The contrails have it: Iron Dome is a dud

The effectiveness of missile defense can scarcely be inferred from the “sound and light show” that is Iron Dome.

Iron Dome battery deployed in the field. (Photo: Israel Defense Force / Wikimedia Commons)

Iron Dome battery deployed in the field. (Photo: Israel Defense Force / Wikimedia Commons)

Contrails, the wake of an aircraft, are usually created by water vapor in its exhaust. When you hear them mentioned these days, it’s usually an attempt to paint them as “chemtrails,” the supposed product of a secret government program for spraying chemical or biological agents on the public to various ends. But contrails happen to be key to the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of Israel’s iron dome mobile missile defense program.

Before continuing, if you’re anything like me, you wonder how U.S. missile defense, which (a recent test notwithstanding), has underperformed, while its Israeli counterpart, Iron Dome, has proven successful in stopping rockets launched at it by Hamas and other extremists. First, it behooves us to remember that those are rockets, not ballistic missiles, launched at Israel. Second, where’s the evidence that Iron Dome works anyway? At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, editor Jon Mecklin frames the question.

The New York Times … wrote that the Israeli Army contended Iron Dome “intercepted about 27 percent of all the rockets fired between Monday [July 7] night and midday Wednesday.” But the Times did not indicate how many missiles had been targeted, leaving the efficiency of the Iron Dome system in this conflict unclear, even as the newspaper reported that Israel has said that the system has a success rate of nearly 90 percent in intercepting the missiles it is meant to thwart.”

In fact, writes Mecklin — and here you’ll begin to see the importance of contrails to the argument

Ted Postol, an MIT-based missile defense expert and frequent Bulletin contributor, provided a dose of context to the Iron Dome coverage in a National Public Radio interview Wednesday. “We can tell, for sure, from video images and even photographs that the Iron Dome system is not working very well at all,” Postol said. “It—my guess is maybe [it hits a targeted missile] 5 percent of the time—could be even lower. … And when you look—what you can do in the daytime—you can see the smoky contrail of each Iron Dome interceptor, and you can see the Iron Domes trying to intercept the artillery rockets side on and from behind. In those geometries, the Iron Dome has no chance, for all practical purposes, of destroying the artillery rocket.”

Postol provides more detail in an MIT Technology Review piece titled An Explanation of the Evidence of Weaknesses in the Iron Dome Defense System.

The last time such large-scale rocket attacks occurred between Hamas and Israel was in November 2012. During [that] conflict a large number of photographs of Iron Dome interceptor contrails were observed in the sky. These contrails revealed that the Iron Dome interceptor rate was very low—perhaps as low as 5 percent or below.

Postol maintains:

I will show … that Iron Dome performance almost a year and a half later has probably not improved.

Why hasn’t it?

One of the most demanding problems in intercepting an artillery rocket is that the interceptor must destroy the warhead on the rocket. … Damaging the back end of the artillery rocket essentially has no effect on the outcome of the engagement.

Besides, Postol writes:

Protecting a population spread over defended areas from the hazards of such missile attacks must involve protection against falling debris, which can cause serious injuries to individuals who are not in protective shelters.

Just by way of a reminder

Israel does in fact have an extremely effective missile defense. That defense is the early warning system that tells people on the ground a rocket is traveling in their direction, and the shelters that are arranged so that individuals can easily get to protection within tens of seconds of warning.


In the particular case of rocket attacks against Israel, the overwhelming number of artillery rocket warheads are in the 10- to 20-pound range, which makes the effectiveness of shelters even greater.

Returning to Iron Dome, Postol writes:

I will first show why the Iron Dome interceptor must approach the target artillery rocket from a frontal direction. I will then show that the Iron Dome interceptor has, for all practical purposes, no chance of destroying the warhead on incoming artillery rockets if the interceptor engages the rocket from the side or from the back.

I will then present photographic evidence of contrails in the sky … from November 2012 and from July 2014 indicating that the Iron Domes are still behaving erratically—resulting in continued very low intercept rates.

Postol admits that he does not

… know why the Iron Domes were not engaging most artillery rockets using the proper front-on geometry. However, it is clear that the Iron Dome radar tracking and guidance system is not working, as it is initially sending Iron Dome interceptors to [the wrong] intercept points.

Readers are urged to visit Postol’s paper to view those photographs. As if Iron Dome’s ineffectiveness weren’t bad enough, at Digital Journal, Ralph Lopez writes:

A winner of the Israel Defense Prize, Dr. Moti Shefer, has said that Israel is inserting “virtual” incoming Hamas rockets into operators’ radar screens in order to claim higher than warranted success rates.

Huh? Dr. Shefer continues.

“We’re shooting at ourselves, mainly virtually. The virtual rocket was invented in order to increase the vagueness surrounding Iron Dome. Assume that a real rocket arrives. What does the command and control system do? It creates nine more virtual rockets, and transmits their paths on computer graphics to the rocket launcher operators. The launcher operators see 10 rockets and launch 10 Iron Dome interceptors. People hear 10 booms, one rocket enters, and you get a 90% success rate.

“There is no missile in the world today able to intercept missiles or rockets. Iron Dome is a sound and light show that is intercepting only Israeli public opinion, and itself, of course. Actually, all the explosions you see in the sky are self explosions. No Iron Dome missile has ever collided with a single rocket.”

Virtual rockets, self explosions: the sad stench of desperation begins to reek from Iron Dome. Also writes Mecklin in his Bulletin article, MIT researcher Subrata Ghoshroy

… noted that appraisals of Iron Dome should not be misinterpreted as vindication of defense systems that aim to protect against sophisticated, long-range missiles of the type designed to carry nuclear weapons. His analysis is worth quoting at length: “First, let’s debunk the myth that Iron Dome—even if as successful as advertised in the Gaza conflict—constitutes proof that missile defense, writ large, works. … Iron Dome is primarily a rocket defense system, and rockets are fundamentally different from missiles. Rockets do not have a guidance system; missiles do. Rockets follow a trajectory that is determined by the position and angle of the launcher and the propellant. … While destroying a rocket in this way is a great technical feat, it is not the ‘hit to kill’ system on which the US missile defense effort has been premised.”

It’s not just Israeli lives that are on the lives, but as David Axe writes at Reuters:

There is a lot of money — and credibility — invested in the system’s success.

Categories: War/Security

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14 replies »

  1. “Ted Postol” — I thought the name was familiar. Postol was the guy who debunked the insanely over-the-top claims of success for the Patriot missile in the first Gulf War, claims made by Raytheon (the manufacturer) and then President Bush. I’m glad to see he’s still on the job.

  2. This is a classic example of those who don’t know, teach. Come to my home in Israel and watch the iron dome working effectively several times a day. The statistics are right- the dome only takes out 20% of rockets fired into Israel because their defense system knows if it will land in a densely populated area or not. If the rocket is going to hit a populated area then the iron dome strikes. As someone living under the flight path of deadly rockets, 90% success rate is life savingly good! Oh and the fact that so many countries want to buy it says a lot!

    • Hrm. Analysis versus anecdote. Which to consider more seriously. Have you any citations to sources that aren’t rife with conflict of interest?

      • So according to this article the 500 intercepted rockets didn’t exist. Maybe that’s true.

        Then there were just abut 2500 rockets (instead of 3000) of which 100 hit people, houses, other buildings,
        and 2400 rockets have fallen in open areas (prove is all the holes in the ground and the remaining pieces of rockets.)
        That means that 2400 out of 2500 rockets fell in open areas, like nature and agricultural places.
        Wow, that’s a lot of luck, mazal.

        • Luck, or attributable to what happens when un-guided rockets do what they do…land where they land without guidance.

    • interesting, so out of 3200 rockets lets say 1000 were headed to populated areas and 900 were intercepted … could this be a hamas plan to deplete the defenses ??

  3. Mr Postol’s criteria for ‘success’ aren’t the ones that matter, any engagement that prevents the rocket warhead from exploding in the defended area is success. No damage based duding would be counted by Mr. Postol. Incidentally, how does a degree program in Nuclear Engineering make you an ‘expert’ in the areas where Mr Postol claims expertise?

    • Applying ones intellect and skills to a given subject area over time confers expertise. I would safely make the assumption that one with a degree in nuclear engineering has the requisite math and physics background to branch out from one specialty into another. Can you identify any particular error in his data, his methodology, or his conclusions. Note: not speculate – identify, completely with an adequate scientific rebuttal? If not, you’re just asking readers to exchange a mindset informed by educated analysis for one informed by…what exactly?

      • As to methodology Mr. Postol applies a thin (few) subjective (available via his open sources without statistical sampling) set of video imagery without specific metrology (unlike the fine work on reconstruction of the meteor trajectory over Chelyabinsk, I see no effort made to discern the specific geometry or source camera / compression format idiosyncrasies.) Without statistically sound sampling or appropriately ‘truthed’ inputs, I cannot see where it is possible for Mr Postol to claim anything other than subjective opinions informed by prior experiences, it certainly would not pass peer review standards as to methods and sources.

        As to the system performance metric, detonation of the Hamas rocket warhead inflight is certainly a type of successful engagement; however if the Iron Dome interceptor proximity warhead induces damage to the Hamas rocket that either duds it or causes aerodynamics that prevent warhead detonation on ground impact those are also clearly successful engagements as the objective is to prevent Rocket detonation that harms personnel or property. Based on the highly adverse results of missile deflection in 1991, no system should attempt to claim mission success via mere deflection from the original impact point.

        The real effectiveness of Iron Dome will be based on the comparison of ‘natural’ duds from unengaged rockets impacting vice the combination of both inflight detonations and any increased % of duds as a result of engagements as compared to rockets exploding on impact after engagement. Will the Israelis share those results, I don’t know, but I doubt it will be either openly provided or either as good as IDF claims or as bad as Mr. Postol’s assertions.

        I redid Mr. Postol’s 1991 video reconstruction efforts using both his original material (CNN and other video stock) and materials not available to him. I did the specific analysis to consider the specifics of the camera operations and recording artifacts together with specific geometry ‘truthing’. Broadly speaking, Mr. Postol’s major point (Patriot was ineffective) was correct due to large misses despite the omissions in Mr. Postol’s analytic approaches and methods. Given the sensationalism associated with the accusative nature of Mr. Postol’s approach, he is cited and levels of expertise are attributed. Dispassionate analyses to peer review quality standards does not appear to be the basis of claims of expertise.

        • Thank you very much for the far more detailed analysis. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. Mind you, as I have no engineering background of any kind, your reply looks plausible enough, but I’m still no judge of validity. I’m grateful because this kind of response does far more to advance the discussion when someone who does have comparable expertise does weigh in.