Air Defense: Iron Dome Moves North

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October 26, 2017: Realizing that there was likely to be a long-term threat from Iranian forces in Lebanon and Syria Israel announced it was stationing a battalion of its Iron Dome anti-rocket systems in northern Israel. There was already a battalion assigned to southern Israel to defend against the rockets Hezbollah had amassed in Gaza and had last used on a large scale in 2014. There had not been large scale rocket attacks in northern Israel since the Iran-backed Hezbollah launched a major rocket attack in 2006 and convinced Israel that Iron Dome was worth developing and deploying.

Israel currently has ten Iron Dome batteries. Three to five batteries plus some support facilities makes a battalion. It took several years for Israel to realize that Iron Dome should be on duty at all times. In the beginning Iron Dome was seen as an emergency weapon, to be kept in storage most of the time and mobilized for use by reservists in wartime. It has not worked out that way.

Iron Dome has been in service since 2009 and proven itself in combat. Because of this Iron Dome has long been deployed full time in southern Israel and sent north mainly for training and batteries were kept in the north only as long as they appeared to be a threat. 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.

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 eight batteries of Iron Dome and over 2,000 Tamir missiles and after the mid-2014 war with Hezbollah a lot more money was spent on increasing the number of Tamir missiles available and trying to expand the number of batteries to fifteen. In mid-2014 Israel found that its stockpile of 2,000 Tamir missiles was enough to shut down the Hamas effort to hit Israel with thousands of rockets but not enough to deal with similar attacks from Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south.

In 2014 the U.S. Army purchased an Iron Dome battery, mainly for evaluation purposes. The Americans wanted to see if Iron Dome would be worth getting for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, where American troops are still stationed. The American purchase was the first export sale of Iron Dome. Israeli efforts to export their Iron Dome have otherwise failed, despite years of Iron Dome success in knocking down rockets under realistic combat conditions. The Israeli manufacturer 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.

By 2016 Iron Dome was 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.

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 enough eagerness to place an order.

 

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