Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images
- Trump recently said the US should build a nationwide missile defense shield like Israel’s Iron Dome.
- He said the US must be able to defend itself from the potential threat of hypersonic missiles.
- A missile defense expert said the plan is a long shot.
Former President Donald Trump said in a recent video message that he would build an “impenetrable” missile defense shield like Israel’s famed Iron Dome to protect the entire US from nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles should he win the 2024 presidential election.
It is unclear if Trump wants the Iron Dome system defending American cities or if he wants a new shield specifically designed for hypersonic threats. Either way, his plan for an “impenetrable” defense is unrealistic, a missile defense expert told Insider.
Iron Dome is not designed to defend against this type of threat. It protects a small area from less advanced projectiles, such as low-altitude and slow-moving rockets and artillery. And a new shield aimed at defeating all higher-end threats would be a massive undertaking that would almost certainly still have gaps.
Trump said a shield is necessary because the rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons and war has increased since he left office, claiming inaccurately that such threats never happened during his presidency but are now increasing because other countries have “no respect” for the Biden administration. His presidency began with nuclear threats from North Korea and during it, Russia unveiled a suite of developmental nuclear super weapons.
Trump didn’t provide any specifics on the new threats, but Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have both made several provocative and threatening remarks about the possible future use of nuclear weapons in the last few months alone.
Trump argued a possible World War III would be a “catastrophe” that would dwarf the previous two world wars. To protect the US from such a hypothetical threat, the former president said the US needs to be protected by an “impenetrable dome,” and should he win re-election in 2024, he would construct a “state-of-the-art next generation missile defense shield, just as Israel is now protected by the Iron Dome.”
He added that the US must be able to defend itself, its allies, and military assets around the world from the potential threat of nukes and hypersonic missiles. This type of threat is well beyond the Iron Dome’s pay grade, as well as that of existing ballistic missile defense systems.
A defense for short-range rockets and smaller artillery
Israel’s Iron Dome is designed to intercept short-range rockets and artillery from landing in civilian areas by using a network of radars and missile launchers. First deployed in 2011, Iron Dome is supported by the US and is considered one of the most advanced air defense systems in the world.
Each Iron Dome interceptor costs roughly $20,000 and can intercept projectiles fired from over 40 miles away that are headed toward a sensitive or populated area. The missiles are fired from a battery, which work with radar-guided early warning systems to identify potential threats.
A single battery contains multiple launchers, each of which can hold as many as 20 Tamir interceptors, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). One battery — which consists of a radar and a battle management system and costs an estimated $100M to make — can defend a nearly 60-square-mile chunk of territory, and several are scattered across Israel.
An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in the coastal city of Ashkelon, Israel, Saturday, July 5, 2014.
AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov
Iron Dome is excellent, but this exact type of defense won’t necessarily have the same effectiveness over the US. It is very different defending a tiny country instead of a large continent, Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the CSIS, told Insider. Israel is less than 9,000 square miles, while the US spans over a whopping 3.7 million square miles.
And Iron Dome is not capable of defending Israel against everything, Williams said. It is tailored to relatively low-altitude and slow-moving threats like short-range rockets, small missiles, artillery, and drones — it doesn’t have a ballistic missile defense capability that would be needed to even have a chance at thwarting Trump’s hypothetical hypersonic missile attack.
Iron Dome also doesn’t defend Israel by itself, according to the country’s foreign ministry. It works in coordination with the David’s Sling system — which protects against medium- to long-range rockets and missiles — and the Arrow system, which defends against ballistic missiles. The country also has a US-made Patriot air defense battery.
“No missile defense system is impenetrable,” Williams said. “It’s about how you use your missile defenses in coordination with other systems.” Even then, nothing is going to be impenetrable, as Israel has also found in its pursuits.
He said there is a misconception that because Iron Dome can intercept around 90% of incoming threats, the system could be deployed over a major US city to defeat potential threats. But “the only thing that an Iron Dome in New York City could do would be to defend it against artillery barrages from New Jersey,” Williams said.
‘There’s always some way to get through’
Right now, the US has a homeland missile defense system called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). According to the Department of Defense, this system can identify and engage certain intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile threats in space.
The GMD consists of 44 ground-based interceptors — as opposed to sea- or space-based — and global sensors, communications networks, and fire control systems. It is a “fairly capable” system designed to protect against “relatively simple” intercontinental ballistic missiles, Williams said. The system is said to have a success rate of around 55 percent in scripted testing, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Royal Canadian Air Force Colonel Travis Morehen, NORAD and USNORTHCOM Command Center Director, stands inside the command center inside Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station on May 10, 2018 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Expanding this system wouldn’t be impossible, but it would require a massive scale-up effort beyond what the US has done in the past, Williams said. A defense system of such massive scale would be reminiscent of the 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative, the epicenter of former President Ronald Reagan’s defense policy, which would have relied on theoretical ground- and space-based missile interceptors.
In addition to likely being incredibly expensive, there is no guarantee such a system would even work as intended. As is, the GMD system is not suited for countering threats from hypersonic missiles, which fly along unpredictable flight paths rather than the parabolic ones of traditional ballistic missiles.
“We’ve kind of gone away from this idea of a perfect impenetrable dome. Given the threats you face, there’s always some way to get through,” Williams said. Missile defense is about “buying time” and being able to preserve the military so it can carry out a counteroffensive “to a degree that will deter your opponent from starting a war in the first place.”
While Trump appears to be framing the missile defense situation incorrectly, there are still certain things that the US can do to strengthen its homeland missile defense, Williams noted. One example of this is continuing to advance ballistic missile defense capabilities like tracking threats from space or upgrading interceptors to be able to eliminate more complex weapons.
Additionally, he said, the US can improve its general air defense to defend sensitive areas around the country — like Washington, DC or military bases — from cruise missile threats.