Israel’s Iron Dome: An Initial Assessment
2012-12-10 By Richard Weitz
One factor driving interest in regional missile defense systems is to counter WMD-armed rockets and missiles.
Chemical munitions could even be launched on artillery shells.
There are three main types of missile defenses in the works in this area—the short-range systems like Israel’s Iron Dome, the longer-range systems like the Patriots NATO just decided to send to Turkey, and finally the more advanced ballistic missile defenses that the United States and its allies are deploying in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Israel’s Iron Dome (Kipat Barzel in Hebrew) system transitioned from concept to an actual project following that country’s disastrous 2006 war with Lebanon. The Iron Dome reached initial capacity in March 2011. Developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, it is a mobile, all-weather air space defense system designed to counter primarily short-range rockets launched between 2.5 and 44 miles away.
The Iron Dome consists of detection and tracking radar, a battle management and weapon control system (BMC), and a missile-firing unit (MFU) equipped with three sets of 20 Tamir interceptor rockets. The radar pinpoints and tracks rockets while the BMC calculates their approximate point of impact. The BMC will only deploy the MFU if incoming rockets appears to be threatening to hit a populated area or other important target. If a Tamir interceptor rocket is launched, its trajectory will be calculated to intercept the incoming rocket in a neutral area to minimize casualties from falling debris.
Iron Dome can counter multiple attacks simultaneously.
During its first real test during Operation Pillar of Defense from November 14 to 21, the Iron Dome is reported to have had a 75-90% success rate. According to figures from the Israeli Defense Force, during the seven days of the operation, 1,506 rockets were fired from Gaza, with over 800 striking Israel (typically open areas) and 421 intercepted by the Iron Dome. This is a high interception rate by historic standards. The improvements are attributed to an advance in technology and computing capabilities.
It should be noted that this success rate could have been even higher if Israel had more batteries.
While Israel has currently deployed only five batteries, an estimated thirteen would be necessary to adequately defend all of Israel’s territory. At present, the system can reportedly defend an area of 150 square km (58 square miles).
Another major improvement for the Iron Dome would be an increased range of interception. Hamas’ arsenal, although very large, is relatively unsophisticated, with the deadliest rocket, the Fajr-5, having a range of only 75 km (50 mi). The majority of Hamas’s weapons have a maximum range of 20 miles. This means that Hamas does not have a wide array of cities it can target.
In the future, Hamas should be able to increase the range, accuracy, and other capabilities of its rockets still further.
Hamas has publicly affirmed Iranian and Syrian support, two countries that possess weapons technology far more dangerous than what Hamas has right now.
Even during the recent Gaza War, Hamas displayed several improvements over its 2006 performance.
Hamas fired a larger number of rockets, displayed a more diverse portfolio of rockets, and even launched some rockets with extended ranges that reached central Israel. The deteriorating security environment along the Gaza-Egypt border means that Hamas should be able to rapidly replenish its recently expended stockpile.
Conversely, a major improvement for the Iron Dome would be to increase its response time.
The Israeli city of Sderot, less than a mile from Gaza, is frequently victim to Hamas Qassam rocket attacks. The rockets from Gaza to Sderot have a flight time of approximately 14 seconds, while Iron Dome takes around 15 seconds to identify and intercept attacks.
Moreover, the Iron Dome is a relatively expensive enterprise, with a very unfavorable defense-offense cost ratio.
Israel has already invested $1 billion in the project, and each Tamir interceptor rocket costs Israel approximately $50,000.
Compared to the rockets that are being fired from Gaza, which cost merely a few hundred dollars, defense for Israel is a far more massive drain on resources than offense is for Hamas.
Steps should be taken to reduce costs further to make the system more viable over the long term.
Although mobile, the Iron Dome system is only usable while stationary. The reliability of the Iron Dome is also a point of weakness.
On November 15, the defense system briefly malfunctioned, allowing rockets to hit populated areas. Three Israelis died in the attack on the southern town of Kiryat Malakhi.
Initially funded and developed by Israel, the United States recently began sponsoring the missile defense system as well. In 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 410-4 to grant Israel $205 million to produce additional Iron Dome batteries.
Given its high cost and relatively small area of defense, the system is most useful for populations like that in Israel, where the majority of the population is relatively concentrated in small areas.
South Korea has been in talks with Israel as well, pointing out similarities between their border situation with North Korea and Israel’s border situation with Gaza.
Due to its mobility and the concentration of high-value targets on military bases, the system could also be employed for battlefield use.
European NATO countries have held meetings with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to discuss the possibility of purchasing the system to defend their troops fighting in Afghanistan.
The U.S. participation in funding and development of the Iron Dome indicate their interest in acquisition. The U.S. has similar interest to European countries in defending troops in Afghanistan as well as exploring ways to improve the technology.
Editor’s Note: Of course, defense against missile attacks involves offensive operation as well as defense itself. Indeed, an attack and defense enterprise is required and not a pure defense system.