worthwhile trade for temporarily lessening Hamas’s ability to lob rockets at Israeli population centers? I will let you judge that question for yourself…
On the aerial side of this campaign, it appears that the vast majority of the IDF/AF’s arsenal is participating in this operation, with special mention being made of F-15s and drones. On the drone side of the equation, the IDF released the video posted below depicting their surgical strike that killed the leader of Hamas’s military arm, Ahmed Jabri. Although news has reported this as a normal airstrike, I highly doubt it. This video shows a target being hit with absolute laser like accuracy by a munition with a very small yield, all while Jabri’s vehicle was moving through dense urban terrain and amongst tall structures. If this was an aerial strike than it was most likely carried out via a drone carrying a micro-munition of the sub 50lb class, not a Hellfire, TOW, or a laser guided bomb dropped by a fixed wing fighter aircraft. These munitions are actively being developed in the US to arm light drones and Israel has been rumored to have had this technology for some time. Alternatively this attack looks very much like a car bomb.
At the end of the day, Iron Dome, air strikes and ground invasions are all less than ideal measures that attempt to effect a problem that can only truly be solved politically. I believe that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians just want to live in safety while being able to take care of their families. Sadly, as the missiles fly and the jets scream into the sky both sides will only become more polarized towards one another. A long-lasting peace in that troubled but ancient land may be out of grasp at the present moment, but the current situation is absolutely appalling. Let’s hope that both sides (yes it takes TWO PARTIES to negotiate a deal guys!) can somehow break through to the realization that the status quo is miserable and unsustainable. But even if Hamas did choose to stop the rocket barrages in exchange for certain conditions, could they actually enforce such a de-escalation, or would their own militant wing fracture and go rogue beneath them?
So many questions, so few answers. I think one thing is clear though at this point in the conflict: Those folks who are undoubtedly working incredibly hard keeping their Iron Dome batteries at peak performance will most likely be viewed in a similar light as the pilots that repulsed the Nazi onslaught during the battle of Britain. They, the US tax payer, and the defense industry have truly provided a shield, although still an imperfect one, over much of the most highly threatened territory in Israel, and as a result of doing so, lives are undoubtedly being saved. It is not that often that we get to see military hardware forever change the way certain aspects of conflicts are fought, but we may just be witnessing one of those moments now as an Israel newly equipped with Iron Dome technology faces a full frontal sustained rocket assault for the first time…
Incredible footage of Iron Dome engaging multiple targets simultaneously as Hamas rocketeers attempt to overwhelm the still adolescent countermeasure system: