During the 2006 conflict in southern Lebanon, about 25% of the Hezbollah-fired missiles struck populated areas in northern Israel. In the current conflict, while Israeli security is keeping a lid on where the Hamas and Jihadist missiles have landed, the very few deaths reported in Israel—in the single digits—indicate that the first five batteries of the short-range, Iron Dome missile defense system are surprisingly efficient.
The Second Lebanon War, as Tel Aviv calls it, amounted to 14.7 billion shekels ($3.8 billion) in damage and costs. Since then, Israel has invested 300 million shekels in research and development to stop that 25% of missiles, say officials at Rafael, Israel’s primary missile developer. The investment is to help ensure that Israel does not have to invade Gaza again. The cost of a day of operations inside Gaza is 1 billion shekels, they say, more than the cost of the missile program.
Israel funded the first two batteries of the Iron Dome system, which was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (missile and launcher) and Israeli Aerospace Industries (radar). The U.S. is funding another eight batteries in exchange for access to and a stake in the technology.and Rafael have teamed to market Iron Dome and the more sophisticated David’s Sling intermediate-altitude air defense missile.
“We’re collecting data from every [enemy missile] launch to look for improvements,” says a Rafael official. “We are already upgrading the system. We predict the success rate of missile intercepts will be better than 90%.” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) statistics in the latest round of missile attacks so far show an 85% intercept rate.
As a backup plan, the Israeli government authorized mobilization of 75,000 army reservists. However, the reservists are seldom used for tip-of-the-spear combat operations. They backfill units while special ops, paratroops, armored forces and specialist units like tactical air and artillery support are used as penetrating forces.
In the first two days of the Hamas missile attacks, Nov. 14 and 15, the IDF counted 877 rockets fired toward Israel. Of those, 570 landed in Israel and 307 were intercepted by Iron Dome.
However, the 570 that were not intercepted and hit Israel does not mean Iron Dome failed. It means the system’s ability to determine which missiles are headed toward populated areas—and which are not—is working as designed. At about $60,000 per missile (estimates range from $50,000 to $90,000), the Israeli defense ministry saved about $3.4 million by not firing.
The downside to the Iron Dome equation is the need to ensure that Hamas and other foes cannot saturate Israeli defenses. Therefore, “we need a big inventory [of Iron Dome missiles], and this is what is expensive,” a Rafael official says.
Perhaps the best indicator of the system’s success is that missile attacks have become a spectator sport. YouTube is flush with pictures and video of Israelis rushing outside to watch Iron Dome intercepting the barrage of short-range missiles coming out of Gaza.
Iron Dome’s command-and-control systems upgrades account for new types of weapons, tactical changes and new launch vectors. Analysts also prepared for this missile offensive by monitoring tests of new, longer-range Hamas missiles months ago in a series of launches from Gaza into the sea.
Overall, most of the rockets fired by Hamas fall to the ground just beyond the Israeli border after a short flight. Of those that manage to go deeper into the Israel, the percentage that have to be intercepted is actually higher than those fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon in 2006 and by Hamas from Gaza in 2009, say Israeli analysts.
Moreover, the precision of Hamas rockets has improved since they are being hurtled primarily using prepositioned, buried launchers rather than truck-mounted multiple launchers placed with less accurate launch coordinates.
“Iron Dome was originally designed to defend against artillery rockets,” the Rafael official says. “Now it can do much more. We can kill 155-mm [artillery] shells, glide bombs, precision-guided munitions, short-range air defense missiles that target helicopters and unmanned aircraft.” The only exception appears to be shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles.
Hamas and other Jihadist groups have been receiving missiles from Sudan and Iran via a smuggling routes that wind through Port Sudan and Khartoum into southern Egypt and then across the Sinai. A suspected Israeli air raid on Khartoum Oct. 24 destroyed rockets and other weapons packed for shipment (AW&ST Nov. 5/12, p. 35). Sudan President Omar al-Bashir then declared he would launch a “painful” retaliation on his “Zionist enemy” for the attack. The missile attacks from Gaza escalated soon after.
The defense ministry says Iron Dome’s range is 70 km (44 mi.), though both Israeli and U.S. officials think it is much longer. It is the third element of a defense against short-range missiles that begins with a long-term, airborne surveillance program, followed by bombing of detected sites once missile attacks begin.
Israeli Aerospace Industries’ () Elta electronics division is a big player in advanced radars and other sensor technology that help the air force know where to strike in Gaza.
“We are building the sensors to support our systems—everything that is receiving and transmitting—in the area of radar, electronic warfare and communications,” says Baruch Reshef, Elta’s deputy director of group marketing. “Those sensors allow the  to collect “electronic order of battle, network analyses, mapping emission and determine who is talking to who and where.”
To make detection tougher, Hamas missiles are sometimes installed on or in commercial vehicles. Israeli officials have shown Aviation Week photographs of dump trucks fitted with 4-6 launch tubes—when the truck beds are raised to the dumping position, the tubes are revealed. Other sites are simply holes in the ground near the Israeli border where trucks with missile launchers can be parked and covered with netting until needed. They can launch Fajr-3, Fajr-5 and Grad missiles, among other types, that Hamas and others have learned to fire in salvoes in an attempt to overwhelm Israeli missile defenses.
Israel has extended and better integrated its intelligence-gathering reach with its new “Depth Command” that involves operations beyond its borders. It involves various types of long-endurance manned and unmanned aircraft. IAO-built Heron I UAVs have been photographed monitoring the fighting in Syria, for example.
The year-old command is designed to coordinate operations in enemy territory and take advantage of highly trained special forces and new technologies such as airborne precision multifunction sensors and weapons. Among the forces involved are 166, 200 and 210 Sqdns. which use a combination of Elbit’sand 900 and the (Eitan) UAVs.
The unit’s mission is real-time intelligence, daytime reconnaissance during battles and hunting rocket launchers and mortars. “[The UAVs are] not stealthy, but they are silent and very discreet,” an Israeli air force UAV pilot says. “The Heron 1 can stay in the air for 30 hours or more, depending on the payload.”
Another unit, 100 Sqdn., flies Beechcraft King Air 200Ts and A36 Bonanzas that carry multi-spectral sensors, simultaneous displays and real-time communications. A companion unit, 135 Sqdn., supplies signals-intelligence and overlays for the visual data.
“We gather intel before [an attack], then accompany the operation and then do bomb-damage assessment afterward,” a 100 Sqdn. pilot says. “We’ll acquire the target, guide the attack and provide an assessment of whether [the attack] was successful.”
But perhaps the unit’s most important role is discovering the locations of caches and firing sites of short-range rockets and missiles in Gaza and southern Lebanon.
The Iron Dome defenses are directed by the 167th Active Air Defense Wing headquartered at Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv. It also coordinates the Arrow and Patriot III air defense systems. It is a year and a half into an evolution from an anti-aircraft paradigm to an active air defense.
“Defense has become more complicated because of the numbers and categories of rockets and missiles involved,” says the wing’s commander. “The ballistic sky is split into two pieces, the upper and lower tiers. It presents a great challenge to sharing all the same information, detection cures, targeting data, interception points as well as the debris and other after-effects that follow an interception. The solution is a centralized command-and-control facility that manages, coordinates and synchronizes the two tiers.” c