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There could not have been a better ad campaign for the Iron Dome rocket defence system than Israel’s recently concluded Mivtza Amud Anan. Boasting of an over 80% interception rate, Iron Dome attracted a lot of attention, particularly in Asia. Singapore has already deployed the Iron Dome, and rumour has it that South Korea is interested in Israel’s system, as is India. In fact, the South Asian giant had expressed interest as far back as 2007, wishing to integrate the Iron Dome with its Air Defence Control and Reporting System (ADC&RS). India’s interest, however, has been questioned in relation to the suitability of the Iron Dome to the subcontinent’s conditions, and some have wondered if India has not merely fallen for Tel Aviv’s bloody sales pitch.

The Kipat Barzel, or Iron Dome or Iron Cap, was jointly developed by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems (RADS) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Comprised of the Tamir (Til Meyaret – interceptor missile) and the active electronically scanned array (AESA) multi-mission ELM-2084 radar, the system optimises its chances of successful interception by ignoring incoming targets that pose no danger to designated areas.

The remarkable success of the Iron Dome has raised some presumptuous hopes in some corners that the Iron Dome can be easily scaled up to a full-fledged ballistic missile defence system (BMD) – as it stands right now, it is a theatre rocket defence system, a far cry from what BMD ought to be. In India, critics have pointed out that the Israeli system might have worked with Hamas’ Qassam, Grad, WS-1E, and Fajr-5 rockets but are no match for Pakistan’s larger, farther reaching, and more powerful ballistic missiles. India’s acquisition of the Iron Dome would thus only be yet another example of the country’s questionable, opaque, and accountability-deficient defence equipment procurement policy. This view is rather incomplete in that it misses the greater vision Indian planners might have for the Iron Dome.

There are three phases during which a ballistic missile can be intercepted. The first, boost phase intercept, is the easiest, when the missile has not yet jettisoned its stages and is followed by an exhaust plume. Easy to detect and presenting a larger target, it is nonetheless not easy to intercept unless response is immediate. This means that defence systems have to be close to the launch site for optimal chances. Mid phase intercepts are perhaps the most difficult as the missile presents a smaller target at a greater altitude, and is cooler. Terminal phase intercept is easier to detect due to the ionisation trail left by the vehicle reentry. However, countermeasures and high terminal velocity makes interception quite challenging during this phase too.

In the South Asian context, an Indian Iron Dome faces not Qassam or Fajr rockets, but it could be quite useful against Pakistan’s Battlefield Range Ballistic Missile (BRBM), the Hatf IX. Also known as the Nasr, the BRBM has a velocity in the same range as Hamas’ rocket, around 500 metres/second. Many critics point to the ease with which any theatre defence system can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of incoming targets, but the Nasr is not designed to be used this way – a nuclear-capable weapon, its primary purpose is to blunt any Indian spearhead into Pakistani territory with tactical nuclear warheads (which one does not use as bomblets), particularly in situations that might arise from India’s much vaunted Cold Start doctrine. Even an 85% guarantee of protection for Indian armoured and infantry units as provided by the Iron Dome would be able to buy them enough time to overrun Pakistani forward deployments in case of war – the Nasr has only a 60-kilometre range.

The Iron Dome offers a shield against other missiles in Pakistan’s arsenal as well. The Babur cruise missile, rumoured to be based on the US BGM-109 Tomahawk, has a low velocity of around 250 m/s but more than makes up for it with reputed TERCOM and near-stealth capabilities. In fact, it is this low speed that gives it much of its stealth – the cool exhaust a low signature target with a smaller radar cross-section. X-band radars (the ELM-2084 is S-band but will be augmented by mid-2013) can still detect cruise missiles, but like ballistic missiles, interception has its attendant difficulties.

An upgraded Iron Dome, as has already been partially implemented, can counter Iranian missiles such as the Zelzal and the Zelzal II. These missiles resemble the Pakistani Abdali and Ghaznavi (Hatf III/M-11/DF-11/CSS-7) short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), and have velocities of approximately 1,300 – 1,500 m/s. The Ghauri and Shaheen class of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), with terminal velocities between 2,500 – 4,300 m/s will remain a problem for an Indian Iron Dome, but India has also been working on a BMD system on its own.

India’s own rudimentary forays into missile defence research has allowed the country to propose fielding early BMD systems around key targets such Bombay and New Delhi. India’s rudimentary system has shown promising results in intercepting missiles like the Ghaznavi. The two-tiered defence system consists of two interceptors, the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD), whose net effectiveness is, according to VK Saraswat, the chairman of India’s Defence Research Department Organisation (DRDO), slightly better that the US Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3).

The combined effect of the Iron Dome and India’s BMD reduces significantly the threat from Pakistan’s missiles. This forces Islamabad into greater reliance on more advanced and expensive missiles with longer range. India has also been developing and acquiring equipment that could give its Cold Start doctrine some teeth. The successful test of the Prahaar missile last year and the Brahmos cruise missile, now adapted for sea, air, and land launch, combined with augmented airlift capabilities, stealth helicopters, 4.5 and 5th generation fighter aircraft, and a host of electronic equipment ranging from radars to communications makes the threat of Cold Start ever more credible. Furthermore, if Indian BMD and the Iron Dome can be relied upon to provide sufficient cover from the majority of Pakistani missiles, the longer range missile sites will naturally become the primary targets for any Cold Start first strike.

Needless to say, there are countermeasures that can be taken (but that can be said of anything) – Pakistan can rely more on longer range missiles, missiles can be made stealthier and faster (not as easy, but rocket propulsion is its own post!), air defence can be strengthened, and forces can be dispersed to lower incentives for an Indian first strike. Of course, the behemoth in the room is that while Tel Aviv can be happy with an 85% success rate, New Delhi will have far less reason to be sanguine with a similar or even slightly higher success rate when it comes to nuclear-tipped missiles – the human cost of being hit by ten nuclear bombs is not ten times higher than being hit with just one.

One cannot help but think of Bernard Brodie’s famous 1946 observation that thus far, the job of the military establishment had been to win wars, but henceforth, it will be to prevent them. Deterrence theorists will argue that the best way to prevent war is to make clear to the opponent that not only can they not expect to win, but that they will pay a heavy price in any attempt to wage war. Israel’s theatre defence system achieves that goal. India’s consideration of the Iron Dome has generated a host of articles on why the system does not suit South Asian conditions. Upon closer examination, it does. However, a word of caution to eternal optimists – while New Delhi can certainly purchase the hardware, it remains to be seen if it can also produce the software – men, training, tactics, strategy, and policy – and make it all work as the textbook says.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on December 17, 2012.