Israel Missile Defense System
In January 2019, defense media reported that the U.S. Army plans to request funding from Congress to procure two advanced Iron Dome air-defense batteries from the Israeli firm Rafael. The $373 million deal would compromise 240 Tamir interceptor missiles, twelve launchers, and two radars and command trailers. At least two more batteries of undetermined design are required by 2023.
Since 2011, the Israel Defense Force has used the Iron Dome system to shoot down over 1,700 unguided rockets and mortar shells launched by militants in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip against Israeli communities. An Iron Dome battery can also engage aircraft, drones, large artillery shells and possibly even cruise and ballistic missiles—as proven by its shootdown of an Iranian Fateh ballistic missile on January 20, 2019.
The Iron Dome was conceived in response to Israel’s unique security challenges. Since 2001, Palestinian militants have stockpiled tens of thousands of mortar shells, crude artisanal Qassam rockets, and heavier Grad, Katyusha, Fajr and M-302 artillery rockets with which to launch constant harassment attacks. Though individually highly inaccurate, with roughly three-quarters failing to reach Israeli targets, the thousands of projectiles still caused deaths and injuries, and inflicted extensive property damage and psychological distress.
When IDF forces attacked Hezbollah in the Lebanon War of 2006, the militant organization responded to the ferocious Israeli aerial bombardment by firing over four thousand rockets, killing forty-four Israeli civilians. (Lebanese civilians deaths to IDF strikes are estimated to number 860.)
The Iron Dome relies upon a high-resolution EL/M-2084 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar to detect incoming rockets and shells up to forty-three miles away. The system then calculates the projectile’s trajectory to determine whether it is likely to hit a population center, or explode harmlessly in an unpopulated area. Only in the former case is an interception attempted.
The slender 160-millimeter Tamir interceptors then hurtle towards the incoming threat at up to 2.5 times the speed of sound, guided by the ground-based radar. However, as the three-meter-long missiles close with the targeted projectile, their nose-mounted electro-optical sensor takes over to provide more precise terminal guidance. A proximity fuse detonates the missile’s thirty-five-pound fragmentation warhead once it enters range.
The Iron Dome’s-based greatest test came when IDF troops attacked Hamas positions in the Gaza strip in July 2014. Gaza militants launched around 4,600 rockets and mortar shells in response, around one-quarter of which landed near areas populated by Israeli civilians. The six Iron Dome batteries then active were hastily reinforced with three more. Together, they shot-down 735 rockets and mortar shells and failed to intercept around seventy, consistent with an 85 percent to 90 percent success rate claimed by the IDF.
In total, Palestinian rockets and mortars killed five Israeli and one Thai civilian and injured eighty in 2014. Additionally, nearly three hundred short-firing militant rockets landed in Gaza, killing thirteen Palestinian civilians, most of them children.
Despite the system’s popularity in Israel, critics have questioned whether officially successful Iron Dome intercepts are actually effective at neutralizing incoming projectiles, though some of the more sweeping critiques themselves appear flawed when given scrutiny. A more measured 2018 assessment by Michael Armstrong argues the system’s success rate against projectiles landing in populated areas may lie between 59 percent to 75 percent.
Cost-efficiency is another concern. Though some sources list the Tamir missiles as costing as little as $35,000 each, the new Pentagon’s funding request lists a price of $150,000 per missile. Even this higher figures is peanuts compared to multimillion-dollar Patriot air-defense missiles. But even going by the lower figure, each Tamir is many times more expensive than the projectiles it is destroying.
This has led some Israelis to advocate for a directed-energy weapon component to more cost-efficiently handle mass attacks. The Israeli firm Rafael has developed a laser called the Iron Beam with this capability in mind, though atmospheric diffusion limits its engagement range to a seven-mile radius.