Thursday, May 26th | 25 Iyyar 5782

May 25, 2021 2:05 pm

Missile Defense, Mocked as ‘Fantasy,’ Is Big Winner of Israel-Gaza War

avatar by Ira Stoll


Streaks of light are seen from Ashkelon as Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, May 15, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The concept of missile defense, long mocked by mainstream journalists, was a big winner in the recent combat between Israel and the Hamas terrorist group.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored that in remarks Tuesday morning May 25 with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, Israel, thanking Blinken for “replenishments of Iron Dome interceptors that saved civilian lives.”

Blinken replied, “we had a detailed discussion about Israel’s security needs, including replenishing Iron Dome.”

US President Joe Biden made a similar point Thursday evening from the White House. “The Prime Minister also shared with me his appreciation for the Iron Dome system, which our nations developed together and which has saved the lives of countless Israeli citizens, both Arab and Jew,” Biden said. “I assured him of my full support to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system to ensure its defenses and security in the future.”

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The Israeli Air Force said that during the recent hostilities about 4,340 rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel. About 640 of those were failed launches that wound up falling in Gaza. The Iron Dome defense had an “an intercept rate of approximately 90%,” the Israeli Air Force said, meaning thousands of incoming rockets were destroyed in midair, before they had a chance to damage Israeli targets.

Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Bill Hagerty have introduced the Emergency Resupply for Iron Dome Act of 2021, which their press release describes as “a bill to authorize the Executive Branch to redirect US foreign assistance to help Israel replenish its highly-effective missile defense interceptors.”

When US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Israel in April, he visited the Nevatim airbase south of Jerusalem, where he saw the Iron Dome and two other missile-defense systems, David’s Sling and the Arrow.

With missile defense deployed and operational and winning bipartisan praise, it’s worth looking back at some of the previous press coverage.

William J. Broad, a New York Times science writer, covered Iron Dome in 2013 under the headline “Weapons Experts Raise Doubts About Israel’s Antimissile System.” Broad’s article made reference to what he asserted had been “a half-century of global antimissile failures.”

A similarly derisive tone characterizes the previous half-century of Times news and editorial coverage. “After Many Misses, Pentagon Still Pursues Missile Defense” was the headline over a 1999 Broad news article that began with a reference to “decades of flops” and proceeded to describe the task as “diabolically hard.”

As with so many contemporary controversies, the missile defense fight has its origins in the Cold War, and in the administration of President Reagan, whose championing of the Strategic Defense Initiative helped to defeat the Soviet Union. “Soviet Scientists Call Missile Defense Plan by US an Illusion,” was a headline over a wire story in the Times in 1983. “Missile Shield Illusion” was the headline over a Times editorial in 2000 describing it as “technologically unworkable,” a “fantasy.” In 2018, the Times editorialists were flogging the same “illusion” terminology coined by the Soviets back in the 1980s: “The Dangerous Illusion of Missile Defense,” was the headline of that editorial, which eventually grudgingly did concede, almost in passing, that “Missile defense needs to be part of the United States’ strategy.”

The rest of the left-leaning press has been similarly hostile to the technology. “$40 billion missile defense system proves unreliable,” was the headline over a 2014 Los Angeles Times investigation.

What’s really proved “unreliable” has been not the concept of missile defense, but the press coverage and the so-called scientific experts on which it relied.

Missile defense critics draw distinctions between space-based long-range ballistic missile defenses and short-range or medium-range systems that defend against rockets or cruise missiles. Maybe those distinctions, and the ones about nuclear and conventional missiles being defended against, do matter. It could also be, though, that missile defense is similar to lots of other emerging technologies, in that trial and error precede success. Persisting past the naysayers produces rewards.

Self-assuredly wrong reporting winds up eroding the overall credibility of science journalism. The New York Times insisted over and over again that missile defense is an “illusion.” Now, though, Biden, Blinken, Cruz, Cotton, and Rubio all acknowledge that the Israeli Air Force’s Iron Dome has protected civilians by shooting down incoming rockets. It raises doubts about other scientific matters where the Times and its experts have been similarly confident and perhaps will eventually be shown to be similarly wrong, such as, say, dismissing the lab-leak hypothesis for the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The missile defense critics used to joke, cruelly, that if Richard Perle, Albert Wohlstetter, Edward Teller, and other Strategic Defense Initiative advocates were so confident in the technology, they should go test it themselves under an enemy nuclear attack. The converse of that also applies: if the missile defense critics are so confident that the technology is “technologically unworkable,” a “fantasy,” let them go to Israel and withstand, with no Iron Dome, a barrage of 4,340 rockets launched from Gaza by Hamas. The real fantasists are the ones who have tried so hard to prevent America and our allies from defending ourselves.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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