Iron Dome—Savior, or Sales Job?

The front page of the Washington Post on July 15, 2014.

James Fallows

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The front page of the Washington Post on July 15, 2014.

A brief comparison of some of the ways Western media outlets have portrayed Israel's high-profile anti-rocket system. By James Fallows

In its lead story this morning, the WaPo tells us that Israel’s famous “Iron Dome” air defense system has been a huge technical success that has changed the realities of battle. The system, for the record, was developed in Israel, is produced by U.S. and Israeli contractors, and is mainly funded by the United States.

That’s the Post’s front page you see above, with details here. Eg:

“I can’t even explain with words how great it is,” said Sivan Hadad, 32, who has lived her entire life in Ashkelon and had grown accustomed to staying indoors when the rockets started flying. “Now I can go out. I still get scared, but not like before.”

To Israeli security officials, the success of Iron Dome is akin to that of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, which they say helped bring an end to an onslaught of suicide bombings in the early 2000s.

The Iron Dome system has rendered rockets so ineffective that Hamas and its allies have, in recent days, been attempting more-creative ways of attacking Israel. 

Here’s why this is interesting. The effectiveness of Iron Dome has been much discussed in the technical press recently, and with a very different emphasis. Five days ago, in the Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsJohn Mecklin called Iron Dome “the public relations weapon,” because it was always touted during battles for results that did not stand up on later inspection.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 10, 2014

A story that same day in Technology Review had a similar skeptical take:

Technology Review

An NPR segment on July 9 quoted the same technical expert, Ted Postol of MIT, featured in the other stories and was similarly cautionary.

Part of Ted Postol’s exchange with NPR’s Robert Siegel:

POSTOL: We can tell, for sure, from video images and even photographs that the Iron Dome system is not working very well at all. It - my guess is maybe 5 percent of the time - could be even lower.

SIEGEL: As I understand it, for it to work it actually has to hit an oncoming rocket head on.

POSTOL: That’s correct. 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.

SIEGEL: By way of contrast, when the Israeli Air Force strikes at targets in Gaza, is the weaponry substantially more accurate than these rockets?

POSTOL: When you’re talking about an airstrike from an aircraft, especially with the very, very highly trained pilots Israelis have and, of course, the very advanced equipment that they’re using, you’re talking about precisions of tens of meters - very, very high precision.

***

Why such a difference in emphasis?

One possibility is the Post has new information that offsets this raft of skeptical analyses, even though it doesn’t mention any of these critiques. If so, that will be very interesting in technical and military terms.

Another possibility is that when we eventually know what happened in these missile exchanges (and of course I hope no one on either side dies in any further attacks) , this story, and its lead-the-paper play in the Post today, may seem to be another illustration of Mecklin’s hypothesis: that militaries hype the performance of high-tech systems during the heat of battle, and by the time the real results are in the press is onto something else. 

I don’t know which is the case, though I will say that there is a very, very long track record of the pattern Mecklin describes. And here is an intriguing journalistic detail that could be either insignificant, or a clue:

The “Highly Effective Missile Defense” story has the featured, top-of-the-news position in this morning’s print paper. Yet a few hours later on the WashingtonPost.com web site, there is no mention of it whatsoever on the home page. No link, no summary, no “see also,” no “in other headlines.” This is unusual enough—a story that leads the paper being nonexistent on the home page—that I saved a PDF of that page to be sure I wasn’t misreading it.

I called the Post this afternoon to ask if the story’s absence from the home page was mere happenstance, or if for some reason the paper was distancing itself from it. The person I was eventually transferred to, a woman on the media relations team, said she understood the question and would get back to me. I’ll update this when I hear more.

Update Someone who asks to be identified as a Washington Post spokesperson sends this reply:

The story you are referencing (Israel’s ‘Dome’ changes the fight) was featured in the lead position on The Washington Post’s homepage yesterday. The homepage has since been updated with the latest news.

So perhaps I just didn’t see it in time, although I can’t help noticing that many other stories from today’s print-paper front page are, unlike this one, still featured online. I appreciate the clarification, and we’ll see how the Iron Dome story unfolds.

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