Iron Dome: Winning Asymmetric Warfare Through Superior Cost Accounting

Ted Postol, the MIT physicist, media talking head, and so-called ‘missile-defense expert’ is again putting in another Face Palm worthy political performance in analyzing technical capabilities of the Israeli Iron Dome anti-artillery rocket system at the link.


There are numerous practical political reasons that show Postol’s reasoning today with Iron Dome, as it was with the with the Patriot ABM in 1991, is an exercise in political “Magical Thinking.”

Iron Dome ABM system diagram
Iron Dome ABM system diagram complete with “Shoot to Kill” Border Fence

First, missile defense contributes to deterrence — even North Korea’s slightly less than “Hamas-level suicidal sociopaths” have to consider the possibility that South Korea Patriots or Standard-3s (Via the US Navy’s Aegis ships) will stop a surprise missile attack gambit.

Second, missile defense provides a degree of political strategic confidence — governments have an option other than quick counter-strike or pre-emptive strike.

Last, on the political level, Iron Dome today (like Patriot in 1991) buys Israeli leadership the gift of time in war, the breathing space to act from Nation-State interest in the classic Westphalian sense, rather than be driven by media pressure and constituent tribal cries of revenge for lost loved ones _Right Now_.

However, the by far more important reasons why Postol and those relying upon him are wrong were actually laid out in 2011 by guru, and fellow “History Friday” column researcher, Ryan Crierie in terms of the actuarial cost of injuries and death in a Western Society. This cost account reasoning shows just how badly opponents of missile defense are buried in the unreality of magical thinking political cant over the realities of war on the ground.

In a very real sense, Iron Dome is Asymmetric Warfare by a technologically advanced society on an irrational/suicidal opponent that has converted suicide terrorism into a affordable war of attrition that trades suicidal robots — Iron Dome’s Tamir interceptor missiles plus traditional guided missiles from Jets or unmanned drones — for sucidal Hamas rocket crews and the civilian “human shield” infrastructure that hides them at a cost-trade off beneficial to the advanced western economy supported Westphalian Nation-State.

Dividing by zero in war — zero Israeli deaths and very few rocket injuries for huge Palestinian losses — is just as impossible to do in reality as it is in mathmatics.

See this link:

Or simply read the text clipped below to understand why I think Israel has “Flipped the Script” of the “Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” on its head. —

Economics of Anti-Ballistic Missile Defenses
The True Cost of Road Crashes: Valuing life and the cost of a serious injury (2.1 MB PDF)
Recently in the news (as of Spring 2011), there is a lot of talk going on about Israel’s newly deployed IRON DOME low-level ABM system.
Much is being made of the cost of a typical HAMAS Quassam rocket (estimated to be €500 per rocket back in 2008; which translates into about $740 USD in 2011) versus the cost of the Tamir interceptor missiles which are estimated to cost between $35,000 and $50,000.
During the 2006 Lebanon War, about 4,000 rockets were fired into Israel for 43 KIA and 101 WIA.
(I am excluding the 1,300~ who received ‘light wounds’ and the 2,770 who were treated for shock and anxiety)
This breaks down to a crude yardstick of:
• 1 Death for every 93 rockets during an intense bombardment
• 1 Serious Wound for every 39.6 rockets during an intense bombardment
From 2000~ to 2010, about 4,728 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, causing 23 fatalities, or about:
• 1 Death for every 205.5 rockets fire during a sporadic bombardment.
With no ABM system in place to protect Israel, it only costs Islamic groups $64,820 to $152,440 to kill an Israeli and about $29,600 to $65,100 to seriously wound one.
According to the True Cost of Road Crashes, the official Value of Statistical Life (VSL) in several countries is:
United States: $3 million USD (82.6 times per capita GDP)
United Kingdom: $2.11 million USD (70.4 times per capita GDP)
Germany: $1.67 million USD (43.4 times per capita GDP)
Likewise, the Value of Serious Injuries (VSI) is:
United States: $464,600~ USD (12.8 times per capita GDP)
United Kingdom: $253,000~ USD (12.9 times per capita GDP)
Germany: $126,000~ USD (4.7 times per capita GDP)
Israel’s per capita GDP is about $29,500 USD; so you end up with:
VSL: $1.28 to $2.4 million USD
VSI: $138,600 to $380,500 USD
Without ABM, the Islamic groups can easily and cheaply wage economic war on Israel – It only costs them $152,000~ to cause at least $1.28 million dollars worth of damage to the Israeli economy.
We haven’t even touched on the productivity that’s lost from people being forced to leave work and run to bomb-shelters at any moment of the day to escape death or serious injury in the areas under rocket fire.
With ABM however, the entire equation changes, particularly since the Quassams are so inaccurate that the majority of them fired simply hit empty fields.
It’s why the numbers for missiles per injury/death are so high – the Palestinians have to fire dozens of rockets to get that solitary triplet that will impact within a city.
IRON DOME takes advantage of this by allowing operators to pre-define “keep out” zones for the system. If a rocket’s trajectory has it impacting outside that “keep out” zone, the system doesn’t fire on the rocket and lets it impact harmlessly in a field.
The ABM cost/benefit equation isn’t “Fire 60 Quassams for a cost of $44,400 to cause the Israelis to expend $2.4 million dollars worth of interceptors to shoot down each Quassam.”
It’s actually “Fire 60 Quassams for a cost of $44,400 to get five on a trajectory that will have them impact in a city center.”
Total cost to the Israelis of firing ten interceptors to negate the threat of those five rockets in the salvo that are actually going to hit something? Only $400 grand. Considering that the VSI for an Israeli is between $138 and $380 grand if a rocket inflicts a serious injury, it’s a bargain.
As an added bonus, the IRON DOME system is capable of providing backtracked trajectory data (as is any ABM system worth it’s salt) to other military units, such as helicopter gunships or unmanned drones, so they can be on the scene and attacking the launching teams in much less time.

Ryan’s article also goes on to explain the relevance of such actuarial cost accounting to strategic-nuclear missile defense, but that is not germane to this discussion.

Iron Dome combined with Israel’s “Shoot to kill” Border Fence has turned the “Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” on its head. The contest by Israel and Hamas is now one of affordable to an advanced nation state attrition of robots versus an unsustainable level of human and economic attrition that even suicidal-irrational opponents can take, without being overthrown by their followers.

The example of a successful and economically free-market oriented Westphalian Nation-state defeating trans-national progressive supported (See the UN & EU) Palestinian “Assymetrical Warfare” via a “Shoot to Kill” Border Control Fence and a ballistic missile defense are the key reasons leftist like Postol are talking magical thinking straw men arguments like “Iron Dome has failed because it is not destroying warheads” while willfully ignoring the real actuarial money costs to an advanced society of not having a “Defense That DEFENDS.”

There are Foreign Policy and National Security lessons here for future American Presidential candidates.

19 thoughts on “Iron Dome: Winning Asymmetric Warfare Through Superior Cost Accounting”

  1. >>IIRC all the whizzes at the Pentagon said that Iron Dome wouldn’t work

    That is the collective leftist slips at senior DoD positions showing.

    The US Army thought Iron Dome worked just fine. They had to hide that belief behind other terms to hide its ABM origins — Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) and Very Short Range Air Defense system (V-SHORAD).


    and see also this for the full “military-eze” language camouflage:

    C-RAM is an evolutionary, non-developmental program initiated by the Army Chief of Staff in response to the indirect fire (IDF) threat and a validated Operational Needs Statement (ONS). The primary mission of the C-RAM program is to develop, procure, field, and maintain a system-of-systems (SoS) that can detect rocket, artillery, and mortar (RAM) launches; provide localized warning to the defended area with sufficient time for personnel to take appropriate action; intercept rounds in flight, thus preventing damage to ground forces or facilities; and enhance response to and defeat of enemy forces.
    The C-RAM capability is composed of a combination of multiservice fielded and non-developmental item (NDI) sensors, command and control (C2) equipment, warning systems, and a modified U.S. Navy intercept system (Land-based Phalanx Weapon System [LPWS]), with a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) wireless local area network (LAN). The Forward Area Air Defense Command and Control (FAAD C2) system, also under the management of the C-RAM Program Directorate, has been enhanced to integrate the sensors, weapons, and warning systems to provide C2 for the C-RAM SoS. C-RAM C2 software correlates RAM sensor data, evaluates that threat, provides early warning, directs engagements, and cues counter-fire systems and reaction forces.
    The C-RAM SoS capability is currently deployed at multiple sites in Afghanistan, providing correlated air and ground pictures, linking units to the Army Mission Command systems and the Joint Defense Network (JDN), and using various forms of communications to provide situational awareness and exchange of timely and accurate information to synchronize and optimize automated Shape, Sense, Warn, Intercept, Respond, and Protect decisions.

    In so many words, the US Army use well aimed gatling autocannon rather than Iron Dome missile interceptors for the same mission.

    There is little chance of autocannon being scaled up in size to engage longer ranged missile like there is with the Tamir interceptor missiles in Iron Dome or making the US Army’s THAAD interceptor missiles into a ICBM mid-course defense intercptor.

  2. Postol’s analysis on Iron Dome is based on examining contrail patterns on youtube videos and amateur photos. There’s no way for him to tell where exactly the rockets were hit. He’s guessing, and his conclusions are based on performance of Patriot missiles in tests one and two decades ago.

    The IDF and the maker of the system don’t release any details about the interceptorss’ payloads or any details of the specific engagements, of which they study every one. If he had those details, then he would be worth listening to, but he doesn’t. Moore’s Law, enhancements in on-board radar, and kinetic kill vehicle technology all suggest that the Iron Dome system is as accurate as the IDF claims.

  3. >>Postol’s analysis on Iron Dome is based on examining contrail patterns on
    >>youtube videos and amateur photos

    This is what he did in 1991 — minus You tube of course.

    The US Army came out and said a couple of years in the mid-1990’s later their initial claims of warhead kills was off by an order of magnitude in Operation Desert Storm — closer to 4-to-5% rather than 40-to-50% for Patriot PAC-II missiles. So give Postol some credit in forcing that US Army technical rexamination, because it propelled the development of the Patriot Pac-III missile which is much better and also in IDF hands.

    Postol deserves none for Iron Dome.

  4. This reasoning is similar to the calculation of value for medical procedures, like colonoscopy, and just as subject to leftist distortion. The people who want to ration medical care will tell you all the downstream costs of a positive mammogram. Real decision theory involves the calculation of utilities for all the alternatives. One of the latter is death, for example. This is where the terminology of Quality Adjusted LIfe Years comes from but the lefties like Ezekiel Emmanuel don’t do the calculation honestly.

  5. The difference seems to be failure at a subtask and a failed system. The system succeeds if no Israelis die. The task succeeds if a head on collision happens and you have mid-air destruction of the Hamas warhead. The article asserts failure at task. The unsaid implication is that it’s a failed system. That implication will remain unsaid because it is actually unsupportable.

  6. Agree with TM Lutas. There seems to be a verbal sleight-of-hand in the cited article.

    Also: “Instead of smoothly rising to meet their targets, the interceptors were making sharp turns and engaging from the side or behind, he says.”

    If true, isn’t this how current air-to-air missiles that are capable of high-G maneuvering behave? And if so, how is it a problem? Perhaps Iron Dome interceptors have maneuvering capability as back-up to their ballistic targeting.

  7. “The ABM cost/benefit equation isn’t “Fire 60 Quassams for a cost of $44,400 to cause the Israelis to expend $2.4 million dollars worth of interceptors to shoot down each Quassam.”
    It’s actually “Fire 60 Quassams for a cost of $44,400 to get five on a trajectory that will have them impact in a city center.”
    Total cost to the Israelis of firing ten interceptors to negate the threat of those five rockets in the salvo that are actually going to hit something? Only $400 grand. Considering that the VSI for an Israeli is between $138 and $380 grand if a rocket inflicts a serious injury, it’s a bargain.”

    bear in mind a tamir is $500K, so if you fire 10 you fired off the economic value of 2 lives.

    what could $5 million be used for in other circumstances? Perhaps buying solar panels, and wind turbines, perhaps relocating settlements back a little farther
    so the people are outside the range of theqassam, or perhaps putting money into hospitals, or better public health.

    given the choices of any public sector, is the tamir the best choice?

  8. Here’s the other part that this is missing – if Israel is paying for the Iron Dome with their own money and investing it locally, shouldn’t this be counted as an “investment” in their country with the typical Keynesian economic multiple? Wouldn’t it be analogous to salaries for your local police or fire brigade? In the USA we used this sort of logic to pay for a giant stimulus package that didn’t deliver anything nearly as useful or cool as a system that can shoot down enemy rockets.

    I’m only partially joking on this.

    Plus this investment and the field testing means that Israel can sell it to someone else and then make money on it – so Iron Dome is really an investment and I’m not joking at all.

  9. There was a Saturday Night Live skit where the comedian playing Obama had only one economic recommendation – “hire teachers. Hire teachers.”

    The Iron Dome is a better investment than that…

  10. I don’t know what the relative costs to the attackers and defenders are here. It may be that the Israelis are spending a huge amount per life saved, and in simple cost/benefit terms would get better results per $ by applying their Iron Dome budget to road safety or public health or whatever.

    However, as Trent notes, one of the main benefits of Iron Dome is that it substantially reduces public pressure on the Israeli govt to do something immediately in response to rocket attacks, and thus facilitates a strategic rather than merely reactive response.

    Also, there really isn’t a choice about deploying an interceptor system such as Iron Dome, because sooner or later Israel’s enemies are going to start using larger, more accurate and/or more destructive missiles, perhaps even with chemical or nuclear warheads. Israel needs an effective defense before that happens. So the fact that the marginal cost of shooting down a cheap rocket today is high, if that is indeed the case, is beside the point. It’s more important that Israel has or is about to have the capability to destroy incoming missiles that are capable of causing mass destruction.

  11. I think you’re missing a key point. Israel is doing well defending their population. They are also attacking launch points. Hamas is not killing Israelis, but is getting lots of their population killed or left homeless. That removes popular support for the attacks, since they’re not only achieving nothing, they’re actively harmful to the attacking population. That’s not a prescription for continued attacks. Israel is succeeding.

  12. >>Tamir is $500K

    $400K was 2011.

    Tamir has been in series production for three years with several thousand built (IDF would plan against the 2006 Lebanon War standard of 4,000 rockets x 2 Tamir per rocket = at least 8,000 Tamir) and benefits from a production cost curve reduction.

    Pure guess — Tamir missiles are likely are 20-to-30% cheaper than in 2011.

  13. HAMAS has fired over 900 rockets to date.

    With this yard stick —

    • 1 Death for every 93 rockets during an intense bombardment
    • 1 Serious Wound for every 39.6 rockets during an intense bombardment

    Iron Dome has saved roughly nine lives and 23 serious injuries too date.

    BTW, the individual cost of a Tamir interceptor missile was estimated between $35,000 and $50,000 in 2011.

    Current wikipedia numbers put it in the $20,000 per interceptor missile cost range today.

    That makes the cost of 10 interceptor missiles to neutralize 60 Quassams $200,000 for the Israelis compared to a cost to the Palestinians of $44,400.

    How much bigger is Israel’s economy than HAMAS?

    This is a level of material attrition that Israel can stand as long as their Tamir interceptor missile factories are running.

  14. “one of the main benefits of Iron Dome is that it substantially reduces public pressure on the Israeli govt to do something immediately in response to rocket attacks”

    Egypt, no friend of the Muslim Brotherhood, has entered the equation with a truce proposal that Israel has accepted.

    The Egyptian proposal is a 100% victory for Israel. The elements of the Egyptian proposal do not include any of the demands that Hamas has been repeating day and night in the last few days including release of prisoners, end to the naval blockade, opening the border on the Egyptian side, the rebuilding of the Gaza airport, and some cash to pay its employees.

    Hamas may be losing its Arab support and the Palestinians have always been more popular in Europe than in the Arab countries.

    interesting times.

  15. pat b. wrote without any evidence: “bear in mind a tamir is $500K…”


    As noted above by Trent Telenko today’s current estimated marginal cost is $20,000 per war shot.

    pat b. cost include amortization of the entire system per war shot. That value is in error as the costs to develop Iron Dome are what accountants refer to as ‘sunk costs’. They have already been spent and cannot be recovered.

    That confuses marginal costs with sunk costs. No doubt pat b.’s personal financial status would be enhanced with a class in “Cost Accounting”. :-}

    Additional the Israelis – and many others – are working on systems to use H.E.L. to knock out incoming threats. Iron Dome has already done the really, really hard part; targeting.

    No engineers have to refine lasers to be able to deliver military grade power in a repeatable way so as not to destroy the anti-missile weapon itself. That will lower the cost per war shot to $25 or even less.

    HAMAS or Iran or North Korea will soon find out that expensive missile technology is so very 20th century.

  16. Pat B,

    This round of Israeli-Paslestinian fighting is more a case of Hamas being out of money…but not ammunition.

    Egypt’s recent cut off of tunnel smuggling to Gaza also cut of the HAMAS tax base via the taxes on tunnel smuggling HAMAS charged. So HAMAS is without the cash to pay 40K worth of Gaza civil servant salaries — AKA the entire Gaza middle class.

    There was an agreement a few weeks ago with the PLO that Hamas would leave the Gaza government in favor of the PLO, who had the cash to pay civil servant salaries.

    Then it was realized by the HAMAS leadership that their Military wing would still not get paid by anyone because of their support of Anti-Shia ISIS fighters, Al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic fundamentalists _simultaneously_ has pretty much pissed off all possible sources of revenue.

    The current fighting is a typical case of Palestinian “Après moi, le déluge” with the Hamas Military Wing as the irrational actors of the moment.

    Right now it is in the PLO’s Egypt’s and Israel’s interest to prolong the conflict via offering HAMAS “reasonable” to everyone but Hamas terms, so that the Gaza Palestinians will so hate HAMAS fighters that they will welcome PLO security forces to hunt down and kill any remaining Hamas fighters.

    Who knows, that may even be what happens…but we are talking Palestinians here.

  17. Anon,

    What I am doing with this article is using the “The True Cost of Road Crashes: Valuing life and the Cost of a Serious injury” as a cost accounting device to show what the Israeli economy is _avoiding_ in terms of lifetime GDP loss via neutralizing Palestinian rockets with Iron Dome.

    Based on past rocket bombardment casualty data — minus Iron Dome — Israel would have suffered nine deaths and 23 serious injuries from the 900 plus HAMAS rocket campaign too date.

    When you use the official Value of Statistical Life (VSL) and the Value of Serious Injuries (VSI) Israeli numbers for lifetime individual per capita GDP damage that works out to the following:

    VSL: $1.28 to $2.4 million USD X 9 = $11.52 to $21.6 million
    VSI: $138,600 to $380,500 USD X 23 = $3.19 to $8.75 million
    for a total avoided GDP loss of $14.7 to $30.35 million.

    The $3.08 million cost in Tamir interceptor missiles ammunition [77 HAMAS rockets out of 900(+) on deadly trajectories X 2 Tamir each at $20,000 per interceptor] has a ROI of somewhere between five and 10 based on the avoided GDP loss data above in terms of economic damage to Israel avoided via Iron Dome ABM ammunition expenditures.

    This leaves aside the considerable and unknowable other costs of brick and mortar infrastructure damage in Israeli heavily populated areas that were also prevented.

    Hamas meanwhile has fired off at least $670,000 in rocket ammo and lost some significant fraction of the 81 people the IDF has killed to date for no return, no cash flow for their paid killers and no prospects of getting any, other than by losing it’s killers to the PLO payroll.

    This superior cost accounting is where “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” dies.

  18. “Egypt’s recent cut off of tunnel smuggling to Gaza also cut of the HAMAS tax base via the taxes on tunnel smuggling HAMAS charged. So HAMAS is without the cash to pay 40K worth of Gaza civil servant salaries — AKA the entire Gaza middle class.”

    Trent, it’s even worse than you think.

    Smuggled Egyptian gasoline retails for 3.6 shekels/Liter, as opposed to 7.1 shekels/liter for Israeli gasoline. Same thing for diesel fuel — 3.6 shekels/L for smuggled diesel vs 6.5 for Israeli diesel.

    HAMAS after they took over Gaza, basically had to start to pay for everything themselves, whereas the PLO/PA simply uses international aid money to pay for Israeli fuel to be shipped to them irregardless of the cost.

    And no, these aren’t ‘special’ prices the Israelis made up just for Gaza — Israeli fuel prices are that expensive for normal israelis — 7.6 Shekels/L translates to about $8.41/gallon (!!!)

    [Small aside; gas prices are also a major factor in why we keep seeing hitchhikers getting nicked every so often over there — when you’re young and poor, have someone ELSE pay for gas!]

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