Interwoven into the these two narratives are the dual facets of missile defense. On the one hand, anti-missile systems are lauded, and often praised as shields in a world full of swords. On the other, is the fact that missile defense weapons don’t work and often perpetuate ongoing problems. “Iron Dome” is a clear example of this dichotomy. During the November 2012 Gaza-Israel conflict “Iron Dome” was touted as a the linchpin of a successful Israeli strategy. Israeli representatives even claimed that “Iron Dome” had an 85% efficacy. Theoretically, the anti-missile system allowed Israel to protect its population centers and thereby avoid an embarrassing ground invasion to neutralize the rocket threat.
In practice however, it is now known that “Iron Dome” is much less effective than previously thought. According MIT’s Theodore Postol, the interception rate of “Iron Dome” is much closer to 5-10%. Israel is not alone in this regard. The US has inflated the accuracy of its missile defense systems in the past. Praised as an effective defensive measure in the Gulf War, the “Patriot” anti-missile system has since demonstrated that it is highly ineffective in a missile defense role. Furthermore, US research has not fielded a single missile defense system that would be viable in combat situations.
If the math of missile defense is considered holistically, there is no way of seeing a clear resolution to the gap in capabilities, desired outcomes and on-the-ground realities. This is the fallacy of missile defense. While “Iron Dome” represents this fact in a conventional setting, the impotence of missile defense is just as glaring in the nuclear realm. For over 60 years, nations have attempted to shield their societies from the weapons of others. Whether it is Soviet tests at Sary Shagan or Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars,” missile defense regimes often start with great fanfare and eventually end in obscure obsolescence.
There are two reasons for this. First, it is highly unlikely that missile defense will ever be able to catch up with offensive weapons. In the case of “Iron Dome” Israeli planners were forced to contend with a situation that included one warhead per enemy rocket. Yet with more advanced opponents, the number of rockets and the number of warheads they carry can increased. For nuclear weapons, a MIRV’d (multiple independent re-entry vehicle) rocket can send warheads to numerous locations to thereby making interception more difficult.
A second factor is deception. Many missiles, including those carrying nuclear payloads, use relatively inexpensive decoy systems. These devices mimic actual parts of a given missile during the different stages of its trajectory. In intercontinental ballistic missiles, decoys are often made of mylar (the same material used for birthday party balloons) and inflate in a manner that emulates the heat and radar signature of a nuclear warhead. Another decoy method is to intentionally create fragmentation thereby overwhelming a radar’s or sensor’s ability to track a given object. If modern anti-missile systems have a difficult time intercepting a single missile, it is unreasonable to expect them to simultaneously contend with both warheads and decoys.
As the history of missile defense has shown, leaders and pundits have consistently boasted about the efficacy of these systems. In the US there is even a Missile Defense Agency. The problem with this perspective is that it continues the myth that missile defense is a viable option. Though missile defense is often presented as a defensive measure, this belief actually contributes to the creation of more offensive weapons thereby making the world more dangerous. Not only does missile defense provide other states with the rationale to increase or enhance their offensive weaponry, it permits national leaders to score big with national constituencies by acting strong on national security.