Battlefield Success in Israel Yet to Win Iron Dome Foreign Buyers

Rocket interceptor designed to stop threats most countries don’t face.

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The Iron Dome system shooting down an incoming rocket in Ashdod. Remember that?
The Iron Dome system shooting down an incoming rocket in Ashdod. Remember that?Credit: Ilan Asayag

Normally, an advanced new weapon system with a battle-proven success rate of 90% would have global defense procurement agencies on the phone in minutes. But Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor is yet to prove a hit with buyers abroad.

In terms of operational achievement, tested on the Gaza, Lebanese and Egyptian Sinai fronts, Iron Dome is unrivalled in the arms market. However, the system is tailored to deal with the specific Israeli challenge of combating short-range rocket and missile threats by militant groups, said Avnish Patel of the Royal United Services Institute.

Israel further curbs its potential client pool by not selling to countries with which it has no diplomatic ties, ruling out Gulf Arabs who, given their standoff with Iran, are looking into missile defense.

So far Iron Dome has been bought by just one foreign country whose identity is being kept secret by both sides.

Iron Dome’s manufacturer, state-owned Rafael, would have been content to keep it on home turf and avoid the risk of classified technology leaks, said Yosi Druker, vice president of the company.

But with exports a critical for keeping the cost of weapons development down finding foreign customers for Iron Dome was seen as a natural next step. Israel about 80% of the weaponry it develops abroad, earning $6.5 billion a year.

“Rafael invested a great many millions of shekels in developing this system,” Druker, a senior member of the Iron Dome project, told Reuters. “It could not afford to have done this without selling abroad.”

Israel was banking on its export prospects from early on, says one person who was present when the system aced its first live trial, in 2009. He told Reuters that two officers from a foreign country that regularly buys Israeli defense products were among observers at the desert test range.

The United States, which was closely involved with the project and provided more than $1 billion in funding, declined to buy Iron Dome for its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Among the Pentagon’s misgivings was the $100,000 price tag for a single Iron Dome interceptor missiles and their perceived unsuitability for insurgents’ low-trajectory mortars, said Riki Ellison, president of the U.S. Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

“The Iron Dome does not do mortar protection that close, and the cost of engagement is not applicable,” said Ellison.

Israel is also mindful of the mortar threat, having lost 15 soldiers and civilians to such salvoes in Protective Edge this summer. Rafael is now developing Iron Beam, a system that would use lasers to incinerate mortar shells mid-air.

Moreover, Druker insists Iron Dome has anti-mortar capabilities that were underused in the war was because it was often deployed far from Gaza’s border.

The price of its interceptor missiles could be cut by eventual mass-production and joint manufacturing deals with U.S. firm Raytheon. But the roughly $50 million price tag for an Iron Dome battery is unlikely to drop significantly.

Also on the roster of countries to which Israel will not offer Iron Dome are those whose military build-up is watched closely by Washington, Druker said – a likely allusion to China and Russia.

But Rafael does acknowledge promoting Iron Dome to South Korea and India. The former is menaced by North Korea and the latter is Israel’s biggest defense client.

Despite initial concerns about technology leaks, Rafael says Israeli national security would not be impaired if this were to happen. The Israeli military is using the fourth-generation model of Iron Dome, leaving Rafael the option of selling only earlier versions abroad.

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