A sceptical Philip E Coyle III shook his head at the Israel Defence Forces claim that its "Iron Dome" missile defence system intercepts nine out of ten Hamas rockets. "No military system is ninety per cent effective," he said.
Coyle is amongst a worrying number of Israeli and American defence experts disputing the efficacy of a programme that has so far cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Thanks to a recent hike in funding from the US Congress, it is set to receive hundreds of millions more.
The sceptic isn't alone. Theodore Postol, a physicist and missile-defence expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimates that the interception rate of the Iron Dome system is just five per cent, or ten on a lucky day. His research was assisted by Dr Mordechai Shefer, who worked previously for Rafael, the system's manufacturer.
We should listen because Postol and friends have form in disputing defence statistics: while the United States government was claiming that Patriot missiles had a near one hundred per cent accuracy rate during the first Gulf War, these scientists were debunking the sales patter to Congress. At the end of the research, Postol concluded that the US missile system had enjoyed an accuracy rate of… zero. The embarrassing statistic is now accepted widely in the defence community.
Richard M Lloyd, another colleague on the Patriot research project, has also leapt to criticise, and Lloyd is no amateur; he wrote two books on anti-missile design during his twenty year career at Raytheon, a leading anti-missile contractor. He now works at Tesla Laboratories (which doesn't produce products in competition with the Iron Dome).
From an analysis of dozens of YouTube clips showing the Iron Dome in action, Lloyd has worked out that most of the claimed "interceptions" are the Dome missiles themselves self-destructing after missing the intended Hamas rocket targeted. He's a little more optimistic than Postol, but still puts the interception rate at a maximum of forty per cent. In most cases, the warhead (the dangerous bit) remains untouched, while structural damage to the body of the rocket (the flying bit) simply sets it off course. The rockets are then landing with the warheads still attached – either exploding on impact or becoming an unexploded munition, risking civilian life.
The "ninety per cent" claim simply doesn't chime when you check it against damage reports filed with the government by Israeli citizens. The late Dr Reuven Pedatzur, a military analyst, Israeli fighter pilot and critic of the Iron Dome, discovered a Finance Ministry report in March 2013 showing over three thousand claims for property damage during the 2012 conflict. You'd expect the number to be a great deal lower if the Iron Dome was really intercepting nine out of ten rockets.
Dr Pedatzur also found a police report saying that over a hundred rockets launched from Gaza, roughly twice the military claim, had hit urban areas. An Israeli official dismissed the evidence as "rumours".
So rather than Iron Dome being a saviour for Israel, it's the bomb shelters, and a bit of luck, which are saving lives. One public shelter in Tel Aviv, for example, reaches four storeys underground and has space for sixteen hundred Israelis, part of a network that can safeguard a quarter of a million civilians at once.
In another part of the city, an underground car park can be transformed into an emergency ward for a thousand patients in less than forty-eight hours. Across the country, air raid sirens, sophisticated smart phone apps and more public shelters ensure that most Israelis are given more than enough warning to scurry for shelter. Once inside, young Israelis are so relaxed, they've been taking selfies.
The Israeli government discriminates over who warrants such protection. If you're a Bedouin citizen of the country, for example, you are evidently not worthy of the same bomb shelters or air raid sirens that Jewish citizens enjoy. Completely unprotected, there has already been one Bedouin death and several children injured. A court case against the government failed; Bedouin citizens were advised to "lie on the ground" to prevent further deaths. A Thai migrant worker died under similar circumstances.
If the Iron Dome doesn't work, then, why is it being used? For a start, its relatively low cost could be prejudicing procurement decisions. The American taxpayers are footing part of the bill, and in the latest rounds of funding their representatives promised another half-a-billion dollars.
Secondly, it's good for propaganda. "Iron Dome works really well" fits well with the public relations strategy to portray Hamas as reckless medieval rocket firers and Israelis as precise, technology-driven and capable. It's also reassuring for civilians to hear that they are "protected", even if this news might be making them complacent.
In 2010, when development ended and deployment of the first batteries began, the IDF announced that the Iron Dome was being put into storage in order "to save money", but there was another problem cited at the time. The newly-commissioned system took fifteen seconds to identify a rocket let alone fire, too late for many of the targets that Hamas aims at close to the Gaza border. It's not clear whether this problem has been solved.
The IDF spokespeople were also quick to remind the public in 2013 that the system wasn't designed for defending civilian targets, and they would prioritise military installations for protection in case of mass strikes.
Today, all of this early pessimism seems to be forgotten. IDF media officers are pumping Israeli newspapers, as well as CNN, Time, the Washington Post and other Western outlets, with their re-vamped, simplified and newsworthy claim: Iron Dome is working at ninety per cent accuracy and saving Israeli lives.
Finally, the huge influence of Rafael on Tel Aviv procurement officials smacks of old-fashioned nepotism and its modern cousin, the "revolving door" of corporate-government relations.
Not unexpectedly, the board of Rafael is dominated by retired Israeli senior officers. The Chairman of Rafael brings particularly relevant experience to the sales front, skills which may have been very useful in selling the Iron Dome to paranoid politicians and excitable military generals (all of whom he will have known personally). Retired Brigadier General Yitzhak Gat, who enjoyed a long career in the Israeli military before taking on the Rafael job, used to be in charge of procurement for the entire Israeli Air Force, the very same procurement department now responsible for buying the Iron Dome.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.