2012/11/21

Iron Dome's baptism of fire

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So Iron Dome, the U.S-sponsored Israeli anti-rocket system (which shoots with relatively cheap guided missiles to intercept unguided ones), appears to be working. The reports about its effectiveness suggest a very high rate of intercepts (possibly by firing more than one interceptor rocket per incoming one), but even more so they confirm that the system is selective:
It predicts the point of impact and compares it with a map of protection-worthy areas. Uninhabited areas (even large open spaces within settlements) are not defended. This is an important characteristic for a hard kill defence against unguided munitions, quite close to hard kill systems for tanks which don't engage RPG warheads which are going to miss anyway.*
This is of great relevance in those famous cost comparisons between the offensive and the hard kill defensive munition, of course. Too bad; the entire approach becomes invalidated once it faces guided or trajectory-correcting munitions or even only munitions suspected to enter a terminal trajectory correction (or guided) phase a few seconds prior to impact.

Iron Dome missile launcher,
(c) supposedly by NatanFlayer
Reports also indicate coverage is still patchy and short-range rockets pose the biggest problems despite their low velocity and crudeness; the reaction lag for detection, classifying, decision-making et cetera is the problem. Again, not without parallel: I remember calculations from a book about three decades old showing that there would be no time to launch a nuclear counterstrike while the first strike of the Soviet Union would be under way. No U.S. president could have made such a decision within the IIRC 7 minutes time window. Hence the importance on surviving a first strike with enough weapons and communications intact for a retaliation and thus for deterrence prior to the must-never-happen first strike.
Reaction lags are always a problem in systems involving human decision-making


So in the end, the semi-mobile Iron Dome system (it would be kind of static in a mobile warfare context, for its dislocation is restricted to an area which might be overrun by a day's manoeuvring - there's no need to adapt to unexpected landscapes) doesn't really provide a baptism of fire for counter rocket area defences at all, it's merely relevant to a specific niche, and only so in very low intensity. I suppose the Israelis would never deploy enough Iron Dome firing units to cope with a Soviet 1980's style division's MRL salvo**, for example (or with an Arab army 1970's Soviets wannabe style MRL salvo).
The practice of marking areas for something isn't unknown in mobile warfare or in what passes as such nowadays; the U.S. Army had lots of no-fire zones during its 2003 Iraq invasion. The problem with such things is that they depend on thorough updates in short intervals, or else the effort will turn very ugly in face of an opposition which actually does mobile warfare, too. Blue Force Tracker systems are in theory up to this challenge, but they contribute to the excessive radio traffic addiction of modern Western-style ground forces and this addiction creates a multitude of potentially disastrous problems against capable opposition as well.

In the end, small wars reports remind me more of what we don't know about wars between great powers for lack of such wars (=good thing in itself!), than they enlighten us (or at least me) about the current state of affairs in general.



*: I think I wrote about this selective fires thing sometime, somewhere before, but I'm too lazy to look it up.
**: In case you wonder why I took a now-defunct example: It's not about re-fighting WW3, but about using an example known to be a realistic threat when people are serious about preparing for warfare between great powers. We might go back to such seriousness, after all. I'm fine with it if we never do, of course. That's kind of the point of this blog.
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3 comments:

  1. Sven, that's a good article on a current topic. Having more than one stage on a ballistic missile is tricky, because the whole balance changes dramatically.
    The engineers and manufacturers in Gaza do quite an amazing job by having such crude ballistics reach so far and convincingly threaten specific Israeli cities with missiles really going down there.
    The next stages of the follow on wars will likely show increasing sophistication with guided munitions on both sides. For the Israeli opponents, minor guidance improvements will mean a major leap in capability.
    The political aspect of both sides have leaders need each other and in a way cooperate is often overlooked. Having a conflict with outsiders is a nice excuse for cementing your power and over or underperforming in such conflicts does have major political repercussions. The design for performance of weapons can also be a political decision.

    This case does illustrate that preparation for major wars is just not sufficient, there are a lot of options for low intensity violence. Whether or not wars of choice and certain degrees of small war specialization are a good idea is a whole can of worms and I don't know the answer. Some choices can enhance positions or showcase capabilities and alter the playing field between powers without a major war that would be far more costly.

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  2. There are a fair view videos online showing Iron Dome-operations (or rather giving a glimpse of them). The first thing I noted was the pretty high number of interceptors fired at the same time. Now, none of the footage gave a good idea about the number of incoming rockets, but my impression is that the IDF was using its stocks of interceptors rather excessively on each validated threat. Reportedly these stocks were used up rather quickly and Israeli companies are working 24h-shifts at the moment to replenish them.

    I also still remember very well, how Iron Dome a few years ago has received rather negative press for its low rate of interceptions per missile and general unreliability, which together with the high interception rate claimed in mass media would confirm a fairly comprehensive exhaustion of missile stocks. Some have suggested an Iron Dome-like system for deployment along the Korean DMZ, but based on these points I really have my doubts about its usefulness. Its worth observing, whether any interested customer would undertake evaluations of their own and still be interested afterwards.

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  3. Nice entry Sven

    @para: The officer in charge of the 5th battery protecting the Tel Aviv area stated that they used two for each missile as one was not always enough. Obviously in this case we are talking about the heaviest rockets, the Fajr-5, over 6m tall and weighting roughly 1 ton. In other cases a 1:1 ratio was mentioned.

    @Sven: I think in a conventional war against an enemy having still a decent artillery support the high performance radar system might arguably be the most interesting asset, acting as artillery, counter-artillery radar and part of the air-defense system. The interceptors could help to mitigate part of the air and missile threat.





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