While Israelis are cheering the success of the new Iron Dome short range Missile Defense weapon, many have expressed doubts about the cost-effectiveness of the system. How can it be in Israel's interest, they ask, to use expensive interceptors to destroy cheap Arab rockets?
Israel's head Missile Defense guru, Uzi Rubin believes that this is a non-issue. He calls it: "The famous cost-exchange shibboleth." He explains that "Nursing one seriously wounded patient back to health could cost more to the national treasury than a batch of interceptor missiles. And what cost to a human life?"
In the US, Paul Nitze's cost- exchange "criteria" in 1985 were attempts by an intelligent, patriotic and devoted Arms Control negotiator to reconcile President Reagan's Missile Defense vision, embodied in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars," which helped to bring down the Soviet Union by forcing them to compete with a weapons program they could not afford) with technological and economic realities as they were understood at the time. Nitze wrote "... we would not deploy it (Missile Defense) unless we were convinced that it would cost an opponent more to add offsetting offensive military capabilities than it would cost us to add defenses that would negate his response." To put it another way the Nitze Criteria said that it should be cheaper to build a defensive missile defense weapon than it is to build an offensive nuclear missile.
Many hard core opponents of SDI imagined that the "Nitze Criteria" would insure the demise of Reagan's program, and that they would be able to get back to the old cycle of offensive nuclear-weapons build-ups, followed by arms control talks, followed by more nuclear-weapons being built and deployed. The Arms Control diplomats and some military people were comfortable with this cycle, and unhappy that President Reagan had radically changed their rules of engagement .
Nitze himself was more cautious than many of his fellow Arms Control establishmentarians. "... American technology.;" he wrote, "often achieves unanticipated breakthroughs" -- a nice way of saying that the revolution in information-technology that was fully underway in 1985, would in all likelihood lead to Missile Defense systems that, when mature, would be able to "Hit a bullet with a bullet." and do so at a reasonable cost.
Almost immediately after the Reagan administration accepted the "Nitze Criteria" as part of the Policy in setting out the goals of SDI, the debate moved into the esoteric realm of the "Soviet Estimate." This was a long running inside-the-beltway debate over just how big and how powerful the Soviet military, and the economy that supported it, really were. How could one judge that any given bit of Soviet technology was 'cost effective" when there was no reliable way to estimate what the real cost was? Should one use the official ruble rate or the black market rate? How much did a Soviet nuclear missile really cost? What assumptions about the size of the Soviet defense budget and the Soviet economy made sense? None of these questions was ever answered to everyone's satisfaction.
Today, the political decision to protect America and its allies from ballistic missile attacks has been taken. The argument is largely over how much to spend, and whether or not to deploy active anti-missile weapons in space. Any debates about how much a North Korean or Iranian long-range missile really costs are confined too obscure corners of the Intelligence Community or inside the tight little world of Arms Control academics.
The debate over the "Nitze Criteria" has shifted and is now in full blossom, although not under that name, in Israel. There, it is both a matter of life and death and an everyday reality. Five years ago, after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel decided to begin work on a missile defense system that would intercept and destroy at least some of the rockets that the Arabs had been using to target civilians for decades.
These weapons, which Israelis generally call Katyushas, are Russian-designed rockets that have a nominal range of 21 kilometers (13 miles) and carry an 18 kilogram (39 pound) warhead. They rarely kill anyone, but they do injure and damage civilians on a regular basis. The strategic aim behind the use of these rockets is to make normal life impossible for Israelis who live within range.
Defeating these weapons using the Iron Dome missile defense system may not make life 'normal' in the towns and villages that are under attack, but it does prevent injury and damage; and in time, the system may create a "new normal." The Israeli government has been thinking long and hard about Civil Defense, and often come up with a set of ingenious solutions. What may be more likely is that the Israeli people themselves will find ways to use the limited protection afforded by Iron Dome to adapt themselves to the danger.
The Iron Dome system consists of a pair of radars, a control center and two or three launchers for the "Tamir" interceptor missiles. The radars detect the enemy missile, and the control system decides within a few seconds if the missile is going to hit an inhabited area or not. If the missile is going to hit an empty field, then nothing is done and the rocket merely disturbs some dirt. But if the rocket is going to his a town or village, then one or two Tamir interceptors are fired, destroying the incoming rocket.
Published figures say that each Tamir costs between $25,000 and $40,000. As usual for cost estimates like this, they all depend on what is being counted as a cost, and what on assumptions the estimate is based. Yet if the cost question is looked at from the point of view of the attacker, and if the Nitze criteria are applied, an interesting picture emerges.
What does it cost Hamas and Iran to fire a Katyusha at Israel from Gaza? Estimates of the cost of a single Katyusha range from $250 to several thousand, with the larger estimate being more probable. What this cost does not include is the price that Iran and Hamas have to pay to smuggle the weapon from Iran to Gaza. Bribes must be paid to officials in the Sudan, Egypt and Sinai. While Hamas obviously does not have to pay to use the tunnels it controls, it must spend large sums every month on the upkeep and repair of its underground infrastructure where the rockets are stored.
No one in Israel or in the US has an accurate picture of how much all of this costs, and how to include Hamas's military overhead costs in an estimate of what price it pays to fire each Katyusha at Israel.
Like the US debate in the 1980s over the Nitze criteria, the argument in Israel is only marginally about the cost effectiveness of the Defense system. At its core is a political debate over whether or not, and at what cost, to defend the citizenry from danger.