The Israel Defense Forces is ordering four more Iron Dome anti-rocket systems from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems at a cost of $60 million to $80 million each. The two batteries in operation - protecting the southern cities of Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva - have proved themselves in action against Hamas' rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians.

The Israel Air Force, which operates Iron Dome within the IDF, is expected to receive the new batteries within a year and a half. They would then be ready for operations immediately, if needed.

The Defense Ministry plans to then buy another four anti-rocket batteries within two to three years, to have 10 units in operation in 2014 or 2015 - depending on budget constraints. Iron Dome was designed to intercept 90% of all incoming rockets within its coverage area. So far the success rate is 100%.

The controversial Iron Dome system was launched in 2006, but the following year, then-Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi objected to funding the system from the defense budget. In addition to the $60 million-$80 million price tag per battery, each missile costs $70,000 to $80,000. This compares to a few hundred dollars for each Qassam rocket or a few thousand for a Grad.

At the end of 2007, the cabinet approved a special allocation of NIS 811 million from the defense budget for Iron Dome at the behest of Defense Minister Ehud Barak - and this paid for the two batteries operating today.

A year ago the United States decided to help fund the system; President Barack Obama asked Congress for $205 million in additional military aid for the project, above the $3 billion in regular annual military aid. The $205 million has yet to be transferred.

The money was locked up in the budget battle between congressional Republicans and Obama, and should be resolved in the compromise reached in Washington just a few days ago. This money will go for the four new batteries, but if it doesn't arrive, the Defense Ministry will find other funding sources.

Long-term potential for export

The 100% success so far in intercepting Hamas rockets has pleasantly surprised Rafael and others in the defense industry. The company plans to sell Iron Dome to other countries; the system will be displayed at a defense exhibition this week in Brazil. Lova Drori, Rafael's executive vice president for marketing, said there are export licenses for Iron Dome to a number of countries.

There is a large export market for the systems, say Rafael officials, but not necessarily in the short term. The civilian populations of most potential customers are not currently threatened by rocket attacks. But the potential for long-term sales is great, says Drori. He says Iron Dome is capable of intercepting other threats from the air such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

In addition to missiles, an Iron Dome battery is composed of search-and-targeting radar and a command-and-control center. The missiles have an electro-optic homing system and are considered to be extremely maneuverable. Rafael says the mobile system can intercept a number of missiles fired from different areas, and it works day and night and even in bad weather.