Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi hinted Tuesday that the army might choose to deploy its first batch of Iron Dome defense systems along the northern border when they become operational this coming November.
The advanced anti-rocket system, which intercepts the type of rockets used by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, aced its final test-run over the summer.
Two Iron Dome defense systems have so far been manufactured, and will become operational for the Israel Air Force anti-aircraft division. It has long been assumed that the system would be used to protect Israeli communities in the Gaza envelope.
But Ashkenazi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that "it is not certain that the first operational batteries, which will be ready in November, will necessarily be deployed in the south of the country.
Haaretz revealed in February that IDF does not intend to deploy the Iron Dome system on the ground, even once the system is operationally ready to go online.
Initially, the IDF wants to position the system in an air force base and to train the crews that will be operating it. Defense officials would consider deploying the system in and around civilian communities near Gaza only at a later date.
Defense sources told Haaretz then that they believe the Defense Ministry is intentionally trying to lower expectations surrounding Iron Dome so as not to provide an opening for the local council chiefs to lobby for their immediate deployment in their towns. Ministry officials are concerned that expediting the development and deployment of Iron Dome is cost prohibitive.
U.S President Barack Obama in May asked Congress for $205 million to support the development of Iron Dome, which intercepts the type of rockets used by Palestinian militants in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The defense establishment has not yet determined how many Iron Dome systems it will ultimately purchase from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. - the manufacturer of the Iron Dome defense system.
Both Rafael and the Defense Ministry have voiced their satisfaction with the system's ability to intercept several rockets fired from different directions simultaneously.
Iron Dome is capable of calculating the trajectory of an incoming rocket and can be programmed to refrain from taking counter action if the enemy rocket is expected to strike an unpopulated area.
Iron Dome uses small radar-guided missiles to blow up Katyusha-style rockets with ranges of between 5 km (3 miles) and 70 km (45 miles), as well as mortar bombs, mid-air.
Its development was spurred by the 2006 conflict in Lebanon with Hezbollah and the Gaza Strip war against Hamas in the winter of 2008-9, when those Israeli towns within range were all-but defenseless against the rockets.
The two units the Defense Ministry said will begin operating by November are truck-towed and easily deployed to any of Israel's borders.
Israel envisages Iron Dome becoming the lowest level of a multi-tier aerial shield capped by Arrow, a partly U.S.-funded system which shoots down ballistic missiles above the atmosphere.
Each Iron Dome interception is estimated to cost $10,000 to $50,000. Pitted against estimated costs of cruder Palestinian rockets, as low as $500, that could bleed the defense budget, some analysts have argued.