U.S. Marines Tested Israel's Iron Dome. Here's What They Really Proved

The U.S. Army has already acquired two Iron Dome missile defense batteries, but is not deploying them and is interested in purchasing a U.S.-made system instead

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Iron Dome missile interception system.Credit: Moti Milrod

A senior U.S. Marines Corps officer confirmed plans to invest in missile defense technology based on Israel's Iron Dome and Tamir missile defense interceptors following a successful live-fire test.

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“We asked for a wicked solution to a wicked problem, and the MRIC provided that to us,” Gen. Eric Smith said last week at an event co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the U.S. Naval Institute, according to the Marine Corps Times. “We just proved it and tested it, and now we’re going to start moving out to procure that system.”

The comments refer to the Marine Corps’ Medium-Range Intercept Capability prototype, which successfully hit several simultaneously-launched cruise missile representative targets during a live-fire test at the White Sands Missile Range last month.

The MRIC (medium-range intercept capability) system is supposed to provide Marines who are in a forward deployment with a complete aerial picture, including the capability to intercept various threats such as drones, cruise missiles, helicopters and fighter jets.

The Israeli Iron Dome is a short-range (4-70 kilometers) air defense system. Each battery is designed to defend an area of 150 square kilometers. The system was developed in response to the rocket fire from Gaza and initially was meant to deal with artillery shells and mortars. In time, its capabilities were expanded, and currently it can also intercept drones and helicopters, and in recent years also tested successfully in intercepting cruise missiles.

The system entered operational use in 2011. Since then, it has downed thousands of incoming rockets and mortars. In Operation Protective Edge in 2014, it had a 90-percent success rate, and in the Gaza War in 2021, it successfully intercepted 95 percent of the rockets that were fired at populated areas.

However, during this same operation, the Palestinian organizations also demonstrated improved capabilities and were able to launch heavy barrages of dozens of rockets. 70 rockets penetrated the defense system and caused serious damage as well as loss of life.

While Iron Dome has become a symbol of Israeli technological development, it is just one dimension of a multilayered defense system in Israel, and the same will be true in the United States.

The topmost layer consists of the Arrow systems for intercepting ICBMS outside the Earth's atmosphere, while the middle layers include the Patriot and David's Sling systems for intercepting missiles and rockets at a range of 70-300 kilometers, as well as the laser-based Iron Beam for intercepting rockets and very short range, which is in advanced stage of development.

The consensus to date has been that Iron Dome in itself would be a stopgap measure until the U.S. military could procure or develop a better defense system against cruise missiles, though there has been an appetite to incorporate parts of Israeli tech into its indirect fire protection capabilities.

The acquisition of the Israeli system was largely the result of pressure from lawmakers who obligated the army by law to acquire the weapon system.

U.S. defense officials have long stressed the need to develop medium-range air-defense capabilities, though these efforts have increased over the past several years following conflicts in Syria and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border. Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a potential U.S. strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific has only made efforts more pressing.

U.S. lawmakers, too, have been pushing the U.S. military to better incorporate Israeli defense technology into its arsenal. Last year's version of the National Defense Authorization Act annual defense bill included an amendment requiring the Pentagon to submit a report to Congress on potential Iron Dome deployment to Ukraine, though it did not make the final version. U.S. lawmakers continue to push for the Pentagon to report and evaluate on Iron Dome's potential interoperability, as well as the potential integration of Israel's laser-based defense capabilities — namely the still in development "Iron Beam'' system.

The U.S. already owns two Iron Dome batteries that can be easily delivered and deployed anywhere around the world, as mandated by U.S. law. While they haven't integrated it into any operational usage, it was deployed to Guam for two months last year — the first time it deployed the Iron Dome outside the continental U.S. — in hopes of understanding how to best integrate it with missile defense technology already in use.

The American reports on the tests in Guam sounded optimistic, but that did not help. Two months after arriving in Guam, the batteries were returned to the U.S., where they still await deployment. The Army is not keen to adopt the system, despite Iron Dome’s proven record in Israel and despite the pressure from Congress. In March, the Army announced that it would forgo the planned acquisition of two more Iron Dome batteries.

In September of last year, the U.S. Army decided to acquire a rival interceptor system called Enduring Shield, which is being developed by Alabama-based Dynetic, even though the system is not yet operational like Iron Dome. The $247 million contract calls for the company to supply 16 batteries by the end of 2024, and if the system proves itself, the number could go as high as 400 batteries.

U.S. Army officials explained to Congress that there are several key problems preventing them from adopting the Israeli system, such as the fact that it was not designed to intercept cruise missiles, but that the main reason is that it cannot be integrated into the U.S. Army’s current radar and control systems. “My assessment right now is, it would be — and I hate to ever use the word ‘impossible’ — but exceptionally difficult to integrate Iron Dome into our layered air defense architecture [and] to get Iron Dome talk to other systems, other radars, specifically the Sentinel radar,” General John “Mike” Murray, head of the Army Futures Command, told the Breaking Defence website in 2020.

When these claims are placed alongside the results of the Marines’ life-fire tests, it is clear that the main takeaway from the tests are not the missile intercept capabilities, but the successful integration the Marines achieved between their radar and control systems with the Israeli (Tamir) missile intercept systems and launchers.

The Marines, which are a separate arm of the U.S. military, hope to be able to introduce MRIC into operational service in 2025, but even the successful test does not ensure that the process will culminate in the full adoption of the system, and certainly is no guarantee of any change in the U.S. Army’s policy.

When the dust settles on all of these political, economic and military power struggles, one clear winner will emerge. And it won’t be Iron Dome manufacturer Rafael, or Dynetic, but rather Raytheon, the American company that is Rafael's partner in Iron Dome and also the manufacturer of the Aim9x Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, which were modified to ground-based interceptors, and around which the Dynetic system was built.

According to various assessments, the cost of a single Tamir interceptor is $100,000, although official U.S. Army documents put the cost at $180,000 per missile. Official U.S. Air Force documents put the cost of a single Sidewinder missile at an estimated $400,000 per unit. What will each missile ultimately cost the army? That is hard to say. Possibly because the system is not yet operational, and the official budgetary documents are not yet able to precisely determine the cost per missile.

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