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Israeli Defense System Iron Fist Enjoys Belated Glory

More than nine years since it was given the cold shoulder by the Defense Ministry, justice has been done for Iron Fist, to be manufactured by Elbit Systems

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Sujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, Gaza, 2014.
Sujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, Gaza, 2014. Credit: Adel Hana / AP

The Iron Fist active defense system enjoyed belated glory this week. More than nine years ago Haaretz described the birth pangs of this advanced system, developed at the time by Israel Military Industries but given the cold shoulder by the Defense Ministry, which was promoting the competing defense system Windbreaker, developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

Windbreaker was chosen then to protect the army’s advanced tanks, the Merkava Mark 4, and subsequently also the heavy Leopard armored personnel carriers, despite the massive praise heaped on the competing system. Now, many years later, justice has been done for Iron Fist as well, to be manufactured by Elbit Systems, which acquired IMI last year.

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The Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that Iron Fist will be the protective system for a new model of armored personnel carriers that move on wheels, Eytan, as well as for the D-9 Caterpillar earth movers the IDF is slated to purchase. This is happening less than a year after the U.S. Army chose the same system to protect its Bradley APCs. The deal with the Americans, which will include armor for hundreds of APCs, will get underway in 2021. The Israeli Defense Ministry did not provide details in its announcement as to just how many armored platforms there will be in Israel and when exactly the acquisition will begin.

On the way to the taking of this decision there was one key event – the traumatized reaction by the Israeli public to the APC incident in the Sujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. In that incident, six fighters from the Golani Brigade were killed by an anti-tank missile that hit the outdated M-113 armored vehicle they were traveling in, close to the time they entered the neighborhood. A seventh soldier, Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, is still missing and his remains are in the hands of Hamas.

The battle at Sujaiyeh, the easternmost neighborhood of Gaza City, was part of the IDF attempt to embark on a limited move on the ground to gain control of the area of the tunnels that Hamas had excavated right under its nose, along a strip about 1.5 kilometers inside Palestinian territory. The hit on the APC, along with many other losses suffered by Israeli forces during the following five weeks, demonstrated the price of combat in a densely built-up area, even against a relatively weak enemy like Hamas equipped with inferior weaponry relative to the weapons systems in the hands of the IDF. However, the M-113 personnel carriers, which the IDF had received from the Americans’ Vietnam War surpluses beginning at the start of the 1970s, again turned out to be especially vulnerable vehicles. The fighters of 2014 learned on their own flesh what the generations of their grandfathers and fathers had learned in 1973 and 1982: The M-113 is a crowded box that affords only minimal protection.

In retrospect, it became clear that the IDF had erred in allocating the vehicles and planning the battle, in which more things went wrong. The very next day it was already possible to see on the roads long convoys of carriers moving from the north of Israel to the south, and on them Leopard APCs with advanced armory brought in to reinforce the troops. In fact, though, the more modern vehicles were not enough.

When the army wants to move masses of soldiers in the face of the enemy, it needs a large number of tanks and APCs, armored sufficiently against explosive devices and anti-tank missiles. And considering the ambitious goals on the agenda for the army today – first and foremost the ability to conduct a significant in-depth maneuver well inside enemy territory – even in 2019 it is doubtful that the IDF has enough vehicles for that.

The new deal to purchase Iron Fist systems is supposed to be part of the answer to the problem. However, the numbers needed are high, the acquisition is quite costly (even for a system considered to be inexpensive relative to the competitors) and the process is expected to spread over many years. The achievement of Israel’s defense industry is impressive: It is the only country in the world that has succeeded in manufacturing effective active systems for armored vehicles – and it has produced two such systems, which complement each other.

However, the Sujaiyeh incident taught one lesson: Israeli public opinion, and it its wake the military and government leadership, is prepared to support a ground incursion if it is needed to stop rocket fire or terror attacks by means of tunnels, but it also expects effective protection of the lives of its sons it sends on the mission. For the action to be effective, and not get stuck because of heavy losses, movement has to be accomplished in armored vehicles. To that end a mass of vehicles is needed, the acquisition of which is lengthy and expensive. This, in essence, is yet another of the headaches afflicting the new chief of staff, who has promised to upgrade the capabilities of the ground forces.