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The pace of development of Iron Dome, the short and medium range rocket defense system, is satisfactory, according to defense establishment sources.

A major trial of the system is scheduled to take place in a few weeks, and the development of the system is progressing faster than the original schedule.

Based on the assessments of Rafael, the maker of the system, as well as the Defense Ministry and the IDF, it is reasonable to expect that the first operational battery of Iron Dome would be delivered to the air defense branch of the Israel Air Force by mid-2010.

A senior defense source told Haaretz, "Rafael is doing a fantastic job on this project. Because of the urgent need to deploy missile batteries against rockets, especially along the Gaza Strip, we have given the company an unreasonable time table, and they are still succeeding in meeting and even exceeding it a bit. To date Rafael has met all the 'targets' we have set in the development of the project."

Iron Dome is meant to intercept rockets at ranges between 4-77 kilometers, and provide the main response to Qassam rockets, Grad-type Katyusha rockets and the Iranian made Fajr rockets in Hezbollah's arsenal, should these find their way to the Gaza Strip.

The project was approved after a long process which included many delays, and which were criticized in the State Comptroller's report. However, since the project got underway (and mostly because of the effect of the massive rocket attacks during the 2006 Second Lebanon War), Rafael and the IDF have invested a great deal in completing the system as quickly as possible.

The next major trial of the system is considered critical, as it will involve multiple launches of rockets, which Iron Dome is expected to intercept by launching its own barrage of missiles.

A Qassam and Grad rocket will be fired and Iron Dome will be expected to identify the launch, capture the rockets in flight, and target them with its own rockets, destroying them. This test will simulate a likely scenario in which the system will be called upon to intercept a number of missiles fired simultaneously.

A total of NIS 860 million have been invested in the project so far, and this is expected to be sufficient for a prototype, the construction of two batteries and the production of a limited number of interception missiles. A single battery is considered sufficient to protect the area of a medium-size city and its environs.

However, once the initial system is completed, it is expected that municipalities and citizens, particularly those living close to the border, will lobby for more batteries deployed near their communities. Under such circumstances there will be a need for expanding the budget for the project and it will come at the expense of other weapons development projects of the defense establishment.

The senior defense source rejected the criticism directed at the high cost of the intercepting missiles, which may cost as much as $50,000 each.

"This is rubbish. During Cast Lead, we embarked on an operation that cost NIS 3.8 billion, not to mention the other issues that we had to deal with. With such a sum I can cover the entire country with batteries. Procuring such systems will enable the political leadership to have alternatives. This does not mean that we will not be attacked from the Gaza Strip, but there will be less pressure on the leaders to decide. This is a critical system for Israel."