The Changing Nature of Israel-Hamas Warfare

The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas was, on the face of it, a brief and limited exchange falling far short of other wars. There was no ground offensive, no Israeli incursion into Gaza or Hamas ground attack into Israel, and no taking of prisoners. The conflict was limited to a series of rocket launches, artillery barrages, and air strikes.

Nevertheless, this short conflict may prove to be an important step in the development of modern warfare. For decades, nations have been trying to perfect a technological mode of warfare in which military operations are carried out without risking soldiers’ lives. Speaking in purely military terms—and without minimizing the tragedy of civilian casualties of war—this round represented a step toward refining that objective when both Hamas and Israel relied exclusively on indirect fire in the conflict.

This was the first war in which one side (Hamas) sought—as its primary tactical goal—to overwhelm a modern ground-based air defense system. It was the first war in which the bulk of one side’s air defense system—Israel’s—was operated autonomously, that is, without human interface in identifying, selecting, and firing on targets. It was also among the first wars in which an adversary (Israel) sought to destroy or neutralize an extensive underground network of military facilities without having a presence on the ground.

Finally, at the strategic level, the conflict represented a refinement of the subordination of military aims to political goals. The Israeli strategic narrative of warfare has been one of invincibility, based on technological superiority and superior intelligence gathering. The Hamas strategic narrative of warfare has been one of unrelenting resistance, even in the face of an overwhelmingly superior force. The Hamas forces (and allied units) that launched the rocket barrages had no reasonable chance of achieving any plausible military goal. They could not and did not have any hope of striking a militarily significant target within Israel, or of causing Israel to cede any territory to them. Instead, they conducted an extensive campaign of military operations without hope of military success in order to achieve political goals—Clausewitzian logic that “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.”

The Political Aims of the Military Campaign

Hamas’s political and military aims in this campaign were—somewhat counterintuitively—to show that it is committed to Jerusalem’s Arab and Muslim identity (thus increasing its clout in Palestinian affairs) and to overwhelm Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome rocket defense system, thereby puncturing Israel’s narrative of invincibility. As for the first aim, Hamas considers itself a victor. Amid celebrations in Gaza following the announcement of a cease-fire—after the world saw Israel get a bloody nose—the organization’s leaders declared that they forced their adversary to end its expulsions of Palestinians from Jerusalem.

Amid celebrations in Gaza following the announcement of a cease-fire, Hamas’s leaders declared that they forced Israel to end its expulsions of Palestinians from Jerusalem. 

Hamas and affiliated units were able to achieve their second aim by building and firing an unexpectedly large number of rockets and missiles in coordinated salvos at Israel. This tactic took Israel’s defense forces by surprise, and in some instances overwhelmed the Iron Dome system. Given the importance of technology such as Iron Dome in Israel’s strategic narrative, any failure of Israel’s shield must be scored as a strategic victory for Hamas.

The political stakes were and remain much higher for Israel than for Hamas. Because Israel has put itself forward as an advanced military power, people in Israel and abroad have come to expect that any Israeli operation will be executed perfectly, with no errors in target identification or in gunnery, and no collateral damage. Warfare has never reached this high standard, and the Israeli damage inflicted in retaliatory strikes on Gaza has greatly damaged Israel’s standing at home and abroad. When the cease-fire was announced, 256 Palestinians had been killed, including 66 children and 40 women, while almost 2,000 were injured. More than 113,000 people were displaced during the height of the hostilities, as Gaza’s infrastructure was decimated.

The Rise of the Machines

The air war between Hamas and Israel is history’s first war in which one side’s technology (Israel’s) was almost completely autonomous. While Hamas’s rockets were launched on human command, the Iron Dome system, which was employed to counter these missiles, was automatically and remotely alerted, directed, launched, and homed on to each incoming rocket. For the first time in history, an entire theater of warfare saw an air defense system that intercepted incoming weapons without any human intervention.

Israel’s defense capability was mostly effective not because of a radar or a missile, but rather because of the command-and-control algorithm that integrated the various components of the Iron Dome system without the need for human intervention. With rockets incoming at short range, there really is not enough time for a human to intervene, determine the nature and orientation of the threat, and then launch an interceptor missile if one is needed. The system has to be launched automatically and not by human command. Other fielded systems, such as the US Army C-RAM base defense system, operate on this principle as well. Such a requirement, until relatively recently, had been considered to be more in the domain of science fiction than in that of modern warfare.

What sets apart the recent operation of the Iron Dome is the use of autonomous systems as the strategic defense for an entire country. This expansion of autonomous missile systems into such a role is without precedent.

What sets apart the recent operation of the Iron Dome is the use of autonomous systems as the strategic defense for an entire country. This expansion of autonomous missile systems into such a role is without precedent. 

The key to making a defense system such as Iron Dome function effectively is not the tracking radar, not the missile, and not the homing device on the missile (although each of these is important). Those technologies have existed for decades. The real advance is in the software that integrates all of the component systems of Iron Dome—target acquisition, target tracking, trajectory prediction, launch of interceptor missile, guidance of missile to target, and terminal intercept guidance—in a matter of seconds. This control software is the real innovation of Iron Dome, highlighting the critical defensive adaptation of Israeli forces.

The real value of the Iron Dome control software is not its ability to predict the track of incoming rockets, since this capability was present in late 1960s US air defense missiles. Rather, it is the ability to take that prediction, map it against the number and likely path of multiple interceptor missiles, and then, based on that, to determine which incoming rockets should be engaged, which rockets are likely to impact in uninhabited areas, and which Iron Dome Tamir missiles will be fired at each incoming rocket. This is a dynamic series of equations that require significant computational power and which must be constantly upgraded. Past estimates of Iron Dome capabilities are favorable, and the performance of the system in this conflict will be scrutinized and improvements to the control software are to be expected.

The Swarm: Killer Bee or Background Noise

While recognizing that military victory is extremely unlikely, Hamas had two operational military objectives in the campaign. The first aim was to demonstrate that Hamas and its allied militias had managed to build and stockpile a large arsenal of rockets in spite of the continued blockade of Gaza since 2007. Just demonstrating this capacity was an operational victory of sorts as it undermined the efficacy of Israel’s efforts to isolate Gaza, which have subjected Israel to a barrage of international criticism.

The first Hamas rocket, the Qassam, is still in use. Despite being relatively primitive and simple, it is nevertheless dangerous. Hamas has since added more than 10 different types of rockets to its arsenal, and it has shown the ability to produce these rockets in militarily significant numbers. This arsenal has been augmented with some Iranian produced missiles, although the importance of those missiles seems to be declining as Iran has switched to a strategy of enabling domestic rocket production rather than providing the actual munitions.

The production of these rockets, and the diversity of the Hamas rocket arsenal, is in itself a military victory. It calls into question the entire Israeli strategy for dealing with Gaza and shifts its problem from the level of a military irritant to one of a serious challenge that Israeli leaders maintain poses an existential threat to the Israeli state.

On the level of tactics, the Hamas rocket barrage attempted to overwhelm the Israeli defenses by sheer numbers. This “swarm” technique is not new, but it requires considerable resources to pull off.

Second, on the level of tactics, the Hamas rocket barrage attempted to overwhelm the Israeli defenses by sheer numbers. This “swarm” technique is not new, but it requires considerable resources to pull off. Israel’s Iron Dome system has a reputation that exceeds its capabilities, but it proved effective at countering the primitive ballistic missiles that Hamas fired. However, the basic math of missile defense works against a defense-only system: firing a missile costs a small fraction of what is required to bring a missile down. Hamas and affiliated militias fired over 4,000 rockets into Israel in 11 days; this is a prolonged barrage and a critical challenge for any air defense system

As noted earlier, many of the rockets fired into Israel were relatively primitive. However, this is irrelevant when the missile defenses are being “swarmed.” Unfortunately for Israel, an incoming Hamas rocket’s lack of sophistication is inconsequential if it is headed for a population center. Primitive rockets must be intercepted in the same manner as the most sophisticated guided missiles. Hamas seems to have capitalized on this basic fact by firing large numbers of rockets in volley at the same targets or at targets close to each other. The aim here was to overwhelm the Iron Dome interceptors. Even with perfect tracking and optimal performance, the Iron Dome interceptors (as with the US Patriot system and the Russian S-400) still are limited in number. If there are 25 Iron Dome missile interceptors, then Hamas only has to fire 26 rockets (which cost a fraction of the Iron Dome missiles) to get one through. Indeed, it costs Israel just as much to intercept a primitive rocket as it does to intercept a state-of-the-art guided missile.

Implications for Iran and Israel

Iran has clearly employed new procedures in the run-up to this conflict. Rather than attempt to smuggle in entire missiles (as Iran has done with long-range missiles in Yemen), it has instead opted to transfer manufacturing knowledge to build a self-sustaining rocket manufacturing capability that does not rely on the import of specialized parts. This approach minimized both risks and costs for Iran. The fruit of this approach is obvious: Hamas rocket makers are now able to produce solid-fueled rocket motors that are more stable, and they are also capable of being hidden in site for long periods of time with minimal maintenance.

Hamas rocket makers are now able to produce solid-fueled rocket motors that are more stable, and they are also capable of being hidden in site for long periods of time with minimal maintenance.

Iran will process the lessons learned from the conflict and apply them to its other proxies, especially Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s missile arsenal has been estimated to be as high as 130,000, most of which are more sophisticated and accurate than anything Hamas possesses. In any future conflict, one would expect swarming techniques to be replicated and enhanced. To achieve this, Iran will continue to devolve missile production to the local level and allow local actors to deploy and target them.

Israel, on the other hand, was on the back foot for most of this conflict, in which its tactics represent an incremental improvement on past conflicts. Israel will probably view this as a continuation of the 2011 and 2014 conflicts. Beyond the Iron Dome, it has refined its aerial precision strike capability and has integrated ground artillery, drones, and manned aircraft into a fire support network that is capable of firing on targets (often located in populated areas) with a great degree of accuracy and discrimination—which also garners accusations that Israel’s targeting of civilians and civilian structures was deliberate. It will seek to update its Iron Dome command software and sensor systems while at the same time replenishing the inventory of Tamir interceptor missiles.

The tactical lessons of the 11-day Gaza conflict are profound; the weapons employed are new and groundbreaking. However, these tactical innovations are in service of a political end as, unfortunately, a political solution that brings peace to the region is not enhanced by technology or weaponry. And such a solution seems to be farther off than ever.

David B. Des Roches is a guest contributor at Arab Center Washington DC. He is an Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University. Remarks are author’s own and do not reflect US government views.