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The Iron Dome

On 7th April 2011, a BM-21 Grad rocket was launched from Gaza towards Israel, the latest in a steady stream that had begun to do exactly what they were designed to do – to create widespread psychological trauma within the Israeli population. But this day was different. 

This day marked the first time Israel’s Iron Dome successfully downed an incoming missile. The mobile all-weather air defence system that had been developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries has since gone on to intercept roughly 90% of rockets fired towards Israel that would have landed in populated areas.

This is by far the most comprehensive missile defence system of its type the world has ever seen and numerous other countries are already lining up to purchase the Israeli technology. But the effect that this has had on the seemingly never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very much up for debate, and with violence flaring once again in 2021, the Iron Dome may have brought extra security, but it certainly hasn’t brought peace.   

Conflict  

Free Palestine – RMT Union. By Alisdare Hickson, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Where do we even begin with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict? A conflict that now goes back over seventy years and that has included numerous neighbouring countries. In total, Israel has fought eight recognised wars since its formation in 1948, including two Palestinian intifadas (uprisings). 

We don’t have nearly enough time to go into it all, but for the sake of the background to Israel’s Iron Dome, it is important to set the scene at least. 

When Israel was officially formed on 14th May 1948 a new country emerged in the Middle East, the only problem was it lay precisely in the land known as Palestine – which for the last thirty or so had been under British rule. We’re not going to dive into the quagmire of right and wrong and who was there first debate, but what came out from it all has been deeply unpleasant, to say the least.  

Over the first few decades, neighbouring Arab countries fought a series of wars against Israel, with little success, if anything, the state of Israel grew during this time. The Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, was a disaster for the Arab nations and the Palestinian people. It left Israel in control of Gaza and the West Bank, and those living there effectively under occupation.   

The Intifadas

Hatred and resentment had been bubbling away in Palestine for some time, and you can understand why. A border wall has been created between Israel and the two Palestinian zones while Israeli settlements continue to expand into areas that had previously been set aside for Palestinians.

Israeli West Bank Barrier
Israeli West Bank Barrier. By Justin McIntosh, islicensed under CC-BY

As the occupying power, Israel is technically responsible for healthcare and other services within Palestine, but it remains horribly underfunded and heavily reliant on aid. In short, life for many Palestinians remains in painful limbo and you don’t need to be a genius to see how resentment can quickly turn to violence. 

The First Intifada began in December 1987 in the Jabalia refugee camp after an Israeli army truck collided with a civilian car, killing the four Palestinians inside. The Palestinians claimed the collision had been on purpose in response to the murder of a Jew in Gaza a few days earlier, an accusation that Israel firmly denied. Violence broke out within Gaza and the West Bank, while an economic boycott targeting Israeli made goods along with a call for Palestinians working in Israel to strike quickly developed.  

The conflict dragged on for nearly six years and claimed 1,962 Palestinian lives – with between 300 and 800 of those killed by intra-Palestinian violence with some seeking out those who collaborated with the Israelis. 277 Israelis also died in the First Intifada, 175 civilians and 102 security personnel. 

The Second Intifada exploded in 2000 as a result of both the breakdown in peace talks at Camp David in the U.S and Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount which is widely considered the third holiest site in Islam. 

This time the violence escalated with suicide bombings, rock-throwing, gunfire and rocket attacks, that were met with vicious retaliation from the Israelis. 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, as well as 64 foreigners, died in the Second Intifada which ended in February 2005.       

Rocket Attacks 

A rocket fired from a civilian area in Gaza towards civilian areas in Southern Israel
A rocket fired from a civilian area in Gaza towards civilian areas in Southern Israel. By paffairs_sanfrancisco, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It’s thought that the first rocket fired by Palestinian militants came in October 2001 which hit an Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip. The first rocket to enter Israel itself came the following year on 10th February 2002 landing in Kibbutz Saad. 

On 5th March 2002, the city of Sderot became the first major population centre to be hit. These early projectiles were the Qassam rocket which has a range of about 10 km (6.2 mi) but over time more advanced rockets have been used with greater range. 

It’s not always exactly clear who has launched the rockets, though some groups do occasionally claim responsibility. According to the Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the majority came from two groups, either the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (Al Quds) or Hamas, a Palestinian resistant movement and political organisation that currently holds power. Depending on who you ask, Hamas is either a terrorist organisation or freedom fighters who have successfully gained control through honest electoral means – or perhaps both.   

During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, approximately 4,000 Hezbollah-fired rockets landed in northern Israel, including in Haifa, the country’s third-largest city. The attacks killed 44 Israeli civilians, while another 250,000 were evacuated from the region. To the south, roughly 8,000 projectiles (4,000 rockets and 4,000 motors) were fired into Israel between 2000 and 2008, mainly from the Gaza Strip. 

The psychological effect this had on the Israeli population was dramatic and a decision was taken to implement a new form of defence. 

Development   

The Iron Dome was one of several options available to the Israeli authorities, but in February 2007, it was selected by Defense Minister Amir Peretz in the hope that it could be Israel’s saviour. The technology was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries and is thought to have initially cost in the region of $210 million – which is fairly sizeable but considering the new U.S aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R Ford cost roughly $13.3 billion, and let’s be honest, who uses aircraft carriers anymore, it doesn’t actually seem that much anymore. 

A missile from the Israeli Iron Dome, launched during the Operation Pillar of Defense to intercept a missile coming from the Gaza strip.
A missile from the Israeli Iron Dome, launched during the Operation Pillar of Defense to intercept a missile coming from the Gaza strip.By Israel Defense Forces, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The current system is not a single entity, but rather ten separate Iron Domes that effectively overlap to provide complete coverage. Funding for the first two Iron Dome systems came from Israel, while the next eight, along with a steady supply of missiles came from the U.S after President Obama formally requested $205 million from Congress in his 2011 budget. And that was just for 2011, since then, it’s thought that total U.S expenditure for the Iron Dome has crept past $1 billion.  

But from the sounds of things, this is just the start. After its introduction in 2011, Defense Ministry director-general Maj. Gen Udi Shani said that Israel plans to invest nearly $1 billion in the coming years to expand the Iron Dome even further, in anticipation of reduced U.S funding. 

Testing 

Much of the development and testing process was highly secretive but it’s thought that the Iron Dome went from the drawing board to the battlefield in just four years, which is a remarkable achievement in itself. The first interceptor missiles were tested in July 2008 and in March 2009, the system underwent a full test – without actually intercepting a rocket that is. 

But just a few months later, in July 2009, a successful Defense Ministry test was carried out in which projectiles mimicking the Qassam rockets were intercepted. In January 2010, the Iron Dome again successfully intercepted a barrage designed to mimic an attack on a populated area and in July 2010, the final major test saw the Iron Dome distinguish between rockets that would land in urban areas and those that wouldn’t.

It proved to be the seal of approval needed and the first two Iron Domes were officially operational in March 2011, with a newly created battalion of the Israel Air Force’s Air Defense Division placed in charge. The first sites chosen for the interceptor missiles was near Beersheba, in southern Israel close to the border with Gaza, which had seen rockets land close by just before the Iron Dome’s deployment.       

The Iron Dome

The Iron Dome is an all-weather defence system that protects urban populations or designated assets and is generally considered the most sophisticated system of its type anywhere in the world. It’s designed to guard against short-range rockets and 155 mm (6.1 inches) artillery shells with a range of up to 70 kilometres (43.3 miles), though it’s believed that Israel plans to increase this to 250 km (155.3 miles in the future. 

The Iron Dome is really three separate components that work together at breathtaking speed while a rocket is inbound. When an enemy rocket is fired the Detection & Tracking Radar, built by Elta, an Israeli defence company, locates the device and tracks its progress. At the same time, information is passed to the Battle Management & Weapon Control, built by mPrest Systems, which calculates the impact point. If that impact point is deemed a danger, the control system alerts the designated mobile Missile Firing Unit in the area to launch one of its Tamir interceptor missiles to blow up the incoming rocket. It may sound absurdly simple, but Israel claims it works 90% of the time. 

As I mentioned, the Iron Dome only fires its interceptor missiles if it deems the inbound rocket to be a threat to populated areas or other designated areas, which could be military installations or even oil refineries. This is primarily down to cost with each interception thought to cost between $100,000 and $150,000 – compared to the $800 that a crudely made rocket can be constructed for. 

The Tamir missiles are 3 metres (9.8 ft) in length and have a diameter of 160 mm (6.3 inches). They come with steering fins for high manoeuvrability and are equipped with electro-optic sensors. They travel at a maximum speed of Mach 2.2 (2,716 km/h – 1,687 mph) and have a proximity fuse that allows them to detonate close to the rocket being targeted.    

Operations 

On 7th April 2011, the Iron Dome intercepted its first live rocket which had been fired from Gaza. Despite the Israeli government claiming the system was still in an evaluation phase, it successfully intercepted four more rockets the following day. The Iron Dome had made a strong start. 

But it didn’t take long for its perfect score to come to an end. On 20th August 2011, a barrage of seven rockets came hurtling into Israel from Gaza. The Iron Dome reacted and intercepted all of the perceived threats, bar one, which crashed into a residential area in Be’er Sheva, killing one person. It was around this time that militants began to switch tactics by launching a barrage of multiple rockets in the hope that at least one might make it through the Israeli shield.  

iron dome defense in action
iron dome illustration

Despite the missed rocket, the Iron Dome was already proving a huge success and it seemed the only consideration was where to put the two operating systems as mayors from around Israel tried to pressure the government to deploy the Iron Dome in their regions. With this in mind, the government announced that one additional Iron Dome would be operational in a matter of weeks, while additional systems would appear in six months rather than the first stated 18 months. 

In August 2011, the third system became operational near Ashdod and by the end of the year, the three systems were recording a 75% success rate. Over the next few years, more Iron Domes were installed throughout Israel, bringing the current number up to ten, though according to experts that number may need to be doubled to provide the comprehensive protection that the Israeli population have come to expect. 

There have been a few periods of intense activity for the Iron Domes, usually coinciding with military operations on the ground. On 14th November 2012, Ahmed Jabari, chief of the Gaza military wing of Hamas was killed by an Israeli airstrike, resulting in over 100 rockets being launched at Israel over 24 hours. The Iron Dome stood firm, though four Israeli civilians and two soldiers were killed. In response, the Israeli army launched Operation Pillar of Defense in which they struck more than 1,500 sites in Gaza. From the Palestinian side, 1,456 rockets were fired towards Israel in the biggest test of the Iron Dome so far. About 421 rockets were intercepted, another 142 fell on Gaza itself, 875 fell in open areas, and 58 hit urban areas in Israel. 

The 2014 Gaza War was another key moment for the Domes. After the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, the Israeli Defence Force launched Operation Brother’s Keeper to arrest militant leaders, which was eventually followed by Operation Protective Edge as both sides traded blows. 

The conflict was short but intense, lasting 50 days in which 4,594 rockets and mortars were fired at Israeli targets. Of those, only roughly 25% were deemed threatening, mainly down to the poor quality of rockets and low accuracy. The Iron Domes intercepted 735 projectiles, with 70 making it through. Overall, the system achieved a 90% success rate during the conflict. 

We do have to point out here that while the Iron Dome was incredibly successful at defending the Israelis, the cost to the Palestinians over the 50 days was horrific, with close to 2,500 people dying. And sadly this has become the standard narrative. When fighting breaks out, one side has the most sophisticated missile defence system the world has ever seen, while on the other, it’s not uncommon to be without both running water and electricity. This is not a fair fight, and it never has been. 

Safety or Distraction? 

One criticism often levelled at the Iron Dome is not about its operational ability, which seems to speak for itself, but whether the Dome has created a sense of security in Israel that distracts from actually forging a lasting peace. The shield has almost provided a sense of invulnerability, which no doubt does little to persuade people that it’s in their best interests to force their government to the negotiating table. 

And this doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon, with two additional stages of the defence system, ‘David’s Sling’ and ‘Arrow’ also in operation. David’s Sling is similar to the Iron Dome, but considerably more expansive and can intercept enemy planes, drones, tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets and cruise missiles, fired at ranges from 40 km (24.85 miles) to 300 km (186.41 miles). Arrow on the other hand is an anti-ballistic missile system that has been in use for just over two decades, with a wary eye further abroad, particularly on the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Israel now has probably the most comprehensive defence system in the world and nations such as the U.S, India, Azerbaijan, South Korea and Romania are cueing up to purchase the Iron Dome System. But despite all this coverage, the situation between Israel and Palestine remains dreadful. The recent conflict between the two in May 2021, which killed 13 Israelis and 256 Palestinians, reminded everybody that the end still feels nowhere in sight. 

In terms of missile defence systems, the Iron Dome is unparalleled and the number of Israeli casualties has fallen dramatically since it was rolled out. In that sense, it is a huge success, but unfortunately, in this particular conflict, a huge success for one side usually means pain and suffering for the other. The Iron Dome may be military technology at its most cutting edge, but it is neither perfect nor the long-term answer.    

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