Iron Dome - AP
An Iron Dome battery. Photo by AP
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On April 7, 2011, a rocket targeting Ashkelon was launched from the Gaza Strip. At 6:16 P.M., the Iron Dome defense system launched a missile which intercepted that rocket. The operators of the system, which was not expected to be successful at that point, chalked up their first success.

"There isn't too much time to think," explains Ophir Prideks, an Israel Defense Forces soldier posted at the Bazelet battery, stationed near Ashkelon. "You try to get through the system's rocket-identification process as quickly as possible and you push 'confirm.'"

Seconds afterward, the button is pushed and a missile, called a Tamir, is launched. Guided by sensors, the missile intercepts the rocket if, according to the system's calculations, the rocket is liable to hit a populated area. Half an hour later, following an initial debriefing process executed by the Iron Dome system itself and its operators - the battery chalks up an "alpha" - air force code for a hit. During the recent escalation, Iron Dome operators saw 58 alphas.

One evening this week, about 24 hours after truce talks were reported, the Bazelet squad was expecting relative quiet. Then at 10:30 P.M., initial reports came in of a Grad rocket striking central Netivot. They went back on alert.

"Every time there's a danger of rockets, we're on alert. At least that particular time there were no hits in this area," says First Lt. Or Ben Gigi, the battery's interceptor commander. "Our success rate is going up, but it won't ever be 100 percent. Knock on wood, in the current round we didn't miss a single rocket we should have intercepted."

One of Ben Gigi's areas of responsibility is air traffic coordination: Planes, helicopters, drones, interception missiles and Gazan rockets - all are flying around in a small area. When the air force received the Iron Dome system, commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan said the system could not impose limitations on the force's ability to attack.

"Iron Dome has fundamentally changed the air force. The introduction of defense into a force thinking in attack mode is dramatic," says the commander of the air force's active defense wing, Col. Zvika Haimovitch.

Were it not for Iron Dome's impressive successes, the recent round of fighting would have ended differently. The public's outcry after two Grad rockets struck Be'er Sheva four days ago, after the system malfunctioned, shows how important the batteries are. Air force sources say nine rockets struck inhabited areas during the recent round of hostilities after the system missed them, due to a technical malfunction.

"The system was introduced at record speed. There aren't a lot of systems that have gone operational in the air force the moment the tests ended," explains David Shtemer director of the missiles department at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which is developing the system. "To a certain extent, Iron Dome is now providing the best show in town. This is a swing from one extreme to the other: from panic to calm. Neither is appropriate, but calm is preferable. Ultimately, the people want Iron Dome."

No foolproof defenses

Aerial defense experts try to avoid statistics quantifying Iron Dome's success. Nevertheless, they acknowledge that the system's high effectiveness (about 78 percent interception during the recent fighting ) enabled military and government leaders to make decisions without time constraints, and to let inhabitants of the south continue with their routines as much as possible.

Apparently, the Defense Ministry, the administration for developing weapons systems, the defense industries and the air force are not surprised by Iron Dome's success. The more operational experience the system accumulates, the more accurate it becomes, say experts. The goal is an interception rate of 90 percent. This past week it was 76 percent.

"Interception won't be perfect, but the system makes it possible to live under rocket fire," explains Col. Haimovitch. "The intent is to protect as many people as possible. But it is impossible to protect all of Israel. Iron Dome isn't deployed everywhere, even in the south. There are places that aren't covered and nothing is hermetic."

Last week, militants in Gaza fired 76 rockets into Israel. After each launch, the aerial defense officials and Rafael debriefed the entire process - from when the rocket was spotted to its interception. Ballistics experts and system operators analyzed how the radar and interception worked. The data will be used to improve operation in the future.

Another Iron Dome battery is slated to go live within the next few weeks. It will likely be stationed north of the three current batteries, although the final destination will be determined by an updated situation assessment. Rafael is already developing the next two batteries. Company sources say the recent escalation, which showed how essential the system is, will help fend off the threat to the project's budget.

Iron Dome's recent success should not be taken for granted. Brig. Gen. (res. ) Danny Gold, former head of the Israel Defense Forces' weapons and technological R&D, decided to develop the system in 2005. Labor MK Amir Peretz, who was defense minister from May 2006 to June 2007, says the defense establishment and IDF did not support this.

"The General Staff's assessment was that this investment was not a high priority, due to the expected costs and benefits," says Peretz. "I found that unacceptable, since if we knew how to intercept long-range rockets, we shouldn't stand around helplessly."

The system's opponents had clear arguments: Downing a simple rocket with a $50,000 missile is not right in financial or moral terms, they said. (The current policy is to fire two missiles at each incoming rocket, at a cost of NIS 315,000. ) Developing the system would take a long time, and it wouldn't actually enable protection of the entire country, they added.

"The army also had a psychological problem," recalls Peretz. "'You're making us into a defensive army and not an attack army,' they said to me. I don't see any contradiction between the two. Every attack that can be prevented thanks to effective defense should be prevented."

Dov Raviv, considered the father of the Arrow (Hetz ) anti-ballistic missile project and an expert in active defense, explains why the initial opponents were wrong in their claims: The comparison shouldn't be between the cost of interception and the cost of making a rocket, but the cost of interception and the cost of a rocket strike.

"With this in mind, it's clear the defensive system pays off. If 30 intercepted rockets had struck Ashdod and Be'er Sheva instead, there would have been scores of casualties and extensive damage. The state's job is to spare victims and to protect citizens. The only way to do this, without Iron Dome, would be to occupy Gaza or to go back to Operation Cast Lead."

Interim remedy

The 2009 State Comptroller's Report severely criticized the defense establishment's decision-making when it came to developing the active defense system. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss wrote that it was "liable to lead to development and acquisition of systems that do not best fill operational needs, unnecessary expenditures and wasted of time."

Now, as Gold believed it would, Iron Dome can take out rockets fired from more than 40 kilometers away. In the future it will be able to intercept longer range Fajar missiles.

"It's clear that if rockets fall in Ramat Aviv Gimmel (an affluent north Tel Aviv neighborhood ), the reaction will be harsher," says missile expert Raviv. "Ultimately, Iron Dome is an interim remedy, not an ultimate remedy. The right solution is to prevent [the enemy] launches, not to make more Iron Domes."

Gaza militants are believed to have hundred of mid-range rockets that could hit Gedera or even sites farther north. Intelligence Corps head Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi has said there are 200,000 missiles aimed at Israel. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said this week that "the entire Israeli home front is under threat."

Meanwhile, Prideks and his comrades felt great satisfaction with every rocket they intercepted over Ashkelon, but the real test will come if Israel ever finds itself under a major missile attack.

"We shouldn't take the latest escalation and the rockets from Gaza as the be-all and end-all," says Haimovitch. "It's an entirely different story when ballistic missiles are targeting us from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and other places as well. The real test will come when the number of rockets is more significant and the potential damage also increases."