In an episode of the latest season of the Netflix series Lupin, a flashback scene shows the main character, Assane Diop, and a friend planning their first burglary as teenagers. Diop chooses as the pair’s target a house overflowing with the trappings of wealth—and with expensive security mechanisms. His friend is hesitant, but Diop is undeterred, reminding his cautious accomplice of a fundamental truth.
“Feeling safe isn’t the same as being safe.”
Diop proved the prescience of those words by outsmarting the intricate web of security. Over the weekend, Hamas militants proved it by overwhelming one of the most advanced and interconnected air defense systems in the world: Israel’s Iron Dome.
Massing against Iron Dome
When Hamas launched its massive and coordinated attack on the morning of October 7, it initiated it with a barrage of rocket fire from inside Gaza. This is precisely the type of attack Iron Dome exists to defend against. Initially deployed in 2011, it recorded its first successful intercept of a rocket fired from Gaza just days later. The system of mobile batteries has since been expanded to cover population centers across southern and central Israel, and its effectiveness has steadily improved. During a period of attacks in March 2012, Iron Dome intercepted twenty-five of ninety rockets launched toward Israeli territory. Within months, in November of that year, when hundreds of rockets were fired during a period of heightened attacks, officials estimated that Iron Dome’s intercept rate had reached 85 percent. By 2014, during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, ten batteries were deployed, intercepting 90 percent of incoming rockets. In 2018, Israel claimed that Iron Dome intercepted all four of the missiles it engaged after Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps–Quds Force personnel launched them from Syria. When tensions spiked once again in May 2021, Iron Dome again successfully intercepted 90 percent of incoming projectiles over a ten-day period.
Against the backdrop of this statistically impressive performance, the sheer number of Hamas rockets that impacted on Israeli territory in the recent attack—including in densely populated cities—looks surprising. But there is another variable at play: mass. Over the first few years of Iron Dome’s deployment, the maximum number of rockets fired at Israel per day, even during periods of open conflict, ranged from 192 to 312. During the May 2021 fighting, that increased substantially—470 rockets fired over the first twenty-four hours of Hamas attacks. On Saturday morning, somewhere between 2,200 and upwards of 3,000 rockets were launched in just twenty minutes (Hamas claimed to have fired 5,000).
That quantity was simply too much for Iron Dome to manage. Hamas rocket fire is notoriously imprecise, and Iron Dome is designed not to expend ammunition on incoming rounds whose trajectories do not indicate an impact in a populated area. That is an important advantage weighing in Iron Dome’s favor. If Hamas fires ten rockets and misses with nine, Iron Dome can most likely intercept the one threatening round. If Hamas fires one hundred and misses with ninety, that poses more of a challenge, but given the system’s demonstrated success rate, most—and likely all—of the threat can be thwarted. But extrapolate this dynamic—by firing a thousand, two thousand, or even more rockets—and, eventually, the advantage shifts in favor of the attacker.
Tactical Adaptation, Evolutionary and Revolutionary
In any conflict, there is a discernible pattern that takes shape, with new offensive weapons and tactics countered by defensive adaptation that deliberately seeks to protect against them. Advancements in offensive airpower are followed by new air defense capabilities. Tanks and antitank weapons are in a perpetual struggle for advantage over one another. And the dominant approaches to arraying forces on the battlefield throughout history have each been upended by new tactics that exploit their vulnerabilities. It is an inevitable pattern of action and reaction because war is fundamentally interactive. This is the essence of Helmuth von Moltke’s reflection that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. As a result, the side that is more agile and better prepared to adapt should be more likely to emerge victorious.
But this fact, true as it might be, also obscures an important distinction between small, incremental adaptations and large, monumental ones—in other words, evolutionary or revolutionary adaptation. The modern history of the improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq offers an illustrative example. When the first IEDs appeared on the battlefield in 2003, many US and coalition forces in the country moved around their areas of operations in Humvees with little armor. When the threat became apparent, armor was quickly added—in some cases by literally bolting on whatever steel plates were available to create what became known as “hillbilly armor.” Insurgents adapted by emplacing larger IEDs, and still more armor was added to vehicles. Subsequent insurgent adaptation saw the emergence of deep-buried IEDs that were less detectable, vehicle-borne IEDs that introduced maneuverability into the devices’ delivery, daisy-chained IEDs that enhanced targeting of coalition convoys, and even IEDs hidden in the bodies of dead animals alongside roadways. Each of these, however, was an evolutionary adaptation. And each was followed by a similarly evolutionary adaptation to defend against the new threat.
However, a revolutionary adaptation was in the offing. By 2006, a new form of IED—explosively formed penetrators—had become a scourge of coalition forces traveling along Iraq’s roads. These were not tweaks to the size or delivery method of explosives that could be countered by a bit of extra armor or greater vigilance by soldiers, but a change in the form of the weapon itself. Composed of a concave copper plate in the end of a cylinder packed with explosives, the detonation would invert the plate into a molten projectile that penetrated any armor available to coalition forces. For two years—until, in an impressive feat of rapid acquisition, an entirely new type of vehicle was fielded in large numbers—the new weapon wreaked havoc on coalition forces on Iraq’s roadways.
What Hamas forces accomplished days ago is similar. Had they slowly increased the scale of their rocket attacks—as they previously had—Israel was prepared to respond with similarly incremental adaptations, increasing the number of Iron Dome batteries fielded, making technical updates to improve the system’s tracking of incoming rockets, and stocking ammunition in greater numbers. But Hamas instead increased the scale of its barrage so dramatically that Iron Dome was overwhelmed. In two years, the group moved from firing a maximum of 470 rounds in a day—an average of just under twenty per hour—to several thousand in a fraction of an hour.
The Problematic Allure of Technology
The comparative failure of Iron Dome illustrates the limitations of technology to solve tactical and operational problems. Unfortunately, a bias toward technological solutions dominates defense planning in the United States and allies like Israel, and serves as a point of departure for the categorization of a particular military as “high-end.” The Hamas barrage and IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan combine with other recent examples—such as drone swarms over Nagorno-Karabakh and suicide bomber waves in Syria—to demonstrate the universal truth that technological advantage can be overcome. That may be achieved with mass. Or it may be a function of a political willingness by certain actors to do just about anything to achieve a tactical result, in contravention of the laws of war and other international norms if necessary. This is where insurgencies and terrorist groups like Hamas are perhaps particularly advantaged; since they are not sovereign states, they can afford to be less restrained in their tactical behavior.
The technological bias highlighted above acknowledges the changing character of war in the Clausewitzian sense. Indeed, there is a historically virtuous relationship between technological growth and military innovation, and aspiring militaries need to compete in the technological space to stay abreast of their enemies. To wit, the logic of structural realism in international relations, or more recent scholarship on “first mover–fast follower” market dynamics, has military-technical advantage at its core. But technological bias should not blind the competitor to the other part of Clausewitz’s insight—that irrespective of military-technical innovation, war is foremost a violent contest between opposing wills that serve political ends. When your competitor does not have a technological advantage, then you can be sure that it has significant offsetting investments in violence, will, and politics. And when there are existential stakes involved—as there surely are from the perspective of most insurgencies and terrorist groups—then the competitor has to seriously consider how much blood on top of technology it is willing to spend to win. Given what Hamas has shown in the first stage of this new war, Israel is unlikely to be restrained in response, and any victory that Israel subsequently achieves will not be a wholly technological one.
The United States continues to make significant investments in exquisite technologies as it adapts to the putative convergence of the sixth and seventh revolutions in military affairs and prepares for multidomain operations. Despite the high monetary cost, these are prudent investments since they leverage the advantages that the United States currently enjoys in strategic competition. They also implicitly recognize—and seek to mitigate—the United States’ disadvantages, however. In comparison to a pacing threat that has four times the population and interior lines of communication, one of the major disadvantages is mass.
Iron Dome is the most recent example of technology being overcome by adaptation. As it continues to operationalize the multidomain concept, the United States would be well served to investigate these examples and make hard assessments of the limitations of its exquisite military technologies, both recapitalized and future. It should be clear after this past weekend that one of the hardest assessments should be where adaptation might overcome the system and in what ways, even the most imaginative and improbable ones, it might do so—in other words, the inflection point between evolutionary and revolutionary adaptation.
Colonel Patrick Sullivan, PhD, is the director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Israel Defense Forces