Geopolitics

Why Iron Dome will short? What could be done: A Viewpoint?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 May , 2021

Premise

This article argues that in the ‘duel’ involving the launch of rockets by  Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian left wing groups from Gaza  and their engagement by the Israelis using the Iron Dome air defence system, the latter will fall short on several counts.

What could be done to address the above situation – the author presents a viewpoint.

The issue has been examined in its entirety staring from the perspective of the eternal cause-effect cycle between air threat and air defence.

BUILDING THE PERSPECTIVE

The eternal cause-effect

All air defence weapons,be it on land, sea or air, exist for the sole purpose of countering the adversary’s threat that is prosecuted from the air. Following therefrom, the air threat on one side and the air defence weapons on the other, are tied in an eternal cause-effect cycle – a cycle, in which THE AIR THREAT DRIVES AIR DEFENCES.

When the air threat was a mere propeller-driven aircraft throwing some dumb bombs and unguided rockets, the air defences were limited to either  air combat with similar primitive machines or some air defence guns generally throwing a volume a fire on the threat with a hope to ‘scare away the pilot’- lucky, if a few were downed!

Today the air threat is multi- platform and multi-dimensional. It is  prosecuted on the might of third to fifth generation aircrafts with best of avionics, munitions and stealth, fearsome attack helicopters preying on their targets in a hide-seek terrain-hugging profiles, needle sharp cruise missiles, unforgiving anti-radiation missiles capable of taking out air defence sensors not to talk of the ever revamping arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs). Besides,there is revolution of sorts brought about by the ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) causing havoc on the battlefield. Today’s air threat rides on the enabling wings of technology – AI, soft kill means, precision guided munitions… it’s a whole package.

Accordingly the air defence means have measured up to the threat in the spirit- ‘to every sword a shield’. This has not only happened in terms of  aerial combat means ( aircrafts, AHs, air-to-air missiles, UAS and more), but also,the ground-based air defence weapon systems (GBADWS) have metamorphosed. Revolution in gun munitions, rates of fire crossing hundreds and thousands of rounds per minute, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) crossing new frontiers in range reach and kill probabilities, high-tech sensors that won’t let a threat pass by unnoticed… the battle to kill every threat remains an eternal challenge .

The Balance between Cause and Effect

The above cause-effect cycle remains in a dynamic equilibrium so long there is a balance. This is the balance of ‘comparative cost of kill’, which means that costs which an attacker incurs in prosecuting the air threat compares in some measure with the cost incurred by the defender in putting up the counter.

Whenever the above balance is becomes skewed, the duel becomes asymmetric with disproportionate advantage to one side. This is further elaborated.

When the UAS became armed combat platforms enable to kill either stand alone, or fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with combat platforms, the defenders let go their SAMs to counter them. On one side were a few hundred or thousand dollar UAS, on the other were millions of dollars of SAMs. The balance started to become skewed. This totally went out of the window when the attackers started to press in multiple small UAS in groups or swarms to press home the attack.

On one side the cost of attack went further down while on the other, the SAMs proved incapable to take out the whole swarm, not to talk of huge cost differential. Perforce, the defenders started to look for solutions other than SAMs to take on the UAS!

Another classic case is of stealth technology. Initially when the attackers started to employ stealth in their aerial threat vehicles, the gains to them were disproportionate as most of the deadly combat aircrafts escaped radar detection to cause havoc. By any by, as the defenders developed stealth- capable radars ( bi-static/multi-static radars, LIDARS, passive radars, AESAs , quantum radars and more), the comparative costs to attackers to continue to maintain the stealth edge that will still beat the vast radar arsenal started to become disproportionate.Professionals opine today that in the stealth-anti stealth duel, it is the defenders who will have the last laugh.

APPLYING THE ANOLOGY OF BALANCE TO ISRAEL

Similar is the case of killing the Hamas rockets with Iron Dome system. Besides everything else, this scenario will continue to inflict disproportionate costs of kill to the Israelis.  This is explained further.

The Rockets launched on Israel

  • Factual Information

Following points are stated:-

  • The rockets launched  into Israel by various militant groups such as Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other left wing groups belong to  two categories, one made locally in Gaza  and two, smuggled from outside (mainly from Iran and Syria via Egypt)[1].
  • The ones made locally includes a large range such as the following:-[2]
      • Qassam rockets mainly used by Hamas. Four variations-Qassam 1 to 4. Ranges 5 km to 16km.
      • Al Nasser rockets (Nasser 3 and Nasser 4) mainly used by left wing militant organisations.
      • Al Quds rockets used by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
      • Arafat 1 and 2 used by Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Fatah

(The above list only includes some not all rockets)

  • A recent estimate puts the number of such rockets that have been stashed in Gaza at 30,000 +. While most of these are locally made crude DIY variety, some of the smuggled rockets have guidance systems  as well[3].
  • As per the statistical data compiled as of 2021, Hamas has rockets ranging from 10km to180Km (Q12-10 km, Q20-20km, 122mm  from Iran -40km, S40-40 km, Fazr3 from Iran – 43 km, S55-55 km, Fajr 5 from Iran – 75 km, M 75-75 km, J 80 –  80 km,J90 – 90 km, A120 -120 km, R 160-160km, M 302 from Syria -180 km)[4].
  • In the 11 days of conflict, Palestinians fired some 4300+ rockets from Gaza. [5] . As per one report, Hams fires 137 rockets at on the cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod in a space of just 5 minutes. [6]
  • This number is going to increase in times to come given the growing indigenous munitions manufacturing capability of the Jihadi groups (mainly Hamas) as also, the growing support from Iran and Syria. (further details not covered)
  • Another point to note is that  in 2021 Hamas fired some 470 rockets in the first 24 hrs as compared to 192 in 2014.

What do the factual details convey?

  • Not only there is a huge stockpile of rockets and missiles in Gaza, the quantum capability to prosecute the threat has also gone up substantially.
  • This increase is more due to the growing indigenous rocket-making capability of the Jihadi groups than purely through the smuggled arsenal.
  • So long as the wounds of this unresolved conflict keep lacerating, there is a likelihood of more and more  rocket attacks from Gaza; the current ceasefire is a  proverbial ‘lull before the storm’

EXAMINIMG THE ISRAELI COUNTER –THE IRON DOME

Besides all the mass protection means such as the bomb shelters in houses or large underground shelters for community protection etc, weapon-to-weapon, it is the Iron Dome Air Defence system that is deployed at various locations to intercept the incoming rockets and missiles.Following points are stated about this system:-

  • Iron Dome is a mobile short range air defence system capable of countering threats such as rockets, artillery shells and mortar fire( C-RAM system).
  • This system, developed by the State run Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), is a part of the layered-and-tiered air defence and missile shield  to counter the  air threat to its vulnerabilities/population centres and more.
  • The other members of this shield include Arrow 2,3 anti-ballistic missile system, Iron Beam  directed energy air defence weapon system, Barak 8 Medium Range SAM (MRSAM) System,  and David Shield air defencesystem effective against aircrafts, UAS  and Tactical Ballistic Missiles(TBM).
  • Iron Dome has three main components:-
      • A detection and tracking radar (EL/M-2084) which detects and tracks the incoming threat.
      • A Battle management and Weapon Control (BMC) system which analyses the detected threat, identifies it as to friend and Foe (IFF) and prioritises the same based on immediacy of impact and comparative lethality.
      • Missile firing unit which is equipped with Tamir interceptor missiles. Based on the selected threat to be engaged,the BMC calculates the future position of the threat ( impact point), launches and guides the interceptors towards the same.
  • The main technical characteristics of the system are as under :-
      • 3D multi mission radar EL/M 2084 is an S band Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESA).[7] It has a capability of 1100 targets for air surveillance.
      • Iron Dome can detect rockets from 4 km-70km (plans are afoot to upgrade this range to 250 km in keeping with the growing range and reach of the threat.
      • Tamir interceptor is a 3 m, 90 kg interceptor with a range of 2 to 40 km.
      • A typical fire unit of Iron dome has 3-4 launchers each with 20 interceptors , EL/M 2084 radar and the associated BMC.

POINTS OF CONCERN WITH IRON DOME

There are two points of concern with the continued use of Iron Dome.

  • Comparative Costs.
  • Comparative numbers.

Comparative Cost.

  • Some costs related to Iron Dome are as under:-
    • Cost of one Tamir interceptor – $100,000[8](some open source data also quote $40,000[9] per interceptor).
    • Cost of one Iron Dome battery – $100 million [10](some open source data also quotes $50[11] million per battery).
  • As per one estimate, in the current conflict upto 20 May 2021, some 4369 rockets have been fired on Israel from Gaza strip. As per the statements from Israel military authorities about two-thirds of these missed their targets. This still leaves a whopping 1456 rockets that headed to their targets accurately. As per claims, 90% of these were intercepted by the Iron dome. This means  that Iron Dome fire units carried out  1310 were successful interceptions[12].
  • As per an analysis carried out in 2020 and cited in open source, the overall cost of each interception was between $100,000-$150,000[13]. With this estimate, the cost of 1310 interception will be very huge indeed.
  • The above costs are being incurred to down the Qassam class of rockets at one end of the spectrum to rockets being launched from Grad BM 21 on the other. The estimated cost of raw material for one Qassam rocket is reported to be around $800 while each Grad BM 21 rocket costs a few thousand dollars[14].

Comparative numbers

Some facts are quoted below:-

  • During the Jul 2014 war (Operation Protective Edge), the militant groups such as Hamas,Islamic Jihad and others fired a total of 4564 rockets. Out of these some 735 were successfully intercepted by the Iron Dome[15]. If the interception success rate is again assumed to be around 90%, then the correctly-headed rockets out of 4564, work out to be 817. At that time, the cost of each Tamir interceptor was stated to be $20,000-$50, 0000.
  • In 2021, the number of rockets remained generally the same (4369) but the number of successful interceptions rose almost double to 1310  with each cost of interception being $ 100,000-$150,000.

Some deductions

From the aforesaid, following deductions are made:–

  • The cost of Tamir interceptor, as also, the overall cost of each interception is highly skewed as compared to the average cost of rockets being countered.
  • This implies that the attackers are inflicting disproportionate cost of kill on the defenders.
  • This disproportionateness is only going to increase over time. Sample the following :-
      • In 2014 out of 4564 rockets only about 817 were correctly-headed towards their intended targets. In 2021 out of 4369, about 1456 were correctly-headed. Surely the accuracy in rocket munitions, which is a direct reflection of the growing expertise of Hamas and other Jihadi groups is certainly moving northwards. This will continue to do so as time passes.
      • Taking the above trend on a timeline , two things can be predicted:-
          • A time will come when the number of rockets headed correctly will surpass the total interception capability of the Iron Dome fire units.
          • If the unit cost as well as, the cumulative cost of interceptions continues to go up as is trended, a point will reach, when it will become cost-prohibitive to continue this duel.
  • Today about a third of the rockets are finding their targets but this will slowly change as Hamas and other Jihadi groups keep  on increasing the accuracy factor in their rockets, which is very likely, as trends show. If this happens a stage will reach when the number of rockets fired will overwhelm the target handling capability of Iron Dome fire units.
  • In any case, the attacker is succeeding in continuing to inflict disproportionate cost of kill on the defender.

A POSSIBLE WAY OUT

A viewpoint is presented.

What is required?

This is the desired end state:-

  • Most importantly, the cost of kill needs to be commensurate with the cost of attack. The current skew in favour of the attacker needs to be corrected.
  • Measures have to be put into place to ensure that the attacker in times to come is not able to overwhelm (saturate) the air defence system by sheer numbers  alone.

What options are available?

In order to achieve the above end state following three options are available. All of these need be used simultaneously.

    • Gun Option
    • Directed energy kill option.
    • Swarm-drone idea.

Gun Option

The concept of the gun option is briefly enumerated:-

Weapon:-

  • This concept employs low or medium calibre (20-35 mm) air defence guns such as ZU 23 -2, 20 mm/30 mm Gatling guns, Skyshield 35 mm gun etc.
  • The above guns are light towed or self-propelled equipment with very high rate of fire:- ( list is only indicative):-[16]
      • ZU 23 -2 – 1600-2000 rounds per minute (rpm) from two auto cannons.
      • GAU Avenger 30 mm Gatling rotary cannon – 7200 rpm.
      • M 134 GAU-17 20 mm Gatling gun – 2000-6000 rpm.
      • Skyshield 35 mm auto cannon – 1000rpm (radar controlled gun).
  • The purely mechanical sights (to lay and fire on target) are replaced by an Electro Optical Fire Control System  (EOFCS).
  •  A typical EOFCS has a day camera, a night camera, a laser range finder (LRF), a Fire Control Computing Device (FCCD) and a Video Display Unit (VDU).
  • The target is detected using the day/night camera, the LRF gives the range and the FCCD calculates the impact point. The operator has to simply keep the target on the cross-wires in the VDU (technical details not explained).
  • The original impact fuse in the ammunition is replaced by a Proximity Fuse. Such a fuse activates the warhead even if a target passes in the vicinity (5-8 m adjustable).
  • An ammunition called AHEAD (Advanced Hit Efficiency Air Defence) is a special ammunition that sends a cone of 152 tungsten sub-projectiles spread out spirally, thus increasing kill effect.

Function

  • Weapons configured as above are deployed on large numbers around the vulnerable areas/population centres/key installations etc.
  • The guns spew a high volume of fire on the rockets, slowly shifting fire from one point to other in the rocket cluster thus achieving a high numbers of kills on them.
  • The cost of kill is commensurate (in fact lesser than the cost of higher range missiles) to the cost of attack.
  • The ease of lay using the EOFCS, the capability to deliver a large volume of fire in the target area, the capability of munitions to kill the rockets both by impact and proximity (as also the effect of ammunition like the AHEAD) all combine, to make this option very viable.

What needs to be done

  • The open source data on the air defence weapons of Israel include the Machbet self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon, Barak 1 and Barak 8 naval SAMs, Spyder air defence system, Arrow ABM system, Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) weapon, Iron Bream , Iron Dome short range rocket defence system and the David Sling MRSAM system[17].
  • The above inventory is typically devoid of the types of gun mentioned above.
  • The Israeli authorities could consider this option. Weapons already modified for the purpose are available.

Directed Energy Kill

This option which involves killing of the rocket threat by directing killer laser waves is already under use by the Iron Beam system and the THEL system.The problem being faced in such weapons world-wide is to be able to generate adequate power to enable laser kill rays to achieve reasonable ranges. Following points are stated:-

      • When the Iron Beam was introduced in 2014, its fibre laser beam was reported to be effective up to 7 km. As the years passed R&D was done to achieve higher ranges through higher power to laser beams upgrading from 10s of KWs to 100s of KWs. Higher ranges were reported in 2016 (figures not known). This trend needs to continue.
      • THEL or the Nautilus laser system  is too huge and vintage in design (1996 technology).What is required is higher power, higher ranges and highly mobile and quickly deployable systems.M/s Northrop Grumman’s Skyguard laser weapon has been the next step in 2006-07.
      • Israel needs to get at the cutting edge in this weapon class which has numerous advantages – low cost of kill ( $1000-2000/shot), unlimited magazine, no debris falling on own area, high kill probability…

Swarm Drone Idea

This solution is offered as an idea at this stage. Same is stated very briefly:-

      • A set of swarm drones is got readied complete with its GPS based navigation capability as well and AI tools to decipher and execute commands.
      • Such a swarm can be programmed for achieving a kill through catastrophic collision with the incoming DIY type crude rockets or RF based soft-kill by disabling the electronics or interfering with navigation system in guided rockets and missiles. 
      • Such swarms made airborne at warning or first salvo, can take on subsequent waves effectively in selected high-vulnerability areas.

Bottom line

    • The rocket attacks are here to stay ( ceasefire???- not likely to hold).
    • The militants are achieving their aim of inflicting disproportionate cost of defence on Israel.
    • Not only, it will become unsustainable at a point in time, the Iron Dome is likely to get overwhelmed as time passes
    • The suggested way out is to apply multiple solutions –Iron Dome, Gun solution, laser kill, Swarm drones and more.

In the eternal duel of air threat and air defence, the cost of kill must remain commensurate to the cost of attack … PENNIES MUST BE KILLED BY PENNIES NOT DOLLARS!

Endnotes

[1]“Palestine rocket arsenal,” at www.en.wikipedia.org.Accessed on 21 May 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “What to know about Gaza’s  rockdet arsenal?” at www.nytimes.com. Accessed on 24 May 2021

[4]“The Hamas rocket arsenal,” at www.statista.com.Accessed on 24 May 2021.

[5]Israeli-Palestine conflict ,” at www.bbc.com. Accessed on 24 May 2021.

[6]“The open wound of an unresolved conflict,” at www.bbc.com. Accessed on 24 May 2021

[7]EL/M 2084,” at www.armyrecognition.cpm.Accessed on 25 May 2021.

[8] Iron Dome (Israel) ,” atwww.missile threat.csis.org. Accessed on 25 may 2021.

[9] Tenth iron dome battery deployed..,” at www.m.jpost.com. Accessed on 25 May 2021.

[10] ibid

[11] “Isreal’s Missile Defence Systems,” at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.com. Accessed on 25 May 2021.

[12]“The costly success of Israel’s Iron Dome,” at www.theatlantic.com.Accessed on 25 May 2021.

[13]“The Iron Beam: Isreal’s Anti-missile laser,” at www.nationalinterest.org. Accessed on 25 May 2021

[14] “What are Qassam rockets,” at www.web.archive.org. Accessed on 25 May 2021

[15] “Hamas launches rockets on civilians in  Gaza,” at www.web.archieve.com. Accessed on 25 May 2021

[16]“Air defenceguns,”at ww.army-technology.com. Accessed on 26 May 2021

[17]Air defenceweapons of Israel,” at www.en.m.wikipedia.org.Accesed on 26 may 2021.

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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

Lt Gen (Dr) VK Saxena (Retd.)

former Director General Army Air Defence. He is presently an Advisor to a leading Defence PSU.

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