Military & Aerospace

Iron Dome: The Game-Changer
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Issue Vol. 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015 | Date : 20 Oct , 2017

The Iron Dome Concept

The name ‘Iron Dome’ evokes an image of a protective bubble. The Iron Dome is an Israeli ground based, truck towable, short-range, ground-to-air air defence system in operation since 2011. Currently operated only by Israel and Singapore, it has been operationally tested in Operation Pillar of Strength in November 2012 and Operation Protective Edge, the two conflicts against Hamas in Gaza. It is designed and manufactured jointly by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (Rafael) and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd (IAI), in close coordination with Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). At a unit cost of $50 million per battery, every missile launch costs approximately $50,000. With a weight of 90 kg, the missile is three metres long and is carried in groups of 20 in each launcher. The warhead is believed to carry 11 kilograms or 24 pounds of high explosives. It is designed to destroy short range rockets and up to 155 mm artillery shells during day or night, at distances between four to 70 km. It can be operated in all weather conditions including in fog, dust storm, low clouds and rain. The lethal range may one day be increased to 250 km.

The Iron Dome has changed the face of the battle and released the military to other operational tasks…

The infamous Scud B Iraqi ballistic missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia by Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War in the year 1991 had brought into focus the threat to ordinary people living peacefully in towns. The American Raytheon Patriot missile system was used extensively in defence. A total of 40 incoming Scuds were engaged. The success rate was difficult to evaluate but the televised war made Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-1) air defence system a household name. The Patriot used advanced aerial interceptor missile and high-performance radar. The newer, more accurate variants are today deployed all across the nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and also procured by Taiwan, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and Spain. To take on a fast moving unpredictable incoming artillery rocket or a cruise missile is a difficult task. The system had its limitations. Technology has been evolving over the years to improve hit rates of close-in Air Defence Systems. To counter the rocket threats, the Israeli Defence Ministry decided in February 2007 to develop a mobile air defence system.

During the Palestinian-Israeli war of 2014, ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in the Gaza Strip, Hamas rained hundreds of rockets/missiles on the populated areas of Israel, some as far as 100 km deep. Israel’s “Iron Dome” air-defence system emerged as a game changer, shooting down more than 80 per cent of the incoming rockets and being credited with preventing numerous Israeli civilian casualties. It also reinforced Israel’s decisive technological edge that allowed it unhindered operations against Gaza and assured security to its own population. The war showcased a very modern system to the world.

The System

The name ‘Iron Dome’ evokes an image of a protective bubble. The Iron Dome is an Israeli ground based, truck towable, short-range, ground-to-air air defence system in operation since 2011. Currently operated only by Israel and Singapore, it has been operationally tested in Operation Pillar of Strength in November 2012 and Operation Protective Edge, the two conflicts against Hamas in Gaza. It is designed and manufactured jointly by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (Rafael) and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd (IAI), in close coordination with Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the southern city of Ashdod

At a unit cost of $50 million per battery, every missile launch costs approximately $50,000. With a weight of 90 kg, the missile is three metres long and is carried in groups of 20 in each launcher. The warhead is believed to carry 11 kilograms or 24 pounds of high explosives. It is designed to destroy short range rockets and up to 155 mm artillery shells during day or night, at distances between four to 70 km. It can be operated in all weather conditions including in fog, dust storm, low clouds and rain. The lethal range may one day be increased to 250 km.

First employed in March 2011, the Iron Dome achieved the first intercept of a Gaza launched Grad rocket in April 2011. By November 2012, it had reportedly intercepted over 400 rockets. Israel is simultaneously working on a multi-tiered system that will have Arrow 2 & 3, Iron Beam and David’s Sling missiles from 2018 onwards. With the civilian population of Israeli having been under rocket threat from its neighbours for decades, the project was first conceived in 2005 and the system was designed to handle threats emanating from multiple directions simultaneously.

The system has inbuilt intelligence so as not to intercept rockets that are unlikely to hit populated areas…

The system has three major components. The Detection and Tracking Radar is from ‘Elta’, a subsidiary of IAI. The ‘Battle Management and Weapon Control’ system is by ‘mPrest Systems’, a software company in Israel. The interceptor missile ‘Tamir’ and its electro-optic sensors along with Missile firing unit are by Rafael. The EL/M-2084 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESA) is integrated with the firing unit through the Battle Management System. It detects rockets and predicts the intercept point.

Other features of the Iron Dome include a vertical launch interceptor, warhead with proximity fuse and mobile launcher compatible with various radar and detection systems. The detection and tracking radar scans a defined sector in the sky for incoming short-to-medium-range rockets, coming from up to about 60 km away. The system’s special warhead allows it to detonate in the vicinity of the target in the air. The radar supports many launchers through a very secure wireless connection. A typical battery with three launchers (20 missiles) defends an area of 150 square kilometres. Two interceptor missiles are normally fired at each incoming projectile to increase hit probability. Actually achieved success rate is reported to be over 80 per cent. It can simultaneously process and intercept a barrage of multiple rockets.

The system has inbuilt intelligence so as not to intercept rockets that are unlikely to hit populated areas. It also has advanced safety features to prevent inadvertent explosion or firing. The system can also calculate the location of the launch site thus allowing it to be targeted.

The Iron Dome is the only dual-mission Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) and Very Short Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) system currently operational. The Iron Dome covered the distance from the drawing board to operational deployment in just four years. They are assigned and employed as part of the Israel Air Force’s Air Defence Division. The system can be connected to the high echelon Air Situation Picture which enables classification of target threat families.

India proposes to field the BMD systems around New Delhi and the financial capital Mumbai…

A series of tests were carried out to design and broaden the activities of the Iron Dome system and to improve its capabilities against a variety of threats. The system was upgraded to enable it to handle the threats posed by the Iranian Fajr and Zelzal rockets. Interceptors are maintenance free with a life cycle of 15 years. It is estimated that the intensely threatened area of the size of Israel will require around 15 batteries. The system is ideally suited to defend major cities and industrial complexes.

Of the approximately 1000 missiles/rockets fired into Israel by Hamas from early 2012 till mid-2014, two-thirds were assessed as no-threat by the system and ignored. The remaining 300 were engaged and 90 percent of them intercepted. System effectiveness was best tested in the recent conflict in August 2014 wherein they achieved 735 successful intercepts at 87 to 90 per cent success rate. There have been only two reported occasions of failure of the system. American historian and defence consultant Steven Zaloga states that the success rate of the Iron Dome system is unprecedented even when compared to systems such as American Patriot. Defence reporter Mark Thompson says that the Iron Dome is the most effective tested missile shield in the world.

Operational Impact

The Iron Dome needs to be coupled with an early warning system, especially for countries with little depth like Israel. Lt. Col. Levi Itach, head of the military’s early warning branch, said that several high-tech measures along with a disciplined public that has vigilantly followed instructions, have allowed Israel to keep its casualties from rockets to a minimum. “The target is to lower the ratio to one death for every 10,000 rockets fired”, he said. It can be most frustrating for an enemy who has launched hundreds of rockets but is unable to inflict any casualty.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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4 thoughts on “Iron Dome: The Game-Changer

  1. In its operation a few years back, the Iron Dome was about 50-60% effective and terribly expensive. Although the Israelis will say 90% effective.

    What do we need it for? Do we have to stop artillery shells, or mortar shells or rocket fired at Indian troops stationed in urban centres. We do not have that problem. Everytime they fire at us we fire back. Again, It will go terribly ineffective if a lot of shells are fired in a cluster. The iron dome will not be able to stop it.

    No I do not think, it has any use in India or elsewhere.

    For Israelis, it is effective because Palestinians fire shells at Israeli urban centres from just 5 to 8 miles away and also they do not fire them in cluster. Israeli are nice people do not fire back at their urban centres. If they do then these rocket firing positions will be history in minutes.

  2. An excellent write up on the Israeli Missile Defense System. Though India may procure and integrate the system Mumbai and New Delhi, it may still leave large parts of the country vulnerable to Pak missiles. A vast country like India need to indigeneously design and develop its own system to thwart enemy missiles.

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