During the recent conflicts in the Gaza Strip, there was a lot of talk about the Iron Dome. Does D.C. have anything similar?
Getting a straight answer on this question wasn’t easy. The D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency didn’t return a call or an email about it. When we emailed the Military District of Washington, an armed forces command whose organizational chart includes “Ground Based Air Defense,” we got back a message marked “UNCLASSIFIED” saying they were working on our request for information, but never heard anything more.
But we’re reasonably confident that the answer is: No, D.C. doesn’t have anything like Israel’s Iron Dome.
About 10 years ago, the Pentagon ran what it called an “exercise,” code-named “Clear Skies 2,” around the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It involved temporary deployment of radar, Stinger missiles, and Avenger air-defense systems (basically, missiles mounted on Humvees) around D.C.
But by June 9, 2004, that stuff was apparently no longer in place. While the body of former President Ronald Reagan was lying in state in the Capitol that day, law enforcement evacuated the building, sending staffers, reporters, and tourists running for blocks after a plane—later identified as carrying the governor of Kentucky—flew into restricted airspace and ignored repeated attempts at communication due to a broken radio. Bodyguards whisked top lawmakers into SUVs and police screamed, “Run for your lives!” at others. Fighter jets were scrambled to chase the plane, and reportedly nearly shot it down—but evidently, taking it out with hidden missiles wasn’t an option.
The best circumstantial evidence against an Iron Dome system in D.C., though, is that members of Congress have been repeatedly pestering the Pentagon to install one. As recently as last week, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky made headlines for saying how impressed he was with Israel’s setup and how much he wanted one here. Last August, a House subcommittee promised to give the military an extra $100 million if they got working on a plan to install a missile-defense system on the East Coast (it may be a sign that the Pentagon budget is too bloated that the request doesn’t seem to have prompted any action). Israel also recently said it would hand over the plans for its system to the U.S., strongly suggesting that we don’t have anything like it in place.
Of course, the main difference between Israeli cities and the District (or most other U.S. cities) is that there’s no one close by to D.C. who has rockets like the ones Palestinian militants fire into Israel—or any reason to launch them at us. (Though Clarendon does seem like an aggressive place at times.) The main reason we probably don’t have a missile-defense system is that we don’t need one.
That’s not to say, though, that there are no cool gadgets and gizmos keeping you safe. Earlier this month, the National Nuclear Security Administration sent a helicopter flying low over several D.C. neighborhoods to measure the city’s normal output of gamma rays—the better to detect suspicious spikes in radiation that might indicate an attack of some sort. And who knows what else is out there that no one will tell us about?