israel and gaza

As the conflict between Hamas and Israel continues, there is one source of good news in the form of advanced, state of the art military technology that is designed not to kill enemy combatants but to protect civilian lives. Those who have been following the latest developments will likely have heard of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system but few understand just how and why it is currently defending the Jewish State.

Developed by Israel in the wake of the 2006 war in Lebanon, Iron Dome was designed to stop short-range rockets like those fired into Israel by Hezbollah to the north and by Hamas and other groups from Gaza.

Until the development of Iron Dome, the Jewish State was planning to use the American Patriot missile system to defend itself. But after Hezbollah launched thousands of rockets into Israel from Lebanon, killing dozens of Israelis and terrifying many tens of thousands, Israel decided to develop its own missile defense system as the Patriot system would have taken too much time and cost too much.

Former Israeli Labor Party leader Amir Peretz was Defense Minister in 2007 when he announced that the government had contracted an Israeli, state-run defense company, called Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, based in Haifa, to develop a new means of shielding Israeli citizens from missiles. So it was that Israel set to work on its own version of the Patriot system—a smaller cousin of it—to protect against smaller, shorter-range missiles than the American system attempts to hit.

Around four years later, the much-heralded Iron Dome missile defense shield came into operation. Its first live test came quickly. In April 2011, Hamas fired a missile at the city of Beersheva, which is in the Negev desert and home to around 200,000. Iron Dome worked as planned—the missile was destroyed before it could hit its intended target, and the civilians of Beersheva remained unscathed. But how does Iron Dome work?

Iron Dome is comprised of three main components. The first is a truck-based radar used to detect missiles or artillery fired by enemy combatants. Positioned just outside the civilian centre it protects, the detection unit tracks the missiles by radar and then relays the information to a second truck-based component, the battle management and control unit. The detection and radar tracking unit layers the area it protects with 40 kilometers of radar waves in order to detect any and all incoming projectiles.

If the detection unit serves as the eyes, the control unit is the brain of Iron Dome. A small workspace packed with monitors and high-tech military gadgetry, it analyzes the information relayed to it to determine where the enemy missile is heading, and whether or not it will hit a building or land in an open field. If the team in the unit determines the projectile is on course to hit a populated area, the third component—the missile firing unit—kicks into life.

Iron Dome’s missile firing unit has a triple launcher that deploys Tamir missiles to intercept and knock down enemy missiles. Each Tamir missile is about 10-feet long, has a width of approximately six inches, weighs 200 lbs and has a range of about 40 miles. These are very expensive, highly sophisticated computerized missiles; each one costs around $50,000. They are fired into the sky in order to intercept incoming rockets.

Of the approximately 400 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza so far in the current period of conflict, Iron Dome has intercepted about 70. This may appear to be a low percentage but Iron Dome is designed to act only when a rocket is on course to hit a civilian or strategic target; when the rockets fired at Israel project to land in an area where they will not cause significant damage, Iron Dome does not act.

When Iron dome does act, it normally does so successfully. The missile defense system can boast a 90% success rate up to this point. This has undoubtedly saved countless Israeli civilian lives. In developing the system, Israel has shown that it is serious about protecting civilian lives and has made large financial commitments to that end. The cost of the system is significant, with each Iron Dome battery comprising of a radar, control center and triple launchers costing up to $80 million.

The deployment of the just the Iron Dome missiles alone to block the approximately 500 missiles fired by Hamas from Gaza in the last large conflict in November 2012 cost approximately $25 million. In the course of just three days in the current conflict, Israel spent about $30 million on interceptor missiles. Some of the cost of developing the Iron Dome system was offset by American military aid. The Obama government, which has often been criticized by right-wing opponents for being somehow insufficiently friendly to Israel, committed over $200 million to help the Jewish State pay for the missile defense system in 2009.

Although concerns over its high costs have persisted, with such a high success rate, Iron Dome has become hugely popular in Israel and the talk of media in the country and around the world. Indeed in the last war in late 2012, many Israelis were more concerned with watching and camera phone-filming Iron Dome’s Hollywood-esque interceptions of Hamas rockets than with taking cover from the enemy fire. This actually became a public safety issue as Iron Dome, like any system, is not 100% effective.

“On rare occasions, like any computer program, there can be glitches here and there,” explained an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson, Libby Weiss. One such instance came during the war in 2012, when an error in the system resulted in a Hamas rocket going unintercepted and hitting a house in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi. The rocket killed three civilians and critically injured a fourth. Nevertheless, Weiss, the IDF spokesperson, went on to explain that in general the Iron Dome missile defense system has been “incredibly successful”.

The system is so successful that there are now seven Iron Dome systems located throughout the Jewish State and Israel is working on installing an eighth. Israel has developed a missile defense system that, so far, seems capable of identifying aerial threats and intercepting. By eliminating the threats to its civilian population, Israel has saved countless lives. Now it is also fielding inquiries from at least five other countries interesting in importing the system to protect their own citizens.