Since the beginning of what the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is calling Operation Pillar of Defense on Nov. 14, 2012, more than “500 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have struck Israel. In addition, the Iron Dome Active Missile Defense System has intercepted 257 rockets, preventing them from striking populated areas.” While this might seem like just over a 50 percent success rate, the difference in numbers is due to the fact that Iron Dome is only used to destroy rockets that will fall on populated areas. Others are left to explode harmlessly on unoccupied territory.
In reality, Iron Dome’s interception rate has been quoted variously as 70 percent early in its use, and later 85 percent or up to 95 percent, for those rockets it actually fires upon. While the IDF has taken the offensive, destroying selected targets to try to end or at least lessen the constant rain of rockets on southern Israel, Iron Dome has given Israel an active defense as well, and one that has been on call every day since it was first activated in 2011.
Israeli leadership has called Iron Dome a game-changer, the first of a new generation of point-defense ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. A multinational collaboration of Israel and the United States, Iron Dome is an attempt to take proven technologies and components and integrate them into a new kind of point-defense BMD system.
Iron Dome’s development and deployment were the direct result of the more than 12,000 artillery rockets fired into Israel over the past decade, including 4,000 during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. In 2007, the IDF selected the Iron Dome system as the means to protect high-value fixed targets from attack by a variety of ballistic missile and rocket threats. The key, as stated previously, was to take a variety of existing technologies and systems, then tie them together into a quick-reaction BMD system capable of intercepting everything from 155 mm artillery shells and rocket artillery to medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), at ranges from 2.5 miles/4 kilometers to 43 miles/70 kilometers.
The basic components of an Iron Dome battery are:
- Detection and Tracking Radar – Built by IAI Elta, the radar provides quick-reaction target tracking data to the rest of the battery. Like all of the Iron Dome battery equipment, it is road mobile for rapid relocation.
- Missile Firing Units (MFU) – Each Iron Dome battery has three MFUs, each of which can launch 20 Tamir interceptor missiles, built by Rafael. Tamir is derived from the highly successful Python and Derby family of missiles, and the missile receives trajectory updates from the system once it is launched. The MFUs are built onto standard-sized pallets, which can be loaded, unloaded, and delivered to field sites by Medium Tactical Vehicles, which are common throughout the world’s armies. Each MFU is linked to the rest of the battery with a wireless data network system. This allows a single Iron Dome battery to cover a frontage of “tens-of-kilometers,” and to be linked with other batteries as well.
- Battle Management & Weapon Control (BMC) – The battery BMC, which is built by mPrest Systems (an Israeli software company) for Rafael, is the heart of the Iron Dome System. In addition to actually controlling the Detection and Tracking Radar and MFUs, the BMC can also be datalinked to the rest of the Israeli National Missile Defense (NMD) system, adding an additional layer of protection to that provided by existing Arrow I and Patriot PAC-3 batteries, as well as Aegis ships offshore when available.
From the time the first two Iron Dome batteries were installed, one near Beér Sheva, and another in the Gush Dan in March of 2011, they were game-changers around the Gaza Strip. In just a few days, the system shot down 9 to 10 Hamas artillery rockets. By April 2012, Iron Dome had intercepted and shot down 93 rockets. But in just a few days this month, the system has already more than doubled that number of interceptions.
Reported plans are to install seven additional Iron Dome batteries, and five have been installed so far, with the latest rushed from testing to be set up near Tel Aviv. The latest Block 2 system has upgraded Tamir missiles with a greater engagement range, an improved radar, and other advances. Block 3 is in development, and hopes are for even more systems to be fielded in the years to come.
But the protection of Iron Dome does not come cheaply. A single battery is said to cost over $100 million, and while each Tamir interceptor missile is said to cost only about $50,000, that unit price assumes production of 1,000 Tamirs. However, the value of Israeli lives saved and property protected is incalculable, and the system is providing a badly needed morale boost to people who have been under constant rocket attack for years.
This is hardly the end of the Iron Dome story. South Korea began showing an interest in the system after the vicious artillery and rocket attack by North Korea on the Island of Yeonpyeong on Nov. 23, 2010. Singapore, India, and several NATO allies are actively interested in the system. The United States, of course, has not only an interest in the system but a stake, with the Obama Administration having contributed $200 million toward development of the system in 2010, with more investment likely. Israel is also developing another tier to their layered BMD system, called “David’s Sling” (the Israelis also call it “Magic Wand”), which is due for deployment sometime in this decade.