Israel’s Iron Dome Defense system is celebrating ten years of operations and 2,500 interceptions. The announcement on April 7, 2021 reveals the success that the system has had in protecting Israel from rocket threats and increasingly from other types of threats, such as drones and mortars, as well.
Iron Dome was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. “Iron Dome’s development began in December 2007, and was completed in less than 3 years,” said Rafael in a statement.
Rafael’s President and CEO, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Yoav Har-Even praised the system on the anniversary. “Iron Dome is a household name in Israel, and has become synonymous with excellence. We are proud of our teams of scientists and engineers who developed this extraordinary system and are continuing to do so on a daily basis. Thanks to them, Iron Dome’s capabilities are light years beyond its original design.”
The system has changed how Israel fights because it allows decision makers to wait and decide rather how to react than be immediately driven to war as missiles rain down on Israel. Had the 2,500 interceptions not taken place Israel would be a very different country today. “We are thankful to our teams, to the Israeli Ministry of Defense and to the IDF, to our partner industries ELTA, our subsidiary mPrest and others. We are especially thankful to current and past American administrations for their support in the manufacturing of the system,” said Har-Even on April 7.
Iron Dome saw its first success ten years ago just a month after being deployed. On the evening of April 7, 2011, a rocket that was launched from the Gaza Strip and was detected by Iron Dome’s radar. Within seconds, the data transmitted to the Battle Management Center (BMC) was processed, and the battery operators needed to decide whether to activate an interceptor against the threat, the company noted in a statement. “With precise impact location provided by the BMC, pointing to the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, with a population of more than 130,000 civilians, the crew decided to launch an interceptor, and made combat history by intercepting the threat, preventing civilian injuries and significant damage to property.”
The system performed well during hostilities with Hamas in 2012 and continued to serve the country in conflicts in 2014 and flare-ups ever since. The system can now confront a larger variety of threats, from very short-range munitions to precision guided munitions, drones and cruise missiles. This is relevant because Iran, an adversary of Israel, has used drones and cruise missiles in attacks. The system is also relevant globally because of increased threats from drones and short-range rockets. In fact, America has acquired two Iron Dome batteries from Israel due to the threats U.S. forces face such as rocket threats in places like Iraq.
In an interview with The National Interest, Rafael’s executive vice-president Pini Yungman discussed the importance of the system. Yungman served in Israel’s IDF as an air defender for decades. He was involved with key aspects of Israel’s relations with the U.S. army and later with the David’s Sling project that developed an interceptor for medium range threats. Iron Dome’s necessity was made clear by Israel’s experience in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 when rockets fired by Hezbollah rained down on the country. It was clear a system was needed to stop short range rockets, the kind that travel around 70km. Other air defense systems existed at the time, systems such as the Patriot, but a system like Iron Dome was lacking. Yungman says that twenty-four industries competed and the Minister of Defense chose the Iron Dome because “we came with a solution, a different and sophisticated solution that was low in price.”
It’s important to understand that at the time Israel was highly vulnerable to the kinds of threats that were being developed by Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah. Iran has used rockets and missiles in the past to compensate for having relatively weak conventional forces. Weapons like the 107mm and 122mm katyusha and grad rockets are examples. Hezbollah and Hamas, with Iranian technical support, went further, developing better and longer-range rockets. The Iranian arsenal today is constantly increasing the precision of its ballistic missile capabilities. It has exported these capabilities to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iron Dome was developed at the right time, prior to the explosion in capabilities that Hamas would roll out between 2012 and 2014. For instance, Israel had Patriot defenses for tactical ballistic missiles, but not a system to stop threats at the range of 4-70km.
“We designed it from scratch,” says Yungman, looking back. Rafael had experience and a legacy in developing missiles and the company was well suited as a research and development center to build Iron Dome. “We understood via ministry of defense we need a system that can intercept and defeat many salvos and attacks, not just from one area, not just one front, says Yungman. “We came with a concept and solution and actually a solution that was sophisticated and low cost, it was a technological solution and economic.”
There was a lot of pressure at the time. In only several years a system was constructed and operation, which is phenomenal from a point of view of military procurement. Some eighteen months were taken to get to the correct solution and then a year and half with designs and first deployment. This was claimed to be done in record time as such a development usually takes ten years.
In August 2019, Israel’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Defense Department signed an agreement for the purchase of two Iron Dome batteries for the U.S. Army. The batteries began to be delivered in 2020 and America now has two of them. In May 2020, Rafael and Raytheon Technologies Corporation signed a joint venture agreement to produce Iron Dome interceptors and launchers in an all-up-round facility in the United States. The partnership is called Raytheon Rafael Area Protection Systems (R2S). These two developments, along with U.S. Congressional and financial support for Israel’s air defense systems, is important. It illustrates the way that unique Israeli technology is now potentially aiding the United States.
Rafael continues to develop new forms of Iron Dome. The system’s family now consists of the naval variant C-Dome, providing protection for strategic naval and land assets against advanced ballistic, aerial and surface-to surface threats, including saturated attacks. C-Dome is operational with the Israeli Navy. The company says that “Iron Dome is also offered as an integrated, all-in-one air defense (I-Dome) system for maneuvering tactical forces in the field on a single vehicle.”
In the United States, the system was tested at White Sands and has been looked at by not only the U.S. Army by also the Marines. It is not clear how many systems Washington will acquire or where they will be used. Israel’s Iron Dome system is developed with open architecture so there is a lot of flexibility regarding the system and its interceptor.
Many countries around the world are now assessing how they need better integrated air defenses on a multi-layered approach as Israel has. Israel uses the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow defense systems to stop threats from the shortest-range missiles to those beyond the atmosphere such as long-range ballistic missiles. Considering the other types of air defenses out there, Israel’s approach has proved its worth.
Other non-Israeli air defense systems that exist include the Avenger which launches short-range Stinger missiles that use an infrared seeker. The Avenger can carry up to eight of the missiles, but they generally lack a high rate of interceptions, either on a vehicle or as a Man-Portable Air-Defense (MANPAD) system. They can reach targets up to several kilometers. Another short-range defense option that exists is the Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar system (C-RAM) which uses a machine gun against very short-range threats. A statistical weapon, it fires a lot of rounds trying to hit its target. There is also the longer-range Aegis system that has been deployed at sea using surface-to-air missiles against threats, including its SM-3 missiles against ballistic missiles.
Israel’s Rafael has also developed Spyder which is a system that has some overlaps with Iron Dome. It can intercept drones and aircraft threats, but it is not used against tactical ballistic missiles. Other Israeli companies have developed various interceptors, such as IAI’s Barak family of missiles. There is increasing interest in Israel’s capabilities after the success that Iron Dome and related systems have seen in defending the country against a multiplicity of emerging threats in the last decade.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing) and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming, Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.