Missile Warfare: A Realistic Assessment
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Recent discussions around a preemptive strike on Iran have included the possible repercussions of such a move, namely missile attacks on Israel. The threat of ballistic missile warfare is perceived as a paradigm shift capable of radically altering modern warfare. Those who believe that Middle East battlefields of the future will primarily consist of missile attacks upon Israeli cities therefore argue that Israel must prepare itself for such a situation. Furthermore, since a missile war relegates ground forces to near irrelevance, they claim, geographical and topographical factors will become of lesser importance.
Yet no war in which missiles were employed – from the Iran-Iraq War to the Second Lebanon War – has ever been won without the additional use of maneuvering ground forces. In other words, the use of missiles has never been a deciding factor in any armed conflict.
This is no coincidence, since missiles have limitations that prevent them from becoming a decisive weapon. Their main limitation is inaccuracy, as most are only capable of landing hundreds of meters off-target. This makes the chance of a precise and direct hit very low1. Another significant limitation regards the physics of the explosion itself. The blast caused by the warhead steeply drops as the distance from the blast center increases. Thus, the actual damage indicates a much more limited threat than what superficially seems to be the case. For example, an air-launched bomb weighing one ton will destroy a building if it hits it directly, while at only 45 meters off-target it will cause medium damage and at 60 meters off-target the damage will most likely be very limited.
There are hundreds of missiles in the Middle East. Syria, for example, has a particularly large array of surface-to-surface missiles with ranges of a few hundred kilometers, most of which are low-accuracy. Considering that longer range missiles cost considerably more, the number of 1,500 km-range missiles (capable of covering the distance between Iran and Israel) is likely to be much smaller than the number of 300 km-range missiles. Furthermore, launch and logistics capacities are complicated by the fact that most ballistic missiles used in the Middle East are liquid fueled, which ultimately decreases the launch rate. Clearly then, the simultaneous launching of hundreds of ballistic missiles is simply unrealistic.
On a countrywide – or even citywide scale – the expected damages and casualties of such missile attacks are low. A bird's-eye view of any town will show that due to public areas and numerous spaces between buildings, only a fraction of any area is in fact occupied by buildings. It is therefore likely that an attack by dozens of missiles will only cause a small number of direct hits and result in a relatively small number of casualties.