Holocaust Remembrance: In the Rocket’s Red Glare

Today, as Jews around the world commemorated the Day of Remembrance for the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah, political figures are struggling to cope with nuclear armament issues putting Holocaust observances in the shadow of the rocket’s red glare. In Israel, the date for the observance shifts along with the lunar calendar so that, this year, the 7oth anniversary falls on the 27th day of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar and April 15 and April 16 on the western calendar. (In the Hebrew calendar, the day begins at sunset of the previous day so that all dates on the Hebrew calendar are celebrated for two successive dates on the Western calendar.)

Much of the world, however, follows the UN, which selected January 27th – the date that Russian troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Many Israelis wanted to fix the date for the remembrance to celebrate the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on April 19, 1943 (the 14th day of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar), but that date would have conflicted with Passover, during which no mourning celebrations are allowed. The final date was fixed to fall eight days before Israel’s Independence Day.

This year, the Remembrance of the Holocaust has been framed by some events that are deeply troubling for Israelis. The United States and its Western Allies have reached what they believe is a tentative settlement with Iran over the future of Iran’s nuclear program, which will allow Iran to continue developing its nuclear industry. Many Israelis, led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, believe that the failure to stop Iran’s nuclear program is a direct threat to their safety.

Russian S300 missile batterhy
Russian S300 missile batterhy

Yesterday’s announcement that Russian President Vladimir Putin has lifted the ban on the sale of Russian anti-missile systems to Iran raised speculations that such defensive systems could be used to protect Iran’s nuclear industry from missile attacks in the event that Iran went ahead with the development of weapons grade uranium or plutonium products in violation of the proposed treaty with the US and its negotiating partners.

US Massive Ordnance Penetrator in flight
US Massive Ordnance Penetrator in flight

The U.S. countered the Russian move by issuing press releases extolling the success of recent tests documenting the readiness of the Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000 pound remotely piloted smart bomb capable of destroying Iran’s massive, heavily armored underground nuclear facilities. Point, counterpoint.

Combined, these two announcements reminded Israelis of how tenuous their situation has become. The announcement also reminded Israelis of their experiences during the Gulf Wars, when Iraq, in the midst of its battles with the Western Alliance, took time off from those conflicts to launch Scud rockets against Israel, which was sheltered behind the American Patriot missile defense system. Despite reports to the contrary, the only confirmed failure of the Patriot anti-missile system took place in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, when a Patriot missile failed to deflect a Russian-made Iraqi Scud that hit an American Army barrack, killing 28 and injuring 100.

Patriot Missile Battery (German Air Force)
Patriot Missile Battery (German Air Force)

The Israelis had better luck with their Patriot missiles after, having been warned by the failure of the Dharan installation, Israeli engineers found a bug in the software that powers the Patriot system and corrected it before the Scuds could do more damage. The Patriot missile systems are expensive, however, so expensive that using them to mount an impermeable defense against Hamas’s scud rocket attacks would not be feasible. A single missile can cost an average of $3.5 million, depending on its mission, and each launcher costs another $3.6 million.

In addition to the worrisome negotiations over Iran’s nuclear capabilities and Russia’s willingness to provide Iran with defensive missiles to protect their nuclear plants, Israel has even more to worry about, because their vaunted “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense system appears to be failing. Built in Israel with American funding, the Iron Dome system costs upwards of $50 million for each installation. Ten are already in place, with five more under construction, for a total cost of $750 million. However, the operating costs for the installations are much more tolerable, with an estimated cost of $20,000 per interception. By October of 2014, the Iron Dome had intercepted more than 1,200 rockets for an estimated operating cost of $24 million. The same number of interceptions by Patriot missiles would have cost $4.2 billion for the missiles alone.

What have these rockets got to do with Holocaust Remembrance ceremonies? Quite a lot, actually, when you realize that Israel still suffers from a massive “Masada” complex. Masada was the Jews’ mountaintop fortress that withstood a Roman siege by a vastly superior force (with some estimates putting the disparity between attackers and defenders at 10 to one) for anywhere from nine weeks to eight months, depending on which scholar you believe.

The point, however, is that the myth of Masada is one of the enduring – and most beloved – traditions of the Israeli people because, in the end the people in Masada committed mass suicide rather than surrendering to the Romans…and that is precisely the attitude of the modern Israelis, that they will fight to the death because they have no other choice. That is also what makes recent reports that Israel’s missile defense system is leaking like a sieve, with a performance of approximately 90 percent, which means that around 10 percent of the incoming missiles are getting through the defense system.

There are a number of reasons for the failure rate. Because the Iron Dome is a short-range anti-missile defense system, their missiles have less time to reach their airborne targets and, because the distances are so much shorter, the incoming missiles are often descending toward their targets before they are intercepted, making it more difficult to knock them off course and destroy them. The Israelis are, of course, aware of these problems, which is precisely why the built a missile system with a higher cyclic rate but a lower unit cost per vehicle than the Patriot system. Their obvious intention is that, with only a 90 percent success rate, they will simply increase the number of missiles launched against incoming attacks, which they can easily afford to do, given the lower unit costs involved to prevent more missiles from getting through.

Israeli Iron Dome Battery. Note the 20 missile tubes. The Patriot and S300 missile batteries have four tubes.
Israeli Iron Dome Battery. Note the 20 missile tubes. The Patriot missile batteries have four tubes.

In their very interesting coverage of this story, Aljazeera contests other published reports, claiming that 3,500 rockets have been interdicted by Israel, confirming the 90 percent success rate, but reporting that the cost of the Tamir interceptor rockets is somewhere between $50,000 to $90,000 per unit, while other experts put the unit cost as high as $200,000 per unit. Even at that higher number, the Tamir interceptors are more than 10 times cheaper than the industry-leading Patriot system. Regardless of the price points, the Iron Dome is obviously a cheaper solution to either the Patriot system or the Russian S300 missile systems. The S300 batteries cost $115 million each, and the rockets go for more than $1 million per unit, cheaper than the Patriot rocket tubes but at least ten times more expensive than the highest reliable estimate of the per unit cost of Israel’s Tamir rocket tubes.

Despite divergent experts who claim that the Iron Dome is completely ineffective, the fact remains that something must be happening to divert those 3,500 Hamas fired rockets because there is no evidence that they are reaching targets in Israel, so most authorities are skeptical of the the outlier’s skepticism.

aerial view of Masada, where Israeli soldiers still take their oath of allegiance.
Ariel view of Masada, where Israeli soldiers still take their oath of allegiance.

Two thousand years ago, 960 Jewish Zealots held out for at least two months against as many as 10,000 Roman legionaries. Interestingly, there was no battle at Masada. Instead, the Jews simply waited behind the walls of their mountaintop fortress watching the Romans build a long, slightly inclined ramp that they ultimately used to bring their siege tower up to the walls of the fortress. In 1943, some 1,000 Jewish resistance fighters held off more than 2,000 mechanized German troops for 27 days, from April 19 to May 16. When it was over, 13,000 Jews had been killed and almost 57,000 were deported to concentration camps, never to be seen again.

Today, Israel is hunkered down behind its Iron Dome, waiting out current events, while the rocket’s red glare serves to remind them that the Holocaust never really ended. It has just been on a long hiatus. In the meantime, the Israelis are taking orders for their Iron Dome missile defense system. Business is brisk.

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