A short piece in the Global Mail makes the important point that Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system, which has an 85% success rate against incoming rockets in the latest Gaza conflict, has given Israel the flexibility not to escalate the war. Yossi Drukker, from the Israeli weapons developer Rafael, is quoted as saying:
“If, say, 100 rockets fell on the city of Ashdod — that may not be the right number, but whatever the unacceptable figure would be — then Israel would have been compelled to send ground troops into Gaza. This way the government can consider a number of alternatives. Its hand isn’t being forced.”
Quick preface: I'm not making an argument about Israel here and the rights and wrongs of the Gaza conflict. This is a more abstract post about conflict and 'escalation control'.
When it works, missile defence allows a defender not only to protect their territory and population, but also to play a 'dead bat' against an aggressor, thus avoiding escalation from which it can be difficult to climb down. The article notes that Iron Dome is expensive compared to the crude rockets they're shooting down, but that does not include the material cost of the damage those rockets might do, or the risk of escalation if they are not intercepted.
But missile defences can also disturb the balance of power. If Israel's layered missile defence system could be scaled up for a country like South Korea, that country would no longer be at the mercy of North Korea's (potentially nuclear-tipped) missiles and artillery barrages. Rightly or wrongly, that would make Pyongyang more paranoid than ever about imperialist subjugation from the south.
Missile defence has been a boutique military capability for decades, but like smart weapons of other kinds, missile defence systems are getting cheaper and more accessible, and changing the contours of war and deterrence.
Photo by Flickr user Israel Defense Forces.