Air Defense: Iron Dome Is All Alone

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May 18, 2016: Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system has been successfully modified and tested to shoot down various types of UAVs. This required some software modifications and was done at the request of the U.S. Army. Iron Dome was already capable of shooting down aircraft and helicopters. The UAVs were often much smaller, but so are the rockets and mortar shells Iron Dome can knock down. The United States has contributed over a billion dollars to development and procurement of Iron Dome. Adding new features like this might help produce export sales, which have, so far, not materialized, with one exception.

Iron Dome has been in service since 2009 and has proven itself in combat. Iron Dome uses two radars to quickly calculate the trajectory of the incoming rocket and do nothing if the rocket trajectory indicates it is going to land in an uninhabited area. But if the computers predict a rocket coming down in an inhabited area one (or often two to be sure) $50,000 Tamir guided missiles are fired to intercept the rocket. This, and the fact that the Iron Dome fire control system can track hundreds of incoming missiles at once makes the system cost-effective. So far Iron Dome has shot down 700 rockets, which is about 85 percent of the rockets it calculated were headed for a populated areas. The Tamir missiles used by Iron Dome weigh 90 kg and have a range of 70 kilometers against rockets, mortar shells and artillery shells up to 155mm. Iron Dome can also shoot down aircraft and helicopters (up to 10 kilometers/32,000 feet altitude). Iron Dome is the principal defense against short range rockets fired from Gaza or Lebanon. Work is underway to increase Iron Dome range from 70 to over 200 kilometers.

By 2014 Israel had fifteen batteries of Iron Dome and over 2,000 Tamir missiles. That was enough to shut down the Hamas effort to hit Israel with thousands of rockets. Each battery has radar, fire control equipment, and 3-4 missile launchers (each with 20 missiles) and costs about $37-50 million depending on how many missiles it is shipped with.

In 2014 the U.S. Army has purchased an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery from Israel, mainly for evaluation purposes. The Americans want to see if Iron Dome would be worth getting for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, where American troops are still stationed and probably will be for some time to come. The American purchase was the first export sale of Iron Dome. Israeli efforts to export their Iron Dome anti-rocket system have otherwise failed so far, despite years of Iron Dome success in knocking down rockets under realistic combat conditions. The Israeli manufacturer of Iron Dome thought this would make Iron Dome a hot export item. After all, Israel is one of the top ten weapons exporters in the world. This is because Israeli stuff works well and is usually combat tested. But all that has not helped Iron Dome. Although Iron Dome system had succeeded in shooting down about 85 percent of the rockets headed for Israeli populated areas, this was a unique situation. Even continued success has not made Iron Dome exportable because few other countries have a situation similar to the rocket threat against Israel.

The main problem is that Iron Dome was designed to deal with an enemy that is a terrorist organization (Hamas) operating out of an area (Gaza) that is basically home for Palestinian refugees who have been there for over 60 years and want nothing less than the destruction of Israel. A similar organization (Hezbollah) controls southern Lebanon and is also dedicated to the destruction of Israel, using 40,000 unguided rockets they received from Iran. This is the unique situation that Iron Dome was designed to deal with.

There are some nations (South Korea in particular) that are threatened by unguided rockets fired from a neighbor. Actually, South Korea showed some interest in Iron Dome but there are few countries in a similar situation and South Korea has not expressed eagerness to place an order.

 


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