Israel Has Not Yet Faced True Missile Test

It's too early to tell if Iron Dome really works, experts say.

In this March 11, 2012 photo, a rocket is launched from an Israeli anti-missile system to intercept a rocket fired by Palestinian militants.
By + More

The U.S.-funded missile defense system Israel is using to stave off Hamas attacks seems to be working well, experts say. Though the true test is yet to come.

The day before the Israelis commenced Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told U.S. News the "Iron Dome" system was roughly 85 percent effective at repelling enemy rockets and missiles. Experts say it has likely maintained about that average over the last five days of fighting.

However, Hamas is only firing primitive rockets over a short period of time, experts say. A more advanced enemy might be able to get through Israel's newest defensive umbrella.

[PHOTOS: Palestinian Death Toll Soars as Israeli Attacks Continue]

"The technical teams that put these things together have really showed some spectacular skill," says Prof. Theodore Postol of MIT, a missile system specialist who was previously a scientific advisor to the chief of Naval Operations. "Whether it makes a difference or not, I just don't know."

Hamas has fired 877 rockets at Israel in the last five days, according to a Monday tweet from the official Israeli Defense Forces account. Of those, Iron Dome missiles have intercepted 307. This averages only a 35 percent success. But Postol says the true success rate only counts those missiles that could inflict damage. Many of the unguided rockets stray far from populated areas.

The Israeli Embassy in the U.S. did not return requests for comment in time for this report.

Check out this unconfirmed video of an Iron Dome interceptor missile shooting down a Hamas rocket over Tel Aviv. Hamas fired two rockets at the major Israeli city last week, but did not hit it.

Many of the rockets Hamas has fired are rudimentary projectiles made from pipes, Postol says, and can be fabricated in a garage or living room. They are more likely to "blow a hole in a building" than completely destroy it, he says.

This disparity extends to almost all facets of the two sides' offensive capabilities, says Aram Nerguizian, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The sheer scale of the gap between Hamas and the IDF, even without Iron Dome — Hamas has no strategic edge," he says.

But Israel's opponents will likely discover some tactic to erode the gains from Iron Dome eventually.

"The real test would be under conditions of much larger, mass fires," Nerguizian says.

[VIDEO: Israel Assassinates Hamas Military Leader]

A larger barrage of more advanced weapons, such as the missiles Lebanon's Hezbollah posses, would be a much greater test of the defense system.

Despite its apparent strength, Israel has a limited number of batteries — at least four — and a finite store of interceptor missiles.

Each Iron Dome interceptor missile costs roughly $50,000, Postol says, which is less expensive that previous systems. However, at that rate, Israel would have expended more than $15 million in just the the last five days.

Yet Iron Dome offers more than tangible protection against incoming rockets, which have killed fewer than a hundred Israelis in the last 11 years.

"It appears to be, and probably is, a very important psychological lift to the population that's under attack," says Postol of the Israelis, adding the chance of being killed by Hamas rockets is fairly low.

In turn, Palestinians see the recent engagement as Hamas fighting for them, says Nerguizian. Public support on both sides makes it more difficult to predict when this conflict will come to an end.

More World News:

Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com.