The conflict between Israel and Iran emerged from the shadows early Thursday morning. Forces allegedly backed by Iran fired 20 rockets from Syria into Israel’s Golan Heights positions. Israel replied with 50 airstrikes against Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria.
Israel is worried about Iranian-backed forces like Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. It claims they have 100,000 to 150,000 rockets. To keep them from getting more advanced missiles, Israel periodically launches airstrikes there.
Other countries face rocket and missile threats too. On Wednesday, Houthi rebels fired ballistic missiles (allegedly Iranian-supplied) at Saudi Arabia. Iran’s growing missile arsenal alarms its Arab neighbours. Half a world away, the U.S. worries about North Korean ICBMs.
It’s not surprising then that missile interceptors are in fashion. Israel credited its Iron Dome system with intercepting four rockets on Thursday. Saudi Arabia employs American-made Patriots, though their effectiveness has been questioned. In March, U.S. Congress approved an US$11.5 billion missile defence budget. Some U.S. lawmakers want Iron Dome too.
Civil defences deserve attention
By contrast, civil defences like warning sirens and bomb shelters receive less press coverage. Spectacular interceptor launches are more photogenic than concrete block houses.
But Israel’s own experience shows civil defences deserve at least as much attention as interceptors. That’s why it reopened public bomb shelters near its northern border earlier this week.
That’s also why, from 2005 to 2014, Israel spent US$384 million to reinforce buildings. By 2014, more than 70 per cent of homes had shelters. More shelters have been built since then, especially in the south. The northern region is less well-equipped.
The country simultaneously invested another US$140 million in rocket warning systems. Loud speakers and cellphone apps give increasingly precise alerts.
Even interceptor advocates agree civil defences save lives and prevent injuries. An analysis of the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah noted that most rocket deaths involved people out in the open. Rocket fatality rates declined once warning systems were fine-tuned and residents learned to take shelter.
The benefits of civil defences have also been observed for rocket fire from Gaza. For example, they helped reduce casualties during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas militants there in 2008-2009. Some 617 rockets landed in Israel during the conflict.
One study estimated that southern Israel’s defences reduced rocket casualties by at least a factor of three from 2000 to 2010. For example, suppose residents had not received warnings and taken shelter during Cast Lead. There could have been more than 423 rocket injuries instead of 141.
Interceptors or shelters?
My own research indicates that losses on a per-rocket basis continued to drop after Cast Lead. That was despite rising rocket sizes and ranges.
Interceptor advocates credit Iron Dome for those decreases. But the data suggest civil defence enhancements were at least as effective as the interceptor deployments.
How much can be attributed to civil defence improvements? Consider Operation Pillar of Defense. During eight days in 2012, Israeli airstrikes pounded Gaza while Hamas militants fired 1,506 rockets at Israel.
According to my calculations, death and injury rates per rocket in that conflict fell 36 per cent relative to Cast Lead. The improvements therefore prevented roughly three extra deaths and 135 extra injuries. That’s on top of the pre-existing protection provided by Cast Lead-era shelters.
The benefits were bigger during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which involved more than 3,000 rockets. My study suggests civil defence enhancements cut fatalities 71 per cent and casualties 75 per cent compared to Cast Lead. That avoided about five deaths and 250 injuries, again on top of the benefits from previously built defences.
Civil defences also offer advantages over interceptors. One is price. Iron Dome ammunition reportedly costs over $100,000 per shot. Other interceptors are even pricier. By contrast, shelters and warning systems involve minimal usage costs.
Civil defences also tolerate large salvos almost as well as individual rockets. By contrast, too many rockets arriving at once could overwhelm an Iron Dome battery.
That risk hasn’t mattered against Hamas’ relatively small salvos. But it could be a problem against Hezbollah forces potentially firing 1,000 rockets daily, or against attackers using decoys to distract interceptors. (Machine gun bullets apparently will do the trick.)
Of course, interceptors offer advantages too. Successful interceptions protect people and property. Shelters, on the other hand, only protect people, and only if they’re inside.
The best approach combines interceptors and civil defences in mutual support. Unfortunately, even that can’t completely prevent missile deaths and injuries. It also doesn’t prevent their disruptions to daily life and economic activity — all factors that leaders in Israel and elsewhere should consider carefully as they navigate these tense times.