Monday, August 04, 2014

Israel's Iron Dome and the Ethics of War

Just before I wrote this, I learned that a cease-fire negotiated last Friday between Israel and Hamas collapsed after less than two hours.  For the last few weeks, the Gaza-based Hamas organization has been shooting Grad-type rockets at Israel, and Israel has lately been responding both with aerial attacks and ground action in Gaza itself.  By many reports, the damage done by the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel would be much worse if it were not for Israel's air-defense system called Iron Dome.  According to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Iron Dome succeeds in intercepting about 80% of rockets that come within its zone of protection, and is one reason why civilian casualties in Israel from the rocket attacks have been so low. 

The ethics of the Israeli-Hamas conflict is, shall we say, outside the scope of this blog.  Rather, I would like to look at the ethics of war as it concerns engineers, with Iron Dome as a case in point.  From the viewpoint of a student about to graduate from engineering school, should you consider job offers from military contractors?  And if not, why not?  Just to make it interesting, let's say you're graduating from the Technion, Israel's premier technology university.  What choices do you face regarding the military and working for military contractors?

As many people know, there is universal conscription in Israel.  Theoretically, all men over the age of 18 serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) for three years (two for women).  It's not as universal as it sounds:  according to Wikipedia, about half of those drafted manage to avoid serving for various reasons having to do with religious exemptions, being members of exempted communities, or even by being a conscientious objector.  To avoid service, a conscientious objector (CO) has to have a principled opposition to all war and conflict, not just particular conflicts that the IDF is engaged in.  And this is not an easy path to tread:  one study of applicants for CO status in Israel from around 2000 found that only about ten percent of applicants were granted the exemption.

So, say you've served your three years in the IDF and you now want to have nothing to do with the military ever again.  There's plenty of job opportunities in technical fields in Israel for non-defense work.  You could work for Given Imaging, for example.  They're a medical-device outfit that has pioneered the development of capsule endoscopy:  swallowable video cameras, to be specific.  A cousin of mine took one of these as a part of an investigation of why he was having acid reflux.  I don't think the results wound up on YouTube, but if there had been anything serious wrong, the pictures would have been courtesy Given Imaging, or maybe one of their imitators.

But wait—you look into the background of Given Imaging, and you find that it's actually a spinoff from a company that specializes in commercializing military technology.  Look hard enough, and you find that the same organization that makes Iron Dome also spun off the medical firm Given Imaging.  Originally called the Science Corps at Israel's founding in 1948, the government-funded military R&D organization was renamed Rafael in 1958, and restructured as a profit-making, though still government-owned, company in 2002, now known as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.  As anyone striving for total purity in association or support will find, if you trace money, influence, or history back far enough, sooner or later you'll find something you don't like.

So let's take the opposite view:  say your sister was one of the few Israeli civilians killed by a Grad rocket fired by Hamas from Gaza, and you'd like to do what you can to prevent it from happening again.  If you had joined Rafael back in 2007, you could have gotten in on the ground floor of the development of Iron Dome.  The idea of a rocket defense system occurred to the IDF long before then, but American advisers looked at the relatively small Rafael organization in the relatively small country of Israel and told the Israelis not to waste their time, that such an idea was "doomed to fail."  Antimissile defense systems developed by the U. S. have a checkered past, to be sure, and the only one that seemed to have had a major effect on global politics—Star Wars in the 1980s—was never actually deployed fully.  When President Reagan just threatened to build it, it scared the socks off the USSR.  And the mere threat of making an enemy's weapons useless is often a good strategic weapon of its own.

But the threats Israel was experiencing in recent years were not theoretical.  Grad rockets were originally developed by the USSR in the 1960s as dumb weapons whose inaccuracy (they are less aimable than even conventional gun-fired shells) is intended to be overcome by sheer numbers.  Nobody knows where a Grad rocket will fall, including those who fire them.  These types of rockets make a good target for a sophisticated radar-guided defense system like Iron Dome, whose optical-tracking missiles can home in on a target and explode it before it reaches the ground.  Of course, the resulting debris don't just go away—even after a successful interception, you will have pieces of hot scrap metal falling to the ground, which can be inconvenient, to say the least.  But what you won't have is 6 to 22 kg (14 to 50 pounds) of high explosive propelling shrapnel all around your back yard, which is what a Grad rocket can do if it lands and explodes.

The choice of an engineering career is always an interesting one, but for Israeli engineering graduates these days, it must be especially so.   There is room in the discipline of engineering for those who believe wholeheartedly in war, for those who oppose war with every fiber of their being, and for those who may not want to work on systems that actually kill people, but who want to defend innocent lives against attacks.  Iron Dome looks like a lifesaver to me, and whatever your beliefs about the Israel-Hamas conflict in general, I think most engineers would agree that the system is a fine piece of work.

Sources:  I referred to Wikipedia articles with the following titles:  Iron Dome, Conscription in Israel, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and Hamas.  The report on the short-lived ceasefire was carried online by CNN at

1 comment:

  1. I don't see an ethical dilemma here. But then I spent several minutes thinking about why I don't and couldn't express it. Anyway, thanks for writing.