I started planning this post asking why Palestinian rockets seemed to be steadily increasing in range, but not improving in accuracy. Although nobody publishes circular-error probable figures for these things, various indicators suggested that they were still essentially random weapons. For example, there were no or few reports of them hitting valuable infrastructure or politically symbolic targets. We’ve covered this in the past here and here.
However, things have changed with the continued disruption of Ben-Gurion International Airport, and this post will now discuss to what extent this is a big strategic change, how we would know, and what that implies. As of this morning, although some airlines resumed operating, flights were being cancelled again, aircraft were going-around, and others holding for extended periods of time. As the FR24 coverage shows, very few flights are moving, although the official NOTAM information to pilots (uses a POST, search for LLBG) doesn’t mention it.
So, rockets. Why do they fire them? Unlike artillery, a rocket’s propulsion is applied in the rocket itself, so there is no need to make a barrel that is long enough for the propellant’s energy to be transferred to the projectile, of thick enough steel to contain it, and stiff enough to be pointed accurately, while being mounted in such a way as to be pointed in any direction and to stay that way despite the recoil. That sounds difficult and it is. Rockets don’t need any of that stuff, being as William Congreve said, “the soule of artillery without the body”. So we have a light, hence mobile, cheap, hence common, and simple, hence available way to hurl explosive at one’s enemies no matter how high the wall they put up around you. Because everything is less constrained, absent an active guidance system, they trade off accuracy for this.
You could imagine that this is the physical expression of a sort of generalised venting of rage – randomly tossing ineffective bangs over the wall. But you’d be wrong both in the sense that it trivialises the rocketry’s effect on Israelis, and that it denies Palestinians’ agency and competence.
It’s too easy to point to the fact that they very, very rarely kill anyone and argue that in fact they are a bit puny and the Israelis should just man up and show some stiff upper lip rather than calling in artillery on the nearest school for the disabled. I have myself given in to the temptation before. The point isn’t destruction so much as suppression, the effect created by the fact of being under fire. And what they want to suppress is essentially the Israeli economy.
Remember that GDP is a flow concept – loaves out of a bakery, cars off a production line – not a stock concept like Scrooge McDuck’s treasure. Israeli GDP in 2013 was $286.8bn at purchasing power parity. We can usefully think of this as $32.6 million GDP per hour. While an air warning RED is in force, it is a good guess that economic activity is basically zero. Not quite, of course, the electricity is on, the phone network is up, and the government sector is more than busy. But as a rule, if you’re in an air raid shelter you’re not at work or doing much else than worrying. The Iron Dome close-in weapons system is a major commitment of complicated technology, a diversion of social resources, so the cost of air defence has to be offset against that. And the warning system, which MIT’s Ted Postol credits with protecting the population much more than Iron Dome, does so at the cost of putting more people under warning for longer.
So, you can see why they would go for range first. During this wave of conflict, the percentage of Israeli territory under warning has been as high as 75%, or $24.6m of foregone GDP per hour. A tiny commitment of additional materials per rocket provides a much bigger effect. Also, range requires “bigger” but not “better”, at least until the structural integrity constraints of the rocket are reached. A rocket is a container of propellant, so increasing its volume doesn’t require a proportionately greater quantity of materials. Another important reason to go bigger first is that it makes it possible to launch from anywhere in the Gaza Strip.
Increasing its accuracy, though, requires the rocket maker to incorporate new skills from the civilian labour market. Electronics would be an obvious one, but let’s not run before we can walk. “Accuracy” is a more macho way of saying “quality control”. There’s even a classic book about this in the context of US nuclear missiles, and the far-reaching effects it had on the politics of the workplace.
We’ve been talking about suppression, and this may sound like the opposite of accuracy. But if you want to suppress the economy, it’s obvious that some bits of it are much more important than others, which requires accuracy. Also, as the rockets have to get past the Iron Dome system, it’s important both that the ones that do get past aren’t wasted, and that they can be concentrated in order to flood one particular radar or fire unit’s sector.
In the Gazan context, the question might be “how much of the work needs a real craftsman, and how much can be done by an underemployed 19-year old who may also be the one to fire it?”, followed by “which of those two is more likely to vote Hamas?” Siege is a fundamentally economic form of warfare; the Israelis are besieging Gaza, and the Gazans are trying to impose a counter-siege (John Kerry wasn’t entirely wrong). As always, it requires the political mobilisation of the skilled on both sides.
The Israelis reckon that the production is organised in craft workshops, about 70 of them, with about 250 employees, i.e about four employees per business. If you assume that each shop is run by a craftsman, this is quite a skill-dense process. That said, this 2009 Der Spiegel piece by a reporter who actually witnessed rocket manufacturing seems to suggest a more informal process, more closely linked to the launch team, although it also identifies that an apprenticeship career path exists or existed. Now that’s interesting!
So, is this airport disruption going to go on? Well, here’s some actual data from that fount of truth, the IDF Official Spokesperson’s twitter feed:
You can argue whether the Spokes’ is trying to play up how effective Iron Dome is, trying to play up how bad the rocketing is, or what, but focus on the blue bits. They’re important. Those represent the Israelis’ count of rockets that didn’t go off properly, dropped short, blew up, went off somewhere weird etc. That’s a direct observation of Palestinian industrial quality control, and it seems to have improved quite a bit since last time. Which fits entirely with them pitching onto the airfield at Ben-Gurion.
If you were a optimist you might say “Yay! Here comes mutual deterrence, and with it, peace! It’s the war to end wars…hmm, could be a good slogan that?” You could even point to the fact that Israel and Hezbollah aren’t fighting much since Hezbollah got the range of the Haifa container terminal and the Israeli air force showed they were just as thug as ever. But I suspect you’d be wrong.
Here’s the point on the Israeli side. Palestinian rocket range and the vote for the Israeli extreme-right are strongly correlated; each ward to come under threat reports an increase of between 2 and 6 percentage points in the extreme-right vote (being the 95% confidence intervals). Here’s the point on the Palestinian side, in the Onion‘s inimitable style.
“When I think about it, I guess I’d go so far as to say that I don’t completely enjoy how this is being done entirely without my consent. And I’m not crazy about the fact that Hamas is actually okay with me dying as long as it fuels both resentment toward Israel and support for the party. If I’m being honest, I don’t like that part at all. But then, sometimes I put myself in Hamas’ shoes, and I guess I sort of appreciate where they’re coming from, so it’s tough. Of course, my kids hate it—they’ve actually told me that a couple of times. Oh, well, I guess I’ll give it a couple more weeks and see how I feel about it then.”
At press time, sources confirmed an inbound missile was about to solidify thousands of Palestinians’ opinions on the tactic..
But as I say, the fact of better quality control is itself evidence of successful mobilisation into parts of society other parties don’t reach. The ideological content required to mobilise the people needed, on both sides, is only weakly associated with the technology that requires the mobilisation, but once it is used, it will have its own political consequences.