Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More Iron Dome Please!

I've been closely following the media, punditry and blogosphere's reception to Israel's Iron Dome short range missile defense system. On the whole, coverage has been positive, if reserved. The main hangup seems to be with the cost of the interceptors - estimates range from $20-50k/unit - in comparison to the inexpensive rockets being used by Hamas and Hezbollah. More than one drama queen is already predicting that Israel's enemies will bleed its defense budget dry in any future conflict by massing rockets against the system and forcing a high expenditure of interceptors. This newfound conventional wisdom, while certainly conventional, is not very wise at all.

Iron Dome signals a revolution in Israel's strategic posture. For half a decade now, ever since the Lebanon War in 2006, Israel has been forced to accept what the Resistance Bloc calls a "balance of terror" - a deterrent threat of mass retaliation against Israel's population centers in any future conflict. This capability, to substantively threaten the Israeli home front, and thus curtail Israel's freedom of action, took two decades of strategic planning and costly implementation by Iran and Hezbollah, with Syria as facilitator.

By the time Israel went to war against Hezbollah in 2006, the terrorist group's rocket arsenal was thought to be in the 10-20k unit range. If memory serves, Hezbollah expended some 150-250 rockets per day, over a 30 day conflict, meaning that around 6000 total rockets were launched at Israel in this period. The costs to Israel from absorbing those 6000 rockets were substantial, but even without taking into account the loss of life, medical treatment for the surviving victims, the ongoing psychological toll on children and families, destruction of property, the rise in insurance premiums, and so on, it's important to note that around one million Israelis were forced to evacuate or huddle in bomb shelters for the duration of the fighting.

For a country of six million people, having essentially 17% of your work force cease producing for 1/12th of the year is a considerable blow to the economy. In fact, let's crunch some numbers to get an idea of how big of a blow the Lebanon War was. Let's say Israel's GDP is in the range of $200 Billion, of which 17% is $34 Billion. Divide $34 Billion by 12 months, and we get $2.83 Billion, the contribution that one sixth of Israel's workers make to the country's economy over a one month period. We're talking nearly $3 Billion just in lost productivity, not to mention the war's impact on the investment climate, evacuation expenditures, etc.

Now, suppose Israel's Iron Dome system had been fully deployed during the 2006 Lebanon War. Iron Dome is designed to only intercept those missiles whose parabolic path puts civilian population centers at risk. During the Lebanon War, most of Hezbollah's rockets landed in open spaces, doing little to no damage. But let's assume that Iron Dome had been programmed to intercept every single one of those 6000 rockets. The cost to do that would be $50k/interceptor x 6000 rockets = $300 million, and that's at the highest cost estimate per interceptor. (If the interceptors are actually $20k each, we're talking a paltry $120 million.) Let's say we're being overly optimistic and more than triple our cost, from $300 million to $1 Billion, including the cost of the interceptors and individual batteries, luxury port-a-poties with gold-embroidered toilet paper for the soldiers who man them, wide-screen 1080p HDTVs with the special ESPN Football Package and so on, all included. Think of all the damage caused by the rockets. What government wouldn't pay $1 Billion to just make that all go away? Are we starting to get the picture how incredible of a bargain this really is?

Let's crunch some more numbers, to bring this home. Today, it's generally thought that Hezbollah's rocket arsenal has grown to some 40,000 rockets, the vast majority of which are of the unguided Grad type, with which the terrorist group had such great success in the last war against Israel - and precisely the kind Iron Dome was designed to intercept. $50k/interceptor x 40,000 rockets = $2 Billion. In other words, eliminating 100% of Hezbollah's rocket arsenal by shooting the suckers down one at a time would cost less than one year's worth of American defense appropriations for Israel. If we could just pay that now, and eliminate Hezbollah as a strategic threat to Israel, would we not readily pay that price in an instant? Is anyone still worried about cost?

Would Hezbollah keep firing rockets knowing that Israel is capable of knocking down any that may end up doing actual damage? Think of the investment in resources that was required to build that 40,000 rocket arsenal, all rendered worthless. Will Hezbollah expose itself and the country of Lebanon to massive retaliation in exchange for putting up a nice fireworks display for the Israeli home front? It's like declawing a cat; they might still paw at the furniture, but without the ripping and tearing bit, they actually look kind of cute doing it. You can't buy that kind of power, except that now, Israel can. So please, give the latest round of "conventional wisdom" the boot, and relish in the massive technological triumph that is Iron Dome.

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