Rocket defense needs Iron Dome and concrete rooms

Israel and other countries face growing concerns about rocket and missile threats. Hi-tech interception systems like Iron Dome consequently attract media and government attention. However, experience shows that civil defenses like warning systems and concrete shelters deserve at least as much attention.

Israel’s current worry is the escalating conflict with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon.

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Hezbollah alone reportedly has more than 100,000 rockets threatening northern Israel. Hamas could conceivably join in with another 10,000-plus from Gaza.

Missile mania is an issue elsewhere too.

Houthi rebels periodically fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia; Iranian arsenals concern neighboring states; and half a world away, the US worries about North Korean ICBMs.

It’s not surprising then that missile interceptors are in fashion. Israel has Iron Dome and other systems; Saudi Arabia employs Patriot interceptors, though their effectiveness has been questioned; America is spending billions on its own systems; and some US lawmakers also want to buy Iron Dome.

By contrast, civil defenses like warning sirens and bomb shelters receive less coverage.

Spectacular interceptor launches are more camera-friendly than concrete buildings.

But despite their drab nature, civil defenses are valuable. That is particularly true against the limited blast and fragmentation of small artillery rockets.

That’s why from 2005 to 2014 Israel spent some NIS 1.5 billion to reinforce buildings. By 2014, more than 70% of homes had shelters.

More shelters have been built since then, especially in the South.

The country simultaneously invested another half-billion shekels in rocket warning systems. Those give increasingly precise alerts. The country was divided into only 25 warning zones in 2006. That grew to 127 in 2012 and 200 in 2014. The count hit 248 in 2015 and may soon reach 3,000.

Even interceptor advocates like Uzi Rubin agree civil defenses save lives and prevent injuries. His analysis of the 2006 Second Lebanon War noted that most rocket fatalities involved people in the open. Many buildings already had hardened shelters. Warning systems were fine-tuned and residents learned to respond. Rocket fatality rates consequently declined.

The benefits of civil defenses have also been observed for rocket fire from Gaza. For example, they helped reduce casualties during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.

AN AMERICAN study in 2014 tried to quantify these benefits for southern Israel. It estimated civil defenses cut rocket losses during 2000-2010 by at least a factor of three. For example, suppose residents had not received warnings and taken shelter during Cast Lead.

There could have been more than 423 rocket injuries instead of 141.

My own research indicates that losses on a per-rocket basis continued to drop after Cast Lead. That was despite rising rocket sizes and ranges.

Part of the decline was due to Iron Dome.

But the data suggest civil defense enhancements were at least as effective as the interceptor deployments.

How much can be attributed to civil defense improvements? For Pillar of Defense, the rocket fatality and casualty reduction was around 36% relative to Cast Lead levels. Thus the improvements prevented roughly three deaths and 135 injuries. That’s on top of the pre-existing protection provided by Cast Lead-era shelters.

For Protective Edge, civil defense enhancements apparently cut fatalities 72% and casualties 75% compared to Cast Lead. That avoided about 5 deaths and 250 injuries, again, on top of the benefits from previously built defenses.

Civil defenses also offer advantages over interceptors. One is price. Iron Dome ammunition reportedly costs more than $100,000 per shot. By contrast, shelters and warning systems involve minimal usage costs.

Civil defenses also tolerate multiple attacks.

They protect against both individual rockets and large salvos. But too many rockets arriving at once could overwhelm an Iron Dome battery.

That factor hasn’t mattered against Hamas’s relatively small salvos. But it could be a serious risk against Hezbollah forces firing 1,000 rockets daily, or against attackers using decoys to distract interceptor fire. (Machine gun bullets apparently will suffice.) Of course, interceptors offer advantages too.

Successful interceptions protect people and property. But shelters only protect people, and only if they’re inside.

The best approach combines interceptor systems and civil defenses in mutual support.

Unfortunately, even that does little to reduce rockets’ disruptions to daily life and economic activity. Those are factors Israeli leaders should seriously consider as they look to the North.

The writer is an associate professor of operations research at Brock University and recently published a study titled ‘The effectiveness of rocket attacks and defenses in Israel.’