Nearly 11 million people live in South Korea’s capital, roughly 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea is threatening to make it rain artillery and missiles on its sworn enemy. And Israel is desperate to find a buyer for the incredibly expensive missile defense system. South Korea sure could use Iron Dome right about now.
But a series of blown multibillion-dollar deals with Israel has left South Korea instead rushing to beef up the patchwork network of American and Korean missile defenses, including Patriot missile batteries on land and Aegis-equipped destroyers deployed at sea.
That’s not all bad, say some analysts who question whether Iron Dome would be right for Seoul at all. North Korea is not Palestine. Pyongyang’s arsenals are so stocked and varied that it would take far too many Iron Dome batteries to have any real effect on protecting the city, other than for a few, select high-value targets. Even then, the system may be too expensive to justify the investment.
But South Korea has tried. Since 2011, military officials have sought to acquire Iron Dome and hoped that Israel would in turn buy South Korean fighter jets, ships, helicopters parts, or more. Instead, Seoul has lost out to better or cheaper competitors.
Last year, Iron Dome showed off its worth by knocking down up to 80 percent of incoming rockets, the Israel Defense Force claimed. That figure has been disputed by some outside researches, but Pentagon officials publicly stand by the IDF’s hit rate. Iron Dome is a hit.
It is also crazy expensive.
"The economics of a missile exchange do not tend to favor the defender," says James Hasik, a defense industry consultant and fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. For intercontinental ballistic missiles, he explained, it is nearly as expensive to build the ICBM as it is to build the missile that is supposed to shoot it down. But the cost of artillery shells and short-range rockets is pocket change for national militaries. In contrast, each Iron Dome battery built to shoot them down runs an estimated $50 million. Iron Dome interceptor rockets cost between $50,000 and $80,000, according to various public estimates.
South Korea would have to choose carefully what it wanted Iron Dome to protect, and it would likely still run out of interceptors long before North Korea expended its arsenal.
North Korea has too many attack options, including fast-moving Scud missiles, and could overwhelm Iron Dome easily, Hasik contends. North Korea may be more likely to fire off its artillery batteries, which are not very mobile and which therefore instantly become easy targets once they have been detected. Yet, even if a U.S.-ROK response were able to destroy North Korea’s artillery quickly -- as famously happened in Iraq -- Seoul would still be hit, one way or another. That makes Iron Dome appealing if there are sites South Korea wants to protect long enough for allied forces to silence incoming artillery.
The U.S. has financed the development of Iron Dome for Israel, spending roughly $270 million since 2010 and commiting more than $600 million in the future. Pentagon leaders have visited Iron Dome sites in Israel and are impressed. But because the U.S. did not build the system, it cannot hand it over to South Korea.
In 2011, South Korea’s top weapons buyer went to Israel looking for better ways to defend against North Korean rockets and missiles. He was looking specifically at Iron Dome, built by Rafael Advanced Systems of Israel.
In January 2012, South Korea first offered to buy Iron Dome, if Israel reciprocated by buying South Korean-made fighter jets. But Israel favored jets made in Italy. In November, Seoul and Israel were reportedly considering a new deal for South Korean ships instead of aircraft. Israel wants new ships the can hold its advanced missile systems, but no deal has been announced.
For its part, Israel is trying to sell Iron Dome. In February, India rejected an Israeli offer to sell the system, calling it too expensive and opting to develop its own missile defenses.
For now, Seoul has other options. Last year, the U.S. and South Korea announced the new Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), an agreement by which the U.S. would protect South Korea and shoot down any North Korean missiles either by using Aegis systems on destroyers at sea or the Patriot system on land.
South Korea, meanwhile, has until 2020 to purchase its share of KAMD defenses. Last October, however, the U.S. lifted several restrictions it had placed on the distance and payload size of South Korea’s current missile arsenal. Seoul previously was restricted to having missiles that could travel only 186 miles -- an effort to not look like the aggressor against Pyongyang. Now, the ROK can have missiles that reach 500 miles, or carry larger payloads. The move also allows Seoul to fly drones farther north, if needed, and there are no more restrictions on the distance of South Korea’s cruise missiles, which are considered highly accurate.
The E-Ring asked Pentagon and Army officials what Seoul’s best options are, if not Iron Dome.
“Acquiring new systems, such as Iron Dome, are a sovereign decision of the Republic of Korea government,” said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss weapons systems, “and South Korea is actively taking steps to enhance its own air and missile defense systems, which include sea- and land-based sensors.”
“We have been consulting closely with our strong South Korean ally about how they can upgrade their missile defense capabilities. The U.S. will continue to assist in determining what systems are appropriate for meeting their requirements.”
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