Game Changer: Israel’s Iron Dome Missile Defense System
Palestinian terrorists fired more than 160 rockets at dozens of civilian targets from Friday through Sunday, injuring three Israeli citizens and causing extensive damage. The escalated rocket attacks were in apparent retaliation for an Israeli strike against one of the major commanders of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), which was planning terrorist attacks by infiltrating through the Sinai. The commander, Zuhair al-Qaissi, also planned and carried out attacks through the Sinai last August that killed eight Israelis. Three other terrorists were killed in the strike which precipitated a blizzard of rocket fire from the PRC that struck several towns in southern Israel. The IDF responded with airstrikes against rocket launching sites and terrorist camps.
It could have been worse for the Israelis, except their missile defense system, known as “Iron Dome,” intercepted 90% of the rockets that were targeted. Israeli-designed and built in Israel by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Iron Dome promises to be a “game changer” according to some analysts, once it is fully deployed across the southern border.
Late Sunday, it was reported that Israel had informed Egypt that it would halt air strikes at midnight. Hamas has also agreed to a cease fire, although the PRC has not indicated its agreement to halt the barrage. It hardly matters. Although the barrage was carried out by the Popular Resistance Committees and another terror group, the Palestinian branch of Islamic Jihad, the Israelis believe that Hamas enables the attacks, or at best, refuses to prevent them.
Iron Dome has an unconventional history. It took only three years from design to deployment — a rarity among complex weapons systems. The tracking system was developed by Elta, an Israeli defense company while the computer software was created by the Israeli firm Prest Systems. The interceptor rocket was built by Rafael.
It is a marvel of technology and can actually determine if a rocket is a threat to a population center, or whether it will land harmlessly in an open field. CNN describes the system:
First deployed in April 2011, the Iron Dome system targets incoming rockets it identifies as possible threats to city centers and fires an interceptor missile to destroy them in mid-air. Each battery is equipped with an interception management center to calculate the expected location of impact, and to prioritize targets according to pre-defined targets. The battery also has firing-control radar used to identify targets, and a portable missile launcher.
This was the first serious battlefield test of Iron Dome and it passed with flying colors. The Jerusalem Post reports that Iron Dome intercepted a total of 27 rockets for a 90% success rate. It is currently deployed around three of the larger cities in the south: Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba. The system is entirely mobile and it is expected that once all batteries are deployed, Israel will potentially be able to intercept any missile fired from Gaza.
“The most important question is how would the Iron Dome affect the decisions of Hamas leaders and their Iranian supporters,” said Dore Gold, Israeli Ambassador to the United States. “While Hamas rockets are aimed primarily to target civilians and terrorize the Israeli home front, a secondary and just important aim is to hit strategic sites in the future,” he added. Gold also pointed out that by eliminating the terrorists’ ability to hit strategic targets, it will force them to re-think what kinds of rockets they will have to purchase in the future.
The most common rocket in the terrorists’ arsenal is the Qassam – a small, inaccurate projectile whose major benefit appears to be its easy portability. There are several variants of the weapon and its range is limited to between 5 and 15 miles. Hamas also has a Russian-designed Grad rocket system that is truck mounted, which it purchased from Iran. Iron Dome can intercept all of these rockets.
A fourth Iron Dome battery is expected to be added later this year with 5 additional batteries to be manufactured by 2013. An Israeli defense official told CNN that it would take 13 batteries to cover the border with Gaza. The system was partially funded by the US government, which gave Israel $205 million to develop and test the system. Another $200 million has been authorized by Congress for additional batteries.
Israel needed Iron Dome to perform above expectations the past few days because the PRC and its Islamic Jihad allies felt it necessary to respond to the pinpoint strike that took out al-Qassi. That strike reveals a slight change in Israeli defense doctrine, according to YNet News. While Israel has always reserved the right to take preemptive action against the terrorists, this sort of targeted assassination is the result of the terrorist attack last August that killed eight Israelis. the Israelis apparently had an opportunity to kill al-Qassi at that time, but decided against it because they knew there would be a retaliatory rocket strike by the terrorists on civilians. Once Israel’s intelligence services got wind of the plot, it was decided to take out al-Qassi despite the almost certain retaliation with rockets on Israeli civilian centers.
Israel has always been sensitive about its open flank in the Sinai. While Hosni Mubarak was in power, the Egyptian army patrolled the border area, which is sparsely populated by Bedouins. But with the fall of Mubarak came opportunity for the terrorists who are now constantly seeking to infiltrate through the Sinai. The Egyptian army is turning a blind eye to these infiltrations, which are facilitated by local Bedouins, who know the border area well and, for a price, will aid the terrorists.
The response to the rocket barrage from the terrorists by the Israeli air force has received the usual blanket coverage in the media, highlighting every Palestinian civilian casualty while downplaying — or not even mentioning — the rain of rockets that is constantly hurled at the Jewish state. Not reported in the media were the 45 separate rocket attacks by the terrorists just since January 1 of this year. That number does not include the dozens of attacks carried out over the last three days.
The terrorists had been escalating their rocket attacks over the past few months. There were 14 attacks in January but 28 in February. And prior to the barrage that began on Friday, there were already five rockets that had been fired in three attacks since the first of the month. It wasn’t until the terrorists fired more than 40 rockets following the attack on al-Qassi that the IDF responded in kind. An initial air strike on Friday took out another 11 terrorists, some of whom were in the process of trying to launch rockets. Since then, the IDF has used drones to search out terrorists in the process of launching.
Both sides apparently don’t want an escalation to the kind of confrontation that occurred three years ago when Israeli planes pounded Hamas political and military targets in “Operation Cast Lead.” So the violence appears to have abated — for now.
But with the fully tested and functional Iron Dome rocket defense system, the threat by terrorists to harm civilians will fade. How this changes the strategic situation will play into the political and diplomatic designs of both sides in the coming years.