The Israel Defense Forces says it has no intention at this stage of permanently deploying the Iron Dome system to protect Sderot against rocket attacks. The army expects to have a battery operational by May.
According to an IDF plan, the battery will initially be deployed at air force bases in the south and will be set up elsewhere only during significant escalations on the Gaza border.
In the past three years, government ministers have repeatedly promised that the batteries would be deployed in the field and would effectively defend communities near the Gaza Strip. Sderot has been mentioned several times as the first town to benefit from the new system because of the many rocket attacks it has suffered over the past eight years.
Much of the testing for Iron Dome was completed over the past month. In one especially impressive test in the Negev, the system downed several barrages of incoming rockets. Defense officials announced that by March air defense units would receive the first battery, which would be declared operational by May.
However, Haaretz has learned that acquiring and deploying the system will apparently be much slower than the development efforts by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems; the company completed its work in record time - two and a half years. The current plan is to acquire a relatively small number of batteries and a limited number of missiles and avoid deploying them in the field.
A senior source in the General Staff explained that two tests of the system still need to be carried out. "We are still not at the decision stage on the way the system will be used," the source said. "We need to fully evaluate the missile's capabilities and only then determine the extent of the acquisition."
The source said the media had failed to understand the real purpose of the system; reporters have described Iron Dome as a routine means for intercepting Qassam rockets and Grad-type Katyushas.
"This is a system that is expected to counter much bigger rockets that may be in the Gaza Strip, like the Fajr-5," he said. The Iranian-made Fajr-5 is in Hezbollah's arsenal and has a range of 75 kilometers. It carries a warhead of between 100 and 150 kilograms.
On the other hand, the source says, bomb shelters and the "Color Red" air-raid alarm will remain the main way to deal with Qassams and Katyushas.
"There is no point in routinely firing intercept missiles against a single Qassam," the source said, noting that Qassam attacks have been rare since Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip a year ago. "Iron Dome should be used at times of escalation or against bigger rockets."
Another factor, apparently, is that since the number of operational batteries will be small at the outset, the IDF wants to avoid a situation in which one town receives permanent protection while its neighbor remains vulnerable.
"The IDF developed its operational doctrine for the Iron Dome system by taking a comprehensive view, out of an understanding that it is necessary to provide an effective response to a wide range of threats, and in several theaters of operation, on short notice," the IDF Spokesman's Office said.
"The Iron Dome system is a mobile one, and the location of the batteries will be chosen in accordance with our assessment of the security situation, which will be examined shortly before the system is declared ready for operational use."
It seems that two considerations lie behind the plan for using the system: budget constraints and Iron Dome's position on the IDF's priority list. The IDF decided that the system would be operated by air defense units, but a decision has not yet been made on which procurement budget will supply the funds for purchasing it.
Thus, at the current stage, the decision will apparently be to procure only five to seven batteries and a limited number of intercept missiles. Many more batteries would be required to protect the areas near the Gaza Strip and along the northern border.
At the same time, the IDF recently canceled plans to purchase tens of millions of dollars worth of one type of anti-aircraft missile and froze a planned purchase of another type of missile.
Thus the fear is that, for all defense officials' talk about the project's importance, Iron Dome will have trouble competing for funding against very expensive projects that are dearer to the air force's heart. These include the the F-35 fighter jet and more-intensive training. If so, the IDF will apparently have to find funding for Iron Dome outside the air force's budget, something Defense Minister Ehud Barak has recently been working on.
One possibility under consideration is selling Iron Dome to an Asian country, which would bring down the price of each system by increasing sales volume. Representatives of that country witnessed last month's test in the Negev and expressed interest in buying the system.
In any case, the period is over for playing down the rocket threat; this attitude had delayed the development of a short-range missile interception system by seven years. But this message may not have been internalized at every level of the defense establishment, because for all the talk about missile defense, Israel has yet to significantly change its priorities.
Two months ago, at a meeting on the missile threat, the head of the IDF's research and development program, Brig. Gen. Danny Gold, briefed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the means available for defending against missile attacks. He began with deterrent measures and ways of targeting launchers, leaving defensive measures to the end of his presentation.
Rafael's chief executive, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yedidia Ya'ari, could not restrain himself: He interrupted Gold to warn that "if there is no defense, there will also be no offense."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now