Israel's Iron Dome: Promising Security to the Promised Land
1 November 2022
With a success rate near 90%, the contribution of the Iron Dome to Israel’s national security has been immense. It is no surprise that this missile defence system is today one of the most sought-after advanced weapons platforms in the world.
The Iron Dome (known as Kippat Barzel in Hebrew) is considered as one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world. The system has been credited with saving the lives of hundreds of civilians and military personnel and has arguably allowed Israel to effectively manage its precarious regional security situation. Israel has gained the capability to do so by quickly neutralising threats without frequently deploying troops in the Gaza strip as it has done in the past. Moreover, the widely acclaimed success of the system has allowed Israel to build a reputation as a world leader in Critical Technologies in advanced electronics and aviation.
The idea for the Iron Dome had gained traction within Israel’s military back in 2004 when Brigadier General Daniel Gold took over as Head of the Research and Development Bureau of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Referred to as the “maverick thinker behind Iron Dome” Brig. Gold spearheaded initial studies on how Israel could pursue anti-missile technologies to save human lives The requirement for a system such as the Iron Dome for Israel’s national security was evident in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War (2006). With over 44 Israeli civilians dead and 250,000 more needing to evacuate their homes, the IDF understood the pressing need to create an interceptor missile system to shield the cities from the incessant rockets being launched by Hezbollah or Hamas into their lands. From just 2000 to 2008, over 8000 rocket projectiles had been indiscriminately fired into Israel from Gaza.
In 2007, Defence Minister Amir Peretz chose the Iron Dome as shield against all short-range rocket and mortar bomb threats. Since then, over $210 million has been invested in sharpening and strengthening this tool against attacks targeting Israel. The Iron Dome, was developed through a joint collaboration between the IDF and Israeli firms, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aeorpsace Industries. The United States has financially aided the program since 2011 and gained more access to the technology following the signing of a co-production agreement in March 2014. The Iron Dome today is the the world’s most deployed missile defence system. It has a success rate greater than 90% and completed over 2000 interceptions.
The Iron Dome is “an effective truck towed multi mission mobile air defence system”, designed to protect the Israel’s critical assets and civilian population residing in the country’s northern and southern borders, while significantly reducing collateral damage. The system can protect a wide range of theatres and assets “in maneuvring forces, the forward operating base and urban areas against a wide range of indirect and aerial threats.” These include a variety of aerial threats including short-range rockets and 155 mm artillery shell threats with ranges of up to 70 kilometres along with Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM). It can additionally defend against aircraft, helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)s at a short-range. It has the capability to operate in any and all drastic weather conditions like fog, low clouds and rain, and has even proved the capability to simultaneously respond to multiple threats.
After passing the testing in July of 2009, the IDF established its first battalion operated with the Iron Dome system. It was first deployed along the Gaza border and then subsequently another was established along the border with Lebanon. After completing a series of test interceptions of mimic Qassams and Katyushas (which have an operational range of 5-16 kilometres), the IDF declared the Iron Dome fully operational in March of 2011, and the system successfully intercepted rocket launched from Gaza for the first time in April of 2011.
The Iron Dome is comprised of three components:
The Radar System: The Iron Dome is fitted with a ELM 2084 multi-mission radar (MMR) developed by the ELTA, subsidiary of IAI. The ELM 2084 is a 3D active “electronically scanned array (AESA) which operates in the S-band frequency”. The radar can locate, track and assess the trajectory of the incoming threat.The radar is said to have the capability to target upto 1100 targets for surveillance.
The Battle Management and Weapon Control (BMC): Built by mPrest, a private company partly owned by Rafael, the BMC synchronises the information received from detection and tracking systems to detect a rocket’s launch and assess whether it is a threat. The BMC then tracks the same and determines whether the target is a threat to any Israeli area to decide whether the Tamir interceptor missile is to be launched.
The Missile Firing Unit: Upon confirming an incoming threat, the Missile Firing Unit launches the Tamir interceptor missile. The interceptor is 3-metre long and is 0.16-metres in diameter. It weighs about 90 kilograms at launch. It relies on an on-board active radar seeker for guidance and delivers firepower using a high-explosive blast-fragmentation warhead. Each battery herein is comprised of three launchers which contain 20 interceptors each. One battery hence entails 60 interceptor missiles.
The Iron Dome has been built to be deployed in a scattered pattern where each launcher is independently deployed and operated via wireless connection. Due to this, it has been estimated that a single Iron Dome battery can protect approximately 150 square kilometres of urban area. Over the years, various other members have also been added to the interceptor missile family: the I-Dome, which provides protection for motorised troops, air defense to military, industrial and administrative installations and the C-Dome, which is its naval counterpart to defend ships and sea-based strategic assets. The last technological upgrade was completed and tested in southern Israel in March 2021. Israel now has 10 operational Iron Dome batteries which has demonstrated 90% kill rate against intercepted rockets from Gaza.
Outside of Israel, the Iron Dome has been deployed to protect NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Various collaborations have also taken place to deploy the cost-effective anti-missile system in different countries. Compared to US-made interceptors such as the MIM-104 Patriot which cost about $2-4 million, price per interceptor for the Iron Dome stands at about $50,000 to $100,000. The Iron Dome is hence seen as an affordable option by several countries looking to bolster their aerial defense capabilities. However, Israel has only so far concluded a sale with the US Army. Today 75% of the Tamir’s components are manufactured in USA by a joint venture of Rafael and Raytheon. In August 2020, the companies announced their intent to set up “the first Iron Dome all-up-round facility outside of Israel” in the USA in order to add to the United States’ Indirect Fires Protection Capability (IFPC). Reports also indicate that Azerbaijan bought the system in 2016. A number of countries including India, Canada, Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Slovakia are reported to have purchased the Iron Dome’s radar system. Countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) along with Romania have also shown an interest in purchasing the system. Even though the Patriot has broader coverage, the lower cost of the Israeli system and broader level of deployment is expected to make them equally effective.
Critics have pointed out that the Iron Dome is effective primarily against the type of rockets that Hamas and Hezbollah fire, which are predominantly Soviet-made, World War II-era rockets. However, despite its cost effectiveness, its longevity amid rapid developments in contemporary missile systems cannot be guaranteed. This is primarily the argument forwarded by India in its decision to not purchase the Dome air defence system back in 2012. Both Pakistan and China have highly advanced military capabilities. Another drawback is coverage, which for small countries like Israel is not a problem. This is why Israel is now working on the development of another air defence system, known as the Iron Beam. It is a laser type system which can intercept the aerial threats. The IDF is also working on increasing the range of the Iron Dome to 250 kilometres where rockets can be intercepted from two directions simultaneously.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Aahir holds an MA in Geopolitics and International Relations from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Her research interests are on the geopolitics and foreign policies of Israel, North Korea and Japan.