The success cited by Israel for its Iron Dome antimissile system in its confrontation with Hamas has re-energized American missile defense advocates and generated new interest in the global arms bazaar from nations like South Korea that face short-range rocket threats from hostile neighbors.
But even ardent supporters of a continent-size missile shield to guard the United States and other NATO members acknowledge the limitations of Iron Dome, which is a tactical system designed to shoot down unsophisticated rockets — basically flying pipe bombs — with a range of less than 50 miles.
Some American technical experts also say they want hard evidence before judging whether Iron Dome knocked out as many rockets as Israel has claimed. Iron Dome’s most salient feature, according to American experts now examining after-action reports from Gaza, may well be its software: The system rapidly discriminates between incoming rockets that are hurtling toward a populated area and others not worth expending a far costlier Iron Dome interceptor to knock down.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas focused global attention on missile defenses, and came as the United States and its Arab allies have undertaken a costly effort to knit together a regional shield in the Persian Gulf to protect cities, oil refineries, pipelines and military bases from a potential Iranian attack.
“This will ratify the common-sense notion that these systems can play a role in defending you,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former under secretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. “It will be especially relevant as we move into an era in which there will be more countries with small inventories of rockets and missiles — and more countries that will want to defend against them in a reasonable way.”
The effort in the gulf is envisioned to include advanced radar as well as sets of two antimissile systems with accompanying radar: Patriot Advanced Capability interceptors and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. Those weapons would be linked with the radars and missiles carried aboard American Aegis warships in nearby waters.
There is a similar effort in the Pacific centered on radars in Japan, Aegis warships at sea and land-based interceptors in Alaska and California.
The Obama administration’s more recent focus has been the system to protect NATO allies in Europe with advanced radars based in Turkey and long-range interceptors to be based first in Romania and subsequently in Poland. American officials have emphasized that the limited number of interceptors in Europe are all about Iran, and would be inadequate to blunt Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal; but the system remains an irritant in relations with Moscow.
During the conflict with Hamas, Israeli officials report that Iron Dome knocked down more than 400 rockets on flight paths to populated areas, with a kill rate of 85 percent. Hamas is said to have fired off more than 1,400 rockets in all, but Israel was able to limit Hamas’s ability to launch more of its arsenal of 12,000 rockets with pre-emptive attacks on the storehouses where they were kept.
But some antimissile experts have expressed doubt about Israeli claims for Iron Dome, which is built by Israeli defense firms but has received about $275 million in financial support from the United States. Bright flashes can create a visual impression of overwhelming interceptor success, when in fact they may represent nothing more than the interceptor warhead blowing up, these skeptics warn.
“I’ve met the guys in Israel, and they’re smart,” said Richard M. Lloyd, an antimissile expert with more than a dozen patents and two major textbooks on warhead design to his credit. “But I’m not seeing the things I want to see” to prove that Iron Dome actually succeeded to the extent described by Israel.
Mr. Lloyd, who works for Tesla Laboratories Inc., a defense contractor in Arlington, Va., said he had studied dozens of publicly available photographs of spent rockets that landed on Israel. Few of them, he said, showed signs of damage from Iron Dome’s exploding warhead and the specific mechanism by which the interceptor is designed to make its kill — a dense spray of speeding metal fragments.
He acknowledged that some of the photographs may have been of enemy rockets that Iron Dome had not targeted because they were not headed toward populated areas. “I’m not saying the system is no good,” he stressed. “I’m saying I need more information.”
The president of Tesla Laboratories, George Stejic, echoed the doubts and said that the Israelis might have been tempted to exaggerate the degree of antimissile success as a calculated maneuver. “From a military perspective, the Israelis have every interest in overstating the efficacy of the system in order to deter missile launches,” he said. Israeli officials reject such skepticism, and stand by the statistics of Iron Dome’s success that they have released.
“The numbers are very accurate,” said one Israeli official who discussed sensitive internal assessments of Iron Dome on the condition of anonymity. “Many of these video clips and pictures were taken by citizens, not professionals. You cannot learn very much from videos taken with an iPhone.”
Iron Dome is wholly different from what would be required to defend a nation against long-range launchings by Iran or North Korea, even with their limited arsenals of those weapons, and it would do nothing to defend against a larger arsenal of intercontinental warheads, likely accompanied by decoys, from nations like Russia or China.
But South Korea has expressed interest in buying Iron Dome to defend the populated areas that have pushed toward the border with North Korea, which fields thousands of short-range rockets. Officials say Singapore has also been in discussions to purchase Iron Dome.
Israel acknowledges that Iron Dome is insufficient for its full missile-defense needs, and development is under way for David’s Sling, an antimissile system against medium-range rockets like those fielded by Hezbollah in Lebanon. An Arrow system is in the field to watch for a potential missile attack by a more distant Iran.
Missile defense enthusiasts in the United States now urge the American military to consider Iron Dome for support of ground units like those deployed in Afghanistan. “I think the successes of Iron Dome create a pretty big opening,” said Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.