The Remarkable Iron Dome (Israel)

israeli iron dome

The first time I heard the term Iron Dome I envisioned this invisible ceiling over Israeli airspace that had the capability of keeping anything nefarious from entering and consequently falling to land. If I had to imagine that ceiling was real and not invisible in my mind’s eye I thought of a beautiful Tiffany glass cupola protecting a land the size of New Jersey. I’m not so far off except to say that the arched roof remains sky and if there are Tiffany style swirls of color to be had when looking up then the reasons may be from a well intentioned psychedelic journey and not because Israel truly has built a physical roof. 

However there is a roof and it does protect. And that roof is the remarkable Iron Dome. So what is the Iron Dome and how does it keep Israel safe from those who want to wipe this small Jewish nation off the map? 

“Iron Dome is an air defence system used by Israel to intercept and destroy short-range rockets, artillery shells and mortars fired from distances of up to 45 miles, to protect civilian areas in the path of such projectiles.” 

How does it know how and when to track the rockets?

“It is a three-piece system of interceptor batteries that shoot rockets out of the sky. A radar tracks the rocket as it is fired across the border into Israel, and then advanced software predicts the rocket’s trajectory. The information it provides is used to guide Tamir interceptor missiles, which are fired from the ground to blow the rocket into harmless pieces in the sky.”

The Iron Dome was invented by Chanoch Levin. “He was the project manager with his team at the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to counter the constant rocket fire from the Gaza strip in the early 2000s”. The Iron Dome was first used in March 2011 and made its first successful intervention in April of 2011.

“Iron Dome was declared operational and initially deployed on 27 March 2011 near Beersheba.[11] On 7 April 2011, the system successfully intercepted a BM-21 Grad launched from Gaza for the first time.[12] On 10 March 2012, The Jerusalem Post reported that the system shot down 90% of rockets launched from Gaza that would have landed in populated areas.[

To this day the Iron Dome remains, according to Israeli officials, about 90 percent effective at blocking the short-range rockets used by Hamas and other groups in the region. 

“The Iron Dome gives Israel what Jean-Loup Samaan, a research affiliate with the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore who has studied Israel’s missile defense, called an “insurance policy” — it reassures citizens and protects against loss of life and property damage.”

Although the problem is militant groups like Hamas try to overload the system by launching hundreds of rockets knowing that most won’t get through but hoping maybe some will and hit their intended targets. As of the latest conflict, On May 14, 2021 “according to Israeli officials, militants in Gaza fired 2,200 rockets, with the Iron Dome intercepting 85 to 90 percent of rockets that threaten people or infrastructure”.

There are several other ways that the system can be overloaded according to Jean-Loup Samaan:

“Plus the risk of having two fronts — if you have salvos of rockets being sent at the same time from Gaza and South Lebanon. I don’t know the numbers, and probably some of them are classified, but I guess this could become an issue in terms of sustainability for the system. So overwhelming the Iron Dome is a tactic.”

“Another tactic is hiding the launchers, as I said. And the other thing we’ve seen is the use of tunnels. I think it was in 2014 when that was a big thing, these tunnels that Hamas had built [from Gaza into Israel]. Because the Iron Dome systems are designed to monitor missiles or rockets coming from Gaza. So if there’s something coming from inside Israeli territory, I assume it would be much more difficult for the radar to detect. So these are several ways the Palestinian militia groups have been trying to bypass the system.”

“All of this raises questions about how the Iron Dome has — and hasn’t — changed the nature of the conflict.” 

The important thing to note about the Iron Dome is that it is designed for the “very specific threat of low-range rockets coming from Gaza or other places nearby”.

“It cannot intercept ballistic missiles coming from Iran, for instance — that would be something that the other systems the Israelis are developing like David’s Sling or Arrow would have to intercept.”

“Even some of the weapons systems that Hezbollah [an Iran-backed Shia militia] in Lebanon is operating, like mid-range ballistic missiles, precision-guided weapons, these types of more sophisticated systems would be much more challenging to intercept.”

All this leaves Israel to greater threats.

“That’s the reason why if you check over the last decade, every time there’s an operation with Gaza, you have, first, the people who are fascinated with Iron Dome, and then you have the others in Israel who say, “This is a very expensive system designed to intercept very cheap rockets.” So, for sure, it’s impressive in terms of the technology it operates and the command of that technology, but it cannot, by itself, protect the country against all the surrounding threats.”

Other problems with the Iron Dome are its sustained cost, the terror it sows on the ground, and as previously mentioned the fact that technologically it can only intercept short range missiles.  

“There are two main reasons Iron Dome offers Israel incomplete protection. First, each Tamir missile costs Israel between US$50-90,000, compared with only a few hundred dollars apiece for the rockets they intercept. Given such a profound cost imbalance, a sustained rocket campaign could have a crippling effect on Israel’s defence budget.”

Second, rocket attacks are effective regardless of whether they hit their targets. The disruption they cause is what matters most. Civilians still take cover as rockets approach. Sirens sound, which is frightening and humiliating. The mere possibility that rockets could cause death and destruction is enough to sow terror on the ground.

“Despite its apparent success, Iron Dome does not represent a significant technological breakthrough in missile defence. The reasons are fairly straight-forward.”

“The kind of rockets Iron Dome can intercept only fly short distances. Lacking any meaningful guidance system, they fly slowly along a low, predictable arc and are relatively easy to track and destroy.”

So can Israel intercept a medium or long range missile? In March of 2019 Israel and the U.S. “successfully intercepted a series of medium to long-range ballistic missiles in a joint drill”.

“The missile test in southern Israel was conducted Tuesday by the Israeli Ministry of Defense along with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Rafael, an Israeli defense technology company.”

Despite its drawbacks the Iron Dome has kept Israeli’s safe and in this last Israel-Gaza conflict  the Iron Dome intercepted “drones in combat for the first time”. 

“The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced in March the completion of upgrades to Iron Dome that would allow it to defend against a more diverse collection of aerial threats.

During the upgrade process, the defense system was tested against a variety of threats that include rockets, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles, the Associated Press reported.”

About “4000 rockets were fired at Israel” in this last conflict with a “death toll in Israel of 12 people, including a 5-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier” and at “least 230 Palestinians killed, including 65 children, and 1,620 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians”. 

“What people don’t understand is that the Iron Dome system not only spares Israeli lives, but many Palestinian lives as well,” he said, suggesting that Israel can show more restraint because most incoming rockets are not making it through.”

“The IDF declined to comment on how the Iron Dome affects the military’s strategic thinking, but the IDF spokeswoman Capt. Libby Weiss told Insider that she thought that “we would be in a very different conflict” if Israel didn’t have the Iron Dome.”

“We are, of course, extremely grateful that it exists,” Mayer said. “We can only shudder to think about how many lives would have been lost if it didn’t.”

Of course the best case scenario would be if these outbreak wars would not happen and the militant groups in the region would evaporate so the Palestinian civilians and the Israelis truly could figure out how they could co-exist peacefully in this biblical land. Perhaps the entire region does need a well intentioned psychedelic journey where the Iron Dome morphs into a giant Iron Butterfly and takes them all into “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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