Why is Obama moving to fund Israel’s Iron Dome project?

US President Barack Obama asked Congress to authorize $205 million to support Israel’s Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system. (Pete Souza/White House Photo)

On 16 July 2010, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro laid out the Obama Administration’s policy on strategic cooperation between the US and Israel in a speech at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. Shapiro, referring to the “rocket threats from Hizballah and Hamas” that represent a “daily concern for ordinary Israelis living in border towns such as Sderot,” noted that earlier this year, President Obama “asked Congress to authorize $205 million to support the production of an Israeli-developed short range rocket defense system called Iron Dome.”

If approved, these funds would be “above and beyond the $3 billion in Foreign Military Financing that the Administration requested for Israel” for 2011 (“The Obama Administration’s Approach to US-Israel Security Cooperation: Preserving Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge”). The result of this request has been H.R. 5327 which on 20 May passed the US House of Representatives by a 410-4 vote, with 16 abstentions. The Senate version, S. 3451, is still awaiting a vote by the Foreign Relations Committee.

Despite Shapiro’s assertion that the US is “confident that Iron Dome will provide improved defense for the people of Israel,” Yossi Melman, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, recently noted that “the system has difficulty intercepting mortar shells and Qassams [flat route weapons] whose range is 4.5 kilometers or less” (“Iron Dome may not be as effective as the IDF thinks,” 22 July 2010). This distinction is important as the most recent tests of Iron Dome, declared to be a success by military personnel, were not conducted at angles and distances from which Qassam and Grad rockets are typically fired.

Melman quotes a former military aeronautics engineer as saying, “Five rockets were fired [three grads and two Qassams]. That’s not exactly a shower of grads. Of the five, two were expected to hit on target, and they were successfully intercepted. None of them was short-range. I checked the angle of fire a few times, and in no case were they lower than 45 degrees. That means that that only steeply routed rockets were intercepted. The matter of flat routes was not examined in this test.”

Even The Jerusalem Post, which supports the project, was cautious in its optimism. Last month it noted that Iron Dome “passed its final operational tests with flying colors, but real life is a whole other opera (as Israelis may remember from the disappointing performance, to put it mildly, of the [Patriot Missiles] in the First Gulf War)” (“Putting Iron Dome into Perspective,” 21 July 2010).

Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, one of the four congresspersons to vote against H.R. 5327 agrees. He stated in his 19 May speech in opposition to the legislation that “H.R. 5327 proposes that the means to achieve security for Israel is through investing in a missile defense system. I do not support that, and neither should anyone truly supportive of the security of Israel.” He noted how Iron Dome — even were it actually effective in stopping missiles and mortars — would do nothing to address reasons why such projectiles are launched: “I am also concerned that 43 years of military occupation in the West Bank, and the crippling siege of Gaza that has entered its fourth year, continue to undermine Israel’s security. Investment in a missile defense system will not eliminate the need to address these issues that are a fundamental part of securing Israel’s future.”

Such statements stand in stark contrast to those by supporters of the bill. New Jersey Representative John Adler, for example, on his website claims “The Iron Dome missile defense system helps protect Israeli citizens from short-ranged missile attacks launched by known terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Hizballah.” He asserts that “Congress must continue to do all it can to protect our trusted ally and a fellow democracy.” Adler adds that “This federal commitment speaks to the unshakable bond that exists between the United States and Israel” (“Congressman Adler votes to Increase Funding …,” 25 May 2010). US military aid is not based on strictly military threats. Assistant Secretary of State Shapiro claimed that Israel “is under threat from the dynamics of demography, ideology and technology,” only the latter relating to missiles and mortars. As I have noted previously, the real purpose of Iron Dome is pacification of Palestinians under occupation and siege, not to protect Israel civilians.

Moreover, the system is prohibitively expensive. In his Haaretz column, Melman notes that each Iron Dome missile costs around $100,000 compared to the Qassams’ approximate cost of $100. Despite Singapore footing the bill for “a large part of the development,” the Israeli military has only produced funds to deploy two Iron Dome batteries to date. Melman writes that “For any reasonable home front defense in the north and south, there is a need for 200 batteries of defense systems at a cost of $500 million.”

According to Defense News, as reported by YNet, the Indian Ministry of Defense is considering procuring Iron Dome and part of the funding from Singapore was for its eventual procurement by India (“India in talks to buy Iron Dome, David’s Sling,” 18 July 2010). The Israeli Defense Ministry would, in all likelihood, be unable to raise the $300 million balance between what is needed for full deployment even if Iron Dome is made effective. The far cheaper Phalanx system, which the US has deployed with significant success in Iraq, would be a much more sensible option for use in Israel. If Iron Dome is indeed consistently successful in tests like the one performed mid-July, for distances and arcs longer and higher than achieved by a Qassam en route to Sderot, and with two international customers already lined up, then the more logical explanation is that Iron Dome is primarily for export as it is not — perhaps not yet — useful in Israel.

Congressman Kucinich noted that no peace agreement, and hence no pacification technology, will be successful so long as “illegal settlements continue to be built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” and “1.5 million people in Gaza continue to suffer without basic services and Palestinians in the West Bank are denied the freedom of movement and prosperity by the separation barrier and hundreds of checkpoints.” In this analysis the Iron Dome, were it even effective against Qassam rockets and mortars, would be at best a means to avoid a peace agreement or redress of the points Kucinich mentions. Such a scenario, and the even more questionable one of the Iron Dome being primarily for export, begs the question: why is the Obama administration moving toward funding it?

Jimmy Johnson is a mechanic based in Detroit. He can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.