Sorry Folks: Israel’s Iron Dome Won't Work in Asia
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Sorry Folks: Israel’s Iron Dome Won't Work in Asia


The apparent success of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system in the latest iteration of the Israel-Hamas conflict has spurred interest in how East Asian states could apply similar defensive technologies. Indeed, an Israeli media outlet reported that South Korea is considering procurement of the Iron Dome system, potentially as part of a reciprocal agreement that would supply Israel with maritime patrol ships. On Sunday, Max Boot argued that the success of Iron Dome effectively justifies Ronald Reagan’s 1980s-era concentration on the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense system expected to defeat a Soviet nuclear attack. Demonstration effects matter; does the success of Iron Dome have implications for rocket or missile defense in East Asia?

Historical Issues

To begin, Boot is simply wrong about the history of missile defense.  Reagan’s invocation of “Star Wars” may be the most readily available example of missile defense advocacy, but engineers have worked on the problem of shooting down ballistic missiles since the 1950s. Not every missile defense system is a legacy of Reagan, and the (measured) success of Iron Dome does nothing to validate the flight of fancy that the 1980s era Strategic Defense Initiative represented.  The extant missile defense systems fielded by the United States and Japan differ considerably in detail and conception from Star Wars, in no small part because of the technical infeasibility of Reagan’s program. Some aspects of modern missile and rocket defense do derive from 1980s-era Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) research, but other aspects (including much of the SM-3 program that uses naval platforms) developed independently.

Technical and Strategic Issues

More importantly, the technical and strategic challenges of shooting down ballistic missiles differ considerably from those of shooting down unguided rockets. BMD shares with rocket defense some common technological ground; both require fast reaction time and impressive sensor capabilities, and the Iron Dome project has benefitted from technical work on missile defense.  However, ballistic missiles in flight behave differently from unguided, sub-atmospheric rockets.  Perhaps more importantly, states capable of building and launching ballistic missiles can also develop a variety of countermeasures designed to defeat missile defense systems, an option unavailable to Hamas.  The success of Iron Dome does little to indicate that BMD systems fielded by South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan could defeat a massive Chinese or North Korean ballistic missile onslaught.

Second, apart from some aspects of the Korean conflict, East Asia has no easy military analogue for the operational details of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  The Korean De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) regularly sees provocations, but North Korea has not embarked on a strategy of harassing South Korea through rocket bombardment.  If it did, South Korea would probably respond in a far more robust manner than simply defending its airspace. The Gaza situation is perhaps most historically reminiscent of the 1950s era conflict between Taiwan and the PRC over offshore islands, but both sides have moved on from that sort of fight.

The fiscal problems presented by defensive technologies also bear some mention. Due in no small part to the largess of the United States, Israel has the luxury of spending tremendous resources on the task of mitigating damage from rocket attacks. This does not change the fact that ballistic missiles cost much less than the systems designed to defeat them; much, much less.

In an important sense, missile defense systems are asymmetric; they make strategic sense insofar as very wealthy countries can use them to mitigate threats from considerably less wealthy states.  This dynamic may describe the relationship between North Korea and the triumvirate of South Korea, Japan, and the United States, but it surely does not apply to the People’s Republic of China-Republic of China (Taiwan) relationship, or even to that of China and the United States.  If China ever decided to bleed Taiwan with a ballistic missile campaign, even a relatively effective defensive system could not prevent the attrition of Taiwan’s economic and military capabilities without outside intervention.

And so while Iron Dome appears technically impressive, it’s use has only limited lessons for the pursuit of missile defense technologies in East Asia.  One size does not fit all; the applicability of Iron Dome to the Israel-Gaza conflict has few implications for broader questions of missile defense, whether in historical context or in modern defense policy. 

N F Dowdney
April 23, 2013 at 02:27

The concept of a fully automated retaliatory system runs foul of the laws of armed conflict , those who are film buffs will remember Dr Strangelove.In general the only legitimate use of automated systems is for self defence (EG CIWS) not for counterstrike.

Mark H
April 4, 2013 at 15:11

A layered combination of "iron dome" like anti missile/artillery plus a very robust automated system of counter-battery missiles could be very effective for South Korea…and they can afford it. The counter battery system would eliminate any ambiguity about response. Any artillery shell or missile fired against the south would result in the launcher or artillery piece being immediately destroyed. That would be made very publically announced. It won't wait for command decisions…the system will be automated like the interceptor system. Warnings would be given to north korean troops. If you fire a projectile into S. Korea…run, your position will be destroyed automatically within seconds.

U.S. Investor
March 16, 2013 at 16:38

The article entirely misses the point that the primary threat from North Korea against South Korea is not ballistic missiles, but the 10,000 artillery pieces dug in, in the North, and aimed at Seoul South Korea from just 30 miles away — from across the DMZ.   Israel's Iron Dome system was designed to defend against precisely such a threat:


Specifically, Iron Dome was designed explicitly to guard against artillery fired from a range up to 70km, and unguided rockets (e.g. Grads) fired from short range.   Israel does not use Iron Dome to defend against guided missiles.  Rather, it is now deploying Arrow 3, a system jointly devised by the U.S. and Israel incorporating features of the original U.S. Arrow missile system (which turned out to be completely ineffective against Iraqi Scuds) and elements of the Iron Dome system.


In other words, what Israel is deploying is a layered missile defense system — with interceptors that can tackle incoming projectiles of various types, from various distances and heights.

Edward Luttwak
January 18, 2013 at 12:44

Robert Farley depicts Iron Dome as a US-financed luxury. Actually it was demonstrably & hugely cost-effective in limiting damage , while the US military aid he cites is now rounghly 1.75% of  Israel's (2012) GDP  (& Iron Dome's cumulative cost to date is less than 0.7% of Israel's 2012 GDP).
True Iron Dome would not nullify North Korean bombardment capabilities as a whole. The Israelis oddly enough  designed it to counter far narrower threats, having two other systems to counter other threats up to long-range ballistic missiles.  But if the South Koreans were serious about defending their population from bombardment,  they would acquire all three Israeli systems, plus divert resources from their relentlessly imitative military industries to commission the Israelis to develop additional defensive systems. Looking at systems such as the ROKIT etc one sees how little they achieve by way of innovation –or even economical imitation.    

December 8, 2012 at 02:40

Exactly where did you learn that.
The Merkava can operate on any terrain.

December 8, 2012 at 02:38

What utter nonesense that it won't work in Asia.
How far is Seoul from the North Korean Border?

Rocky B.
December 8, 2012 at 01:25

It's been published that the interceptors have a pre-programmed "graveyard" site- i.e. if they miss the target they fly to a predetermined open field/ out at sea and explode there, but in any case, you are right that shrapnel and degree are a problem and that’s why even with a defense system, there’s an air raid siren letting people know to take cover.   

Rocky B.
December 8, 2012 at 01:12

The last conflict in Gaza proved that the comparison between the low price of the incoming rocket/missile and the high price of the interceptor missile is not the correct comparison.
As demonstrated in Israel, all areas around the Iron Dome battery were pre mapped and classified as either populated or open empty areas. The moment the system identifies an enemy rocket, it calculates the trajectory and potential point of impact and only engages those rockets about to hit the populated areas. Obviously, the best thing to do is not reach this point and prevent the enemy from firing the rocket/missile, but once it’s in the air, you need to compare the price of the interceptor (~40,000USD for Iron Dome) with the “price” (loss of life, direct and indirect damage to buildings/cars/infrastructure) of a 100% hit in an urban area.

November 24, 2012 at 05:43

Iron dome wasn't meant to defend against balistic missiles in the first place.
The Arrow system was developed to counter balistic missiles coming from Iran, and has so far passed every test.
Also, Magic wand system covers the midrange missile defence.
All systems share components – the same warning systems, part of the radar, etc. A competent military will not rely on a single weapon system, and the iron dome will do well as an integrated one, after it is fitted to suit South Korea's (or any other country) needs.

Dante Elias
November 23, 2012 at 21:54

It is just a fantasy!…everybody know that one weapon has its counterpart. New strategies would burn the iron dome with fire of dummy rockets, so the after fired rockets will damage with higher amounts of explosive charge. The war is the party of the dead… and the success of any weapon is just temporary.. history avails it!

Sands Of Time Running Out For US In Asia
November 23, 2012 at 19:15

Yes, it all boils down to China and it all depends on what China decides to do, isn't it?
So if China decides the US must go, it must realize it cannot win a war with China.  All the American bases in S Korea, Japan and Philippines have to close down and the US moves to Guam or Hawaii.
So if Mr Xi is smart, he will work diplomatically to get the US out of East Asia.  Give them face but Washington knows the iron fist behind the velvet glove.
And all you armchair propagandists and mercenaries can shut down your PCs and find another job.  What a great day that would be for the world and the internet.

November 23, 2012 at 05:36

One factor also unmentioned are ballistic missiles equipped with MIRV's.  A misslie that disperses its (equally lethal) payload is an exponentially harder target to defeat.

November 22, 2012 at 16:44

Ballistic missiles do cost much less than the systems designed to defeat them, but Iron Dome may well be cost-effective if it saves lives and property.

November 22, 2012 at 12:59

Please don't confuse North Korea with Hamas.
Hamas has no army. North Korea has an army.
North Korea has 2 artillery corps and 30 artillery brigades equipped with 120mm self-propelled guns, 152mm self-propelled mortars, 170mm guns with a range of 50 km, 240 mm multiple rocket launchers with a range of 45 km, and other heavy guns. 
North Korea has about 18,000 heavy guns.  North Korea's 170mm Goksan gun and 240mm multiple-tube rocket launchers are the most powerful guns of the world.  These guns can lob shells as far south as Suwon miles beyond Seoul. The big guns are hidden in caves.  Many of them are mounted on rails and can fire in all directions.  They can rain 500,000 conventional and biochemical shells per hour on US troops near the DMZ.  The US army bases at Yijong-bu, Paju, Yon-chun, Munsan, Ding-gu-chun, and Pochun will be obliterated in a matter of hours. 
The US army in Korea is equipped with Paladin anti-artillery guns that can trace enemy shells back to the guns and fire shells at the enemy guns with pin-point accuracy. However, it takes for the Paladins about 10 min to locate the enemy guns, during which time the Paladins would be targeted by the enemy guns   Gen. Thomas A Schwartz, a former US army commander in Korea, stated that the US army in Korea would be destroyed in less than three hours.

Happy Heyoka
November 22, 2012 at 12:08

Firstly, from what I've seen and read, the weapons being used by Hamas are pretty basic "Katyusha" style devices – basically a pipe with a rocket one end and explosives at the other – a requirement for manufacturing them in improvised and clandestine circumstances.
Even a slight improvement in guidance or materials technology would make the job of something like "Iron Dome" much harder.

Secondly, a lot of people seem to think that once you blow up the incoming missile that's all there is to it… forgetting that all that junk flying at hundreds of kilometres per hour has to land somewhere.  Any failed anti-missile hardware has to land somewhere too.
There are plenty of historical records of anti-aircraft batteries going horribly wrong in this fashion; I wouldn't be at all surprised if similar stories emerged from the current conflict.

November 22, 2012 at 05:19

Brings to mind another Israeli system that doesn't work too well outside Israel. It's Merkava. It's an excellent MBT, but only when in terrain similar to Israel's.

November 22, 2012 at 04:38

Completely agree with you that Iron Dome is not a "one size fits all" but the capabilities whether they go by "IRon Dome" or any other name can likely save a couple of thousand lives and buy South Korea some warning time so it's something to consider as a mitigation measure.
This is a great way to move the debate forward and consider different aspects from proliferation to strategic depth.
Here's the likely bottom line – as soon as DPRK fires a ballistic missile into Seoul or South Korea, North Korea has likely begun the process of having their regime systematically dismantled. A North Korean ballistic missile attack is a-strategic (there's no strategy other than terror). And if the missile has a chemical or biological warhead – break out the war crimes manual, tribunal and lawyers, because there will likely be some North Koreans with one way tickets to The Hague. It could happen that North Korea launches a missile, but if the regime wants nothing more than to stay in power, a missile is a phenomenally risky gamble with odds even worse than Russian roulette. DPRK may be wily, but they've rarely been crazy.
And even if North Korea were to launch every one of their 1,000 or so missiles, then they have no more leverage to threaten anyone else with their missiles. More later in the response.
Given that FAJR3 240 MM has the same range (~45KM), caliber (240MM) and payload weight (45KG) as some DPRK systems and there are likely 200 systems that can range the northern exurbs of Seoul-Incheon conurbation and that they can fire about 3,400 rounds in an opening salvo here are some rough order of magnitude calculations what Iron Dome could do.
Many more details here – especially around pages 33-36.
If we assume there are roughly 100 each of the M1985 (24 rockets) and M1991 (12 rockets) variants, that means a total of 3,400 rounds possible in an opening salvo and then a 15 minute pause to re-load.
North Korea only has to fire one salvo to send folks in the heart of Seoul scrambling into any one of the shelters available. Seoul subway alone has space for 20 million.
Assuming the pK (probability of kill) is at the lower end of .8. It's pretty straightforward calculation that 4,250 Iron Dome rockets would buy Seoul about 15 minutes' warning time and may save about 2,000 lives in the event of an artillery barrage. As soon as rounds fly, people in Seoul-Incheon will start to fill the shelters with capacity of 20 million people.
Given 60 missiles per battery, that means South Korea would need about 75 (70.8) batteries. This aint cheap. Each battery is about $50 million and each missile around $100,000. The combined cost of roughly $4.2 billion (3.75 billion for batteries and .425 billion for missiles) would eat up about 14% of Korea's ENTIRE defense budget. But this isn't all or nothing; there's likely some happy medium which is up to the Koreans to decide.
Now about the missiles… North Korea probably has around 1,000 missiles that can range Seoul or further. Let's assume the pK against a ballistic missile drops to around .5 from .8 since we don't know the real answer – and neither does North Korea, then 2,000 Iron Dome missiles would make North Korea's missile program irrelevant for threatening South Korea. However, there are likely unknown changes to the status quo and state of deterrence on the peninsula.
Will a mostly irrelevant missile program lead North Korea to pour more money into new and more missiles, or will North Korea pour more money into their economy to peacefully assimilate at some future date or will North Korea pour more money into Unconventional Warfare such as Special Forces or cyber?
As an aside, I'm a little surprised that the FAJR systems are not being systematically destroyed by the Israeli air force. Given the limited space to surveil, Israel could likely destroy each of the pieces almost immediately after thany FAJR fires. Sounds like a political consideration rather than a military issue.
@NTI @CNS has some very good material also at…
You're right to point out that Iron Dome is not THE answer to South Korea's problems, but capabilities like Iron Dome by any other name can help save a large number of lives directly and by indirectly by providing warning time.


Chuck Hill
November 22, 2012 at 04:08

Certainly true, but Iron Dome might be useful in defending Seoul from a sudden wave of rockets and artillery from just acros the border, even if only long enough to allow evacuation or getting to shelter.

November 22, 2012 at 01:47

TL;DR version. The North Koreans love their artillery.

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