Don't Doubt the Iron Dome
Despite little to show in the way of damages, critics of the Iron Dome missile defense system, Theodore Postol in particular, have remained vocal in their insistence that the system does not work. Professor Postol is most vocal, but other experts have also spoken out, namely the late Richard M. Lloyd, a warhead expert formerly with Raytheon; the late Reuven Pedatzur, a former IDF fighter pilot and proponent of laser-based defensive systems; and Israel Defense Prize winner, Mordechai (Moti) Shefer.
Postol and Lloyd have conducted ‘scientific’ studies. Pedatzur did not conduct a scientific study himself, but as a vocal Iron Dome critic, he had written disparagingly about the product for years, while also promoting a rival system. Moti Shefer has also not provided any data, or written anything in English about his work, and has simply claimed that the interceptors are self-destructing as they pretend to intercept false rockets created by the IDF for psychological purposes.
While Israeli coverage has nearly universally supported the claims of the IDF regarding effectiveness of the Iron Dome (Haaretz is one exception), the international press has shown considerably more skepticism. Leading international media including the New York Times, the BBC, and Reuters have all featured articles, or series of blogs about the system questioning its efficacy, and/or the claims of the IDF.
Major scientific and defense industry media including MIT Technology Review, The Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, and Defense One have all featured articles questioning the accomplishments of the Iron Dome.
Support for the anti-Iron Dome camp has come from respectable sources including Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund (an organization that as recently as 2009 funded Professor Postol’s ‘Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group’ at MIT, and has also funded The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, one of the sites which published Postol’s own work on the Iron Dome), who tweeted about the Iron Dome “If you thought it was too good to be true, you were right”. Questioned further about this statement, Cirincione said that he knew Pedatzur (the author of Haaretz’s March 2013 anti-Iron Dome article) and trusted his integrity.
The only person to seriously contest the claims of Postol, Pedatzur, Lloyd and Shefer, is Uzi Rubin (Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East blog, Reuters blog), the former head of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization from 1991 to 1999.
So what makes these claims so controversial and why has the media coverage aired the skeptics’ views without a critical eye? More importantly, what exactly are the claims and why are they a problem, both technically and methodologically?
There is a striking similarity in the methods with which Postol approached both problems. In each case he took publically available footage (news broadcasts from 1991, and a combination of YouTube videos and TV footage from 2012 and 2014), and based his assessment upon similar factors.
His parallel methodology is strange given the vastly different circumstances. In 1991, both objects involved in an intercept were visible on camera due to their relatively larger size. However, in the Iron Dome engagements, only the contrail of the interceptor (TAMIR) is visible; the incoming rockets are too small to see with the naked eye. In the night time videos, the time when most attacks occurred, this source of error becomes even more important.
Postol, Lloyd and Pedatzur all looked at YouTube videos allegedly of the Iron Dome in action and determined that based upon one factor—the vapor trail behind the TAMIR—the intercept occurred at a particular location with a particular geometry. These videos are mostly unsourced, and by their very nature, are simplified 2D representations of more complex 3D movements. There is no measurable depth in the videos; it is impossible to accurately identify the 3-dimensional path of the one visible object, This problem is compounded because the object is capable of adjusting its flight path while in the air. Entirely precluding any reasonable interpretation based upon these factors, is the fact that as previously mentioned, the second object is impossible to see.
The YouTube videos in particular are an issue because Postol claims that there must be a secondary explosion visible (first the TAMIR, then the incoming rocket’s warhead). His analysis overlooks the fact that the frame rate and relatively low quality video are most likely to miss an event that happens in a millisecond at such a distance. The time between the two explosions is only a few thousandths of a second (video 1, video 2). Again, Postol’s failure to consider geometries and camera angles is a problem.
Postol seems to believe that the intercepting warhead used in the TAMIR is a scaled-down version of the Patriot, which he and Lloyd demonstrate would not always place the fragments into the incoming warhead at sufficient speed to detonate the attacking warhead. By 2006 or earlier, Rafael (the manufacturer of Iron Dome), knew that scaling down would not work as this patent shows. The company’s claim that a ‘special’ warhead is used in the Iron Dome seems not only reasonable, but also the most likely possibility.
Postol and Lloyd use these assumptions about the specifications of the TAMIR warhead in their rough calculations of the success rate of the intercepting warhead. Interestingly enough their estimates were vastly different (5% vs 40%), despite operating under similar assumptions.
This patent is publically available (and is not classified by the Israelis or Americans); there is no reason why a professor at MIT or a ‘warhead expert’ (as Richard Lloyd is described) should be unable to find this information, or at least acknowledge it in their work.
Postol has claimed that a 2007 ‘Iron Dome Warhead Test’ provides enough information to determine the type of warhead used in the TAMIR. Given the length of time between 2007 and the deployment of Iron Dome, it seems strange to assume that there have been no changes to the system. This was an early stage test; one would expect the finalized system to have undergone changes.
The Rafael video of this test is used by Postol as proof that there must be double explosions shown in the intercept videos, while disregarding the fact that these tests were filmed with an ultra-high speed camera (judging by the time stamp, it appears as though the camera captures images every 1/10000th of a second) of a static location; technology the amateur photographers who recorded the Iron Dome interceptions almost certainly did not have access to. Even the media who filmed better quality videos of interceptions are unlikely to have a camera with such capabilities especially considering the moving objects and shifting point of view.
The raw data from the computer systems running the Iron Dome is understandably classified by the IDF and will not be made public. As such, the methods used by the critics to evaluate and analyze the interception are crude at best, and they make an effort to include secondary factors of proof of the system’s inefficacy. Shockingly (or, for the more cynical, perhaps not), the evidence used by the critics has changed over time, as more and more of their arguments and the evidence they use are contradicted.
The criticism of Iron Dome pre-dates the deployment of the system. As far back as 2008, Reuven Pedatzur criticized the system for its inability to protect Sderot, a town adjacent to the Gaza border. This is no longer a valid concern as the Iron Dome protects the city (the intercept rates are lower for Sderot than the overall system average which will be addressed later).
Another argument was that the system is less cost-effective than the two other methods of intercepting (rapid-fire guns and lasers), because the cost per missile is higher than the cost of the materials used by the gun or laser. This was disproven in a 2008 study, which showed that up to a point (around 5000 intercepts) missiles were actually cheaper than the alternatives (After this point the other options are more cost-effective).
There are also weaknesses with guns and lasers as neither of them can engage multiple targets simultaneously, and lasers in particular have trouble with acclimate weather and dust. Given the ways in which Hamas and other Palestinian militants have tried different tactics of barrages and salvoes, the other two competing intercepting methods would have been overwhelmed in the 2012 and 2014 conflicts. This in turn would have resulted in higher numbers of casualties and property damage.
Once the system was deployed, the criticism continued from Israeli sources, in particular Reuven Pedatzur. It was not until the 2012 conflict—named Operation Cloud Pillar or Operation Shale Stones depending on which side you were on— that international critics started to speak out. Interestingly, in the midst of hostilities, Professor Postol was interviewed by MIT’s Technology Review where he praised the system, calling it ‘miraculous’, while pointing out the clear differences in scale between intercepting the much slower rockets used by Palestinian militants opposed to intercepting supersonic ICBM’s used by states.
Three days later, an article in The Globe and Mail featured a quote from the professor expressing skepticism and a conspiracy theory: “I’m skeptical. I suspect it is not working as well as the Israelis are saying … but there is great value in the strategic deception”.
Postol and Lloyd first argued that the number of damage claims means that the Iron Dome was unsuccessful. This has been comprehensively disproven by Uzi Rubin on several occasions as he has pointed to consistently lower proportions of damages over time, even as the quality and size of the rockets (and their warheads) used has increased.
Once the damage claim numbers were refuted, Postol then argued that one of the reasons why there have been so few casualties is because an “overwhelming number” of rockets sent to Israel have very small warheads, in the 10-20 pound range. Finkelstein has repeated these arguments, though he has demonstrated he has even less understanding of what types of weaponry are used, and how these weapons are acquired (he claims that the smuggling tunnels into Gaza have all been closed so it is impossible for Palestinian militants to have the larger varieties of rockets).
During Operation Protective Edge there were over 1000 rockets of the larger variety (Grad and larger with warheads measuring ~45 pounds and higher). This can be determined by looking at the number of rockets known to have travelled to or targeted specific cities and comparing the distance to these cities from Gaza and the maximum range of the various rockets. These rockets were aimed at cities, so one would expect these 1000 rockets caused considerable damage. Media and social media show little to no evidence of this damage. Postol’s explanation for the lack of widespread damage is that there are dozens, hundreds or perhaps thousands of impact craters across Israel that no one has noticed. He does not explain the lack of supporting documentation by Israelis and foreigners living in Israel. And he does not explain how these 1000 urban impact craters have remained hidden from the world. Does he believe the entire country is in on a massive conspiracy?
Postol next argued that changes to Israel’s civil defense system have rendered the rockets more or less harmless (if civilians make it to shelters in time). This doesn’t explain the lack of damage claims. As Rubin said in a September 2014 presentation in Washington, D.C. “Real estate cannot take shelter, if it is not damaged, it means the rocket didn’t hit”.
In an interview for Reuters, Postol claimed that the Tzeva Adom alarm system, rather than the Iron Dome, was responsible for saving innumerable lives. After the devastating 2006 war with Hezbollah where over 50 Israelis were killed by rockets, Human Rights Watch credited Israeli civil defense measures (including the Tzeva Adom system) with limiting the number of casualties. The most significant difference between 2006 and 2012/2014 is the implementation of the Iron Dome system. There were slight improvements to the Tzeva Adom system and notification process, but the sheltering system pre-dated the 2006 war.
In the same interview Postol claimed that a new Tzeva Adom cell phone app saved lives as well. In reality, the various apps have been plagued with programming problems and regularly crash. Additionally, it is often delayed by up to 30 seconds, rendering it unreliable as a protective measure. Not only does the standard Tzeva Adom include an ear-splitting siren, most Israeli cities are between 15-60 seconds flight-time from Gaza. Someone ignoring the blaring sirens and basing their sheltering practices on the app, would be unnecessarily exposing themselves to danger.
It is bizarre that a reputable scientist from one of the world’s leading technical institutions would regularly change his evidence while keeping the same conclusion. It is even more strange that a leading warhead expert would have also reached the same conclusions. But what is most mind-boggling are the failures by the media to critique these individuals and their obviously suspect claims.
Most of the coverage by the media referring to Pedatzur fails to note his conflict of interest as a proponent of laser defensive systems, or the fact that the system he supported was one of the proposals rejected by Danny Gold and the IDF. Richard Lloyd also appears to have had a serious conflict of interest. A LinkedIn profile page appearing to belong to Mr. Lloyd claims to have developed a new “Iron Dome Warhead kill mechanism”. This information is dated December 2012, a full 3 months before the New York Times article was published, which should have allowed the NYT plenty of time to note Lloyd’s financial and professional conflicts of interest.
Mr. Lloyd had another potential conflict of interest; he previously worked for Raytheon for several decades. The circumstances of his leaving the company are unclear, but it is known that Lloyd was detained at JFK within a month of him no longer working for Raytheon with two classified laptops he was not authorized to possess. His home was searched following this incident by agents of the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Freedom of Information Act requests were made to both the FBI and ICE about this incident. While ICE refused to hand over documents citing ‘ongoing investigations’, the FBI has provided redacted documents on the detention. These documents answer few questions, and raise additional ones. This is all despite Mr. Lloyd being deceased since before the time the requests were filed.
One of the most concerning parts of the coverage is the fact that none of the journalists took the time to check the photos (used by Postol in particular) to verify their accuracy and if they actually depict what he says they do. The author was able to identify four instances of manipulation of photos by Professor Postol; manipulations that cast a serious doubt on the ethical nature of his work, and also raise the possibility that perhaps he has manipulated other data in his published work.
In his memo published by the anti-Iron Dome and pro-THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser also known as Skyguard or Nautilus) group Magen laOref (translated as ‘Home-front Shield’), Postol writes that one of the photographs contains an image depicting the damage from a Qassam rocket.
The original source for this image is a 2007 presentation on Hezbollah’s rockets in the 2006 war (on the left) by Uzi Rubin (the same man who has defended Iron Dome from Postol et. al.). The photograph is titled as “Impact of a 220mm Anti-Personnel Rocket”. Even if the qualitative differences between the two projectiles are minimal, it is strange and unethical for Postol to take a photograph from someone else, changed the aspect ratio and then caption the image differently without acknowledging the original source at all.
Further in the memo Postol has a grainy photo with the following descriptive text “The next photograph shows another example of a rocket casing that has been bent by glancing blows from Iron Dome warhead fragments… One can see on the front end of the rocket, bent back sheets of rocket motor casing indicating that the warhead exploded.”
The photo first appears in a ‘Times of Israel’ article with a larger version of the same photo where it is written that “An Israeli police sapper carries a Kassam rocket that landed in an open field near the Israel-Gaza border in December 2011”. The IDF only intercepts rockets projected to impact in urban areas; an open field near the Israel-Gaza border is not an ‘urban area’. In addition to Postol’s altered annotation, the original image is copyrighted by Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90, yet Mr. Abayov is not credited in the memo.
The last and most troubling instance of improperly used photos in the memo is in regards to the following photo which has been in existence since 2009, at least two years before Iron Dome was deployed.
Postol’s annotation of this image states that “The photo shows an example of a rocket carcass that was hit by a fragment near the top of the rocket motor casing. This indicates that there was a fusing error that led to a failure to place fragments on the rocket’s warhead”. This photo pre-dates Iron Dome deployment by at least 2 years; it would be impossible for the Iron Dome to be involved in any way. Lastly, while perhaps a relatively minor detail, this copyrighted photo of Mr. Abayov was again not credited.
The memo is indubitably the product of Professor Postol as the font used, and stylistic practices in the document are identical to other documents known to be from the man. There are striking similarities in writing style as well.
The memo hosted by Magen laOref is not the only Iron Dome-related work from which Postol misuses images. In an article for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Postol includes an image with the accompanying text: “A view of damage apparently caused by the detonation of the warhead of this rocket when it hit ground.” The original source of this image was an article by YnetNews where the caption reads “The shrapnel that hit the Tel Aviv synagogue”.
Postol’s cropped image is inundated with debris, while the larger Ynet photo has relatively much less in the way of damage; nearby floor tiles are barely damaged. Even if the Iron Dome failed to intercept this rocket (there was one known failure in the Tel Aviv Metro Area in 2014; flights were even cancelled after a rocket landed near the international airport), it is unclear why Postol would claim that there was a detonation of a warhead. There is no impact crater shown, and if the warhead actually did explode on the ground, wouldn’t the 100+ pound warhead have created much more destruction?
Postol doubles down on this assertion in Figure 4A where he uses a blown-up version of his edited image and writes ‘Holes in an empty rocket motor casing suggest that an Iron Dome interceptor warhead exploded too late to detonate the target rocket warhead in the air.’ If as Postol said, the warhead detonated when it hit the ground, and the Tamir indeed failed, why isn’t there a crater? Postol told Reuters that there would be an impact crater for nearly every rocket. Does he believe that there is a conspiracy by the Israeli media to cover up any damage in Israel?
Here are 3 additional photos of this same scene progressively further away from the impact location which help identify the synagogue as well as its precise position in Tel Aviv.
This synagogue is adjacent to an apartment building (shown in the last image) which was completely untouched despite being only meters from the impact site. Both buildings are located in the heart of the Tel Aviv Port (32.096244, 34.773993). If a rocket made it all the way to Tel Aviv, it would have to be one of the rockets with larger warheads and correspondingly one would expect there to be extensive damage to the scene. This is clearly not the case. Iron Dome critics from ‘Magen la Oref’ have claimed that a Grad rocket’s warhead leads to a damage radius of 50m. The rockets that travel all the way to Tel Aviv are larger than Grads and certainly have an even larger damage radius.
Even though there appears to be mainstream acceptance of Postol’s criticism, he also has affiliations with fringe individuals, appearing in YouTube videos with 9/11 conspiracy theorist Ryan Dawson, and (along with Richard Lloyd) assisting Assad propagandist Maram Susli in her attempts to disprove allegations of Syrian President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in August 2013. Both also assisted Seymour Hersh in his widely criticized Ghouta articles.
When questioned over Susli’s alleged Holocaust denial, Postol said “When I got statements from outside people saying she was a Holocaust denier, quite frankly I wasn’t going to ask her”. This pattern of behavior raises questions about his objectivity and judgment, yet is not atypical from one who has battled with the establishment for decades.
Adding to the questions about Postol’s integrity is the fact that he rarely cites the data he uses for his analysis, and appears to have manipulated most of the photos he uses as proof of Iron Dome’s fallibility.
Postol’s evidence has changed throughout his series of critiques yet he never acknowledges any errors in methodology, evidence or judgement. After each development or refutation of his claims Postol creates a new excuse, no matter how improbable or impossible it may be. It is as if he is unwilling to face the facts, a missile defense system appears to have done the impossible; operate with a high rate of success. (The success rate appears to increase the further the projectile travels; success rate in Sderot is much much lower than the near perfect rate in Tel Aviv. This is probably a function of the additional time given to the system and the operators to accurately determine the flight path of the projectile.)
Postol changed his mind between the MIT Tech Review interview and his interview with The Globe and Mail, yet his nearly instantaneous about-face has gone unquestioned by the multitude of reporters at leading global news organizations who have taken the time to speak to Postol. What made him change his mind? What could he have discovered in a mere 72 hours? There were no damage claim figures at the time, there were no police reports, there were no scenes of mass carnage or “widespread destruction” as The New York Times’ William Broad claimed. What was this all based upon?
Despite all of these serious issues with the work of Postol, Lloyd, Pedatzur and Shefer, the media has blindly accepted their work without question. Why is this?
A journalist wrote the following about Postol over a decade ago: “It would be easy to dismiss Postol as an eccentric loudmouth, if not for one thing. Postol was right once before”. One great paper, one piece of insightful analysis, one inspired sentence does not mean that the creator of said masterpiece is forever infallible. Especially in affairs concerning such a sensitive part of the world, in such a sensitive time, a critical eye is necessary.
There are troubling patterns in the work of the critics. First, they all have conflicts of interest or inherent biases which are downplayed or ignored by media sources, or the individuals themselves; second, the evidence given as proof of Iron Dome’s inefficacy is far from scientifically sound, and finally, most disturbing of all, are the multiple instances of uncredited and misleadingly edited and annotated photographs.
The endemic problems in the work of the Iron Dome critics, especially Postol, raise serious questions about their integrity, judgment and motivations. Are they crusaders against missile defense? What are their agendas? Why hasn’t anyone noticed their conflicts of interest? Are their lies limited to this one subject, or is this something habitual and wide-ranging? What is most clear is that miraculously, the Iron Dome appears to work exactly as advertized.