Iron Dome rocket-defense system - Defense Ministry
Test of the Iron Dome rocket-defense system on Monday July 19, 2010. The military said the test was highly successful. Photo by Defense Ministry
Text size
related tags

Everything about the last test of the Iron Dome missile defense system, created to intercept all manner of launched projectile within a 40 kilometer radius, came up smelling like roses.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the test was "an important milestone for the security system and the defense industries." Ministry director general Udi Shani promised "We will act to actively deploy the batteries in the field as soon as possible." Brig. Gen. Eitan Eshel, head of research and development in the defense ministry, praised the system's performance and Yossi Drucker, the administrative head of the weapons development authority, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

But the most cloying description was beyond all doubt supplied by Uzi Rubin, one of the pillars of weapons projects in Israel. Still under the strong impression the test made on him, Rubin wrote: "This is a milestone in military technology. Whoever did not witness the clouds of destroyed grads in the skies has never seen such a soul-warming display in his life. During the test, a missile like a Qassam with a very short-range was fired and the Iron Dome missile was fired toward it. What happened was that the Iron Dome missile set out an extremely short time after the Qassam registered on the radar equipment, flew up, was bored and made a couple of rounds to pass the time, and when the Qassam arrived, the missile intercepted it like lightning and turned it into a wave of splinters. I have never seen anything like it in my life, and even the people from Rafael were amazed."

But, despite the admiration and praise which the Rafael engineers deserve for developing the system in record time, the truth is that the capabilities of the Iron Dome and the test results are more complicated than that.

Dr. Nathan Farber, a lecturer in aeronautics at the Technion, and a former rocket scientist for the military industry, is skeptical.

His estimates are based on a decade of experiments, and what he saw in a short, censored video the Rafael staff and the defense ministry supplied to television stations.

"Five rockets were fired (three grads and two Qassams ). That's not exactly a shower of grads. Of the five, two were expected to hit on target, and they were successfully intercepted. None of them was short-range. I checked the angle of fire a few times, and in no case were they lower than 45 degrees. That means that that only steeply routed rockets were intercepted. The matter of flat routes was not examined in this test. It will continue to be the weak point of the system whose capabilities will only be revealed unfortunately during a war."

Farber sounded the alarm on Iron Dome's weaknesses years ago. He believes Sderot should be defended with the Vulcan-Phalanx cannon, which are available and much cheaper.

"I never claimed the Iron Dome could not intercept rockets with high route angles," he said. "It definitely can intercept missiles at a range of 20 kilometers. The problem is that it has weaknesses, which they are attempting to conceal from the public."

The most prominent weakness is that the system has difficulty intercepting mortar shells and Qassams (flat route weapons ) whose range is 4.5 kilometers or less. These are the mortar shells and Qassams that have been launched at Sderot and the areas bordering Gaza for the better part of a decade, and the reason Iron Dome was reportedly developed in the first place.

The generals, with chiefs of staff Dan Halutz and Gabi Asheknazi and air force commanders in the lead, did not see defense of the home front as a critical element in their war plans. In their view, as defined by Uzi Rubin, "defense of the home front is not [the army's] problem, and doesn't have to be funded by the defense budget." And so they fought bitterly to defeat any effort to fund and develop a system of defense against short and mid-range missiles, in sharp contrast with their support for the Arrow (Hetz ) system against long-range Scud and Shahab missiles.

In the end the generals gave in, because of pressure from then-defense minister Amir Peretz and public opinion following the trauma of the massive firing of Katuyshas by Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War, and the near-constant firing of Qassams on Sderot and the surrounding area. In other words, the army gave up its struggle for an active defense in Israeli military doctrine.

It wasn't a knockout, though. A rearguard war continues to be conducted. The air force founded and trained, with an obvious lack of enthusiasm, a special antiaircraft battalion to operate the Iron Dome. But there are only two such batteries to date, because the defense system is having difficulties funding additional equipment.

And so the defense ministry is counting on sales of the system to other countries. The French journal Intelligence Online says that Singapore paid for a large part of the development, and is planning on making purchases. American magazine Defense News reports that India is also interested. Defense Minister Ehud Barak also had to try to collect money from U.S. President Barack Obama, and received a promise of over $200 million for equipment.

For any reasonable home front defense in the north and south, there is a need for 200 batteries of defense systems at a cost of $500 million. There is no chance that the money will be found.

And there is another problem: the cost of an Iron Dome missile is $100,000, as Yossi Drucker himself admitted in an interview with American media. That is a very high price to take out a homemade missile that costs about $100. And beyond all else, Iron Dome, developed in order to defend Sderot and the areas around Gaza, still has difficulties defending them against short range Qassams.

Yet another problem: Despite the success of the tests, they are only experiments and don't reflect the uncertainties of a battlefield.

Here is a suggestion to Rafael, the army and the defense ministry: Remove all doubt that the system can intercept missiles under real conditions. Why not place the experimental Iron Domes in the Negev (and even change their positions from time to time, in order to confuse the enemy ).

This way it will be possible for the system and its operators to gather real experience. At Rafael they claim to have produced hundreds of missiles for tests. Use some of them for "real time" interceptions, not perfectly timed and pre-planned experiments.

It would also be a wise step before mass producing these interceptor missiles, which have not been tested under battlefield conditions. If they succeed, fantastic. If not, the state of Israel will save a lot of money. And aside from that, the accumulated experience can help improve the system.

Why tell fairy tales about the Iron Dome missile looping lazily in the air? Bring down Qassams without going in circles.