Designing Defense: Israel's Iron Dome and the Aesthetics of Conflict

Despite the image of a simple protective bubble, the Iron Dome in fact represents Israel's move toward a more active defense.


Fighting between Israel and Gaza intensified over the past week, with several deaths and injuries reported. The violence began when an Israeli airstrike killed the commander of a militant group involved with the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, marking Israel’s first offensive attack in months. In response, dozens of rockets hurtled from Gaza to southern Israel. As Israeli residents ran for cover, the country's new missile defense system kicked into high gear. After nearly six years of development and testing, the Iron Dome finally proved its mettle.

The Israeli Defense Forces claims its pioneering Iron Dome system has successfully intercepted 60 rockets launched from Gaza in the past week, bringing the defense system’s success rate to 90 percent for the year. If that success rate continues, the Iron Dome will be highly sought by countries like South Korea, where the threat of short-range missiles from a hostile neighbor is ever-present.

Rafael, the Israeli company that designed and manufactured the defense system, interprets its mission literally in its brochure [PDF]— the cover illustration depicts a city safely encapsulated in a transparent dome. But in reality, the Iron Dome hardly embodies its larger-than-life moniker. Sitting just a few stories off the ground, it's boxy and tan-colored, resembling an electrical generator or a piece of farm equipment you might see in the opening scenes of Star Wars: Episode IV, when Luke sullenly ambles across the horizon of his desert-like planet. Each unit is connected to a tracking radar and a Battle Management and Weapon Control Center. Operated by a handful of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, the BMC receives tracking information, then responds quickly by launching a missile from the unit. If properly launched, the missile will intercept a targeted rocket before it enters Israel, and the two weapons will clash in an aerial explosion that poses no threat to civilian life below.

The Iron Dome isn’t Israel's first metaphorically named defensive weapon; the country's military also controls a system called David’s Sling, a reference to the biblical story of an underdog who defeated the towering Goliath. Such metaphors ease civilians into the idea of defense systems while giving weapons manufacturers a softer means of advertising the product, as in the Iron Dome brochure.

But despite the image of a simple protective bubble, the Iron Dome in fact represents Israel's move toward a more active defense, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. The most common rocket launched from the Gaza region are Qassams, crude weapons developed by Hamas that are often produced in home garages for under $1,000. Each intercepting rocket deployed by Israel's Iron Dome system is reported to cost the country between $10,000 and $50,000, a sum that has many wondering if the high tag is worth it.

Weaponry is rarely a topic of discussion among designers—guns and grenades will most likely never be on display at the Museum of Modern Art, despite the countless designers and engineers involved in creating them. “Missiles, land mines, and guns don't fit neatly into the progressive, utopian narratives of design,” says Barbara Eldredge, an MFA student in design criticism at the School of Visual Arts whose thesis, "Missing the Modern Gun: Object Ethics in Collections of Design,” will be presented in May. “Phrases like ‘good design’ are often ill-suited for discussions of successful designed objects created with the purpose of inflicting violence. But design has been used to terrorize, debilitate, and kill as often as it has been used to improve and liberate.”

Ultimately, the Iron Dome serves as a physical manifestation of human conflict, whose designed capabilities are a matter of life and death for the citizens it protects. The system isn’t an ideal solution, as it serves to remind the world of an seemingly endless, painful conflict between two determined factions. But for now, the Iron Dome is Israel’s first line of defense, created by humans to save their own lives.

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