News / Middle East

Is Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

A missile is launched by an
A missile is launched by an "Iron Dome" battery, a short-range missile defense system on July 11, 2014 in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.
Cecily Hilleary

A U.S. Senate defense subcommittee has voted to double funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.  The Pentagon originally requested $175 million for Iron Dome, but if the new bill passes, Israel would receive more than $350 million.

That’s good news for Israel—and for American defense contractors slated to receive more than half those funds to co-produce more Iron Dome units.   But critics question such big spending on a system they say doesn’t live up to its glowing reputation.

A clever system

Iron Dome was developed after Israel’s second war with Lebanon in 2006, when about 4,000 rockets were fired from southern Lebanon. 

Jeremy BinnieJeremy Binnie
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Jeremy Binnie
Jeremy Binnie

“What is special about Iron Dome is that it’s the only one of its kind,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa editor for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.  

“It’s the only missile interception system which is designed to intercept short-range rockets.  And that is largely because of the relatively unique situation that Israel has found itself in, where it has had this particular threat both coming from Gaza and from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon,” he said. 

Iron Dome consists of several units, or batteries.  It is not clear how many batteries are currently deployed.

“Because of operational considerations, we unfortunately can't elaborate about the number,” Israeli Defense Force spokeswoman Libby Weiss told VOA in an email.

Israel said it would need as many as 15 batteries to fully protect its citizens from attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Each battery is a cluster of three transportable components: a computerized radar detection and tracking unit; a management and control unit; and a box launcher, outfitted with about 60 missiles called interceptors.   These can be moved and positioned wherever they are needed.

It’s an expensive system.  Each battery costs about $50 million.  Each interceptor costs as much as $100,000.   

Here’s how it is designed to work.

The detection and tracking unit uses radar to scan a defined area for any incoming short- to medium-range rockets, that is, coming from up to about 43 miles away.  A separate control unit consists of computers and other high-tech instruments that quickly analyze the radar’s data. 

“The Iron Dome is very clever, in that its radar can see a rocket coming and very quickly calculate whether that rocket will be landing in a populated area and could threaten life,” Binnie said.  “It makes those calculations in a matter of seconds and launches the intercept at anything it determines is a threat.”

Defining ‘success’

Here’s where things can get tricky, says Theodore Postol, a physicist and missile-defense expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  In order to be effective, the interceptor has to be able to hit the incoming rocket head-on and destroy the actual warhead, i.e., explosive material loaded onto its front tip.

“The only way the Iron Dome interceptor can tell where the front of the artillery rocket is by illumination,” Postol said.  “A ‘laser fuse’ projects a set of light beams toward the artillery rocket, which reflects light.” 

Theodore A. PostolTheodore A. Postol
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Theodore A. Postol
Theodore A. Postol

After a slight delay, says Postol, the Iron Dome interceptor detonates a cylindrical-shaped bomb comprised of multiple rods.  These should disperse into blow fragments into both the incoming rocket and its warhead, destroying both.

But a lot can go wrong during that delay between detonation and impact, says Postol.  By examining the “contrails”—those plumes of smoke in the sky seen in videos of Iron Dome interceptions from 2012 on through to recent weeks—he and other scientists say that Iron Dome misses the mark more often than not.

“The rocket will still go on to the ground and the warhead will still explode,” he said.  “So the only meaningful definition of ‘intercept’ in this circumstance is destruction of the warhead.  And sometimes people have incorrectly argued that if they hit the incoming artillery rocket, they divert it.  But that’s also not true.” 

“The Iron Dome success rate is roughly 90 percent,” said Israeli Defense Force spokeswoman Libby Weiss in an email.

But it’s hard to tell what that figure actually means. Has Iron Dome destroyed the warheads of 90 percent of the rockets Hamas has fired?  Or has the defense system merely intercepted the rockets without destroying the warheads?

VOA posed that question to Weiss.

“The Iron Dome Air Defense system has been incredibly successful in preventing death and unimaginable destruction all over Israel,” was her emailed reply.  “Hamas is launching rockets with the goal of terrorizing and targeting Israel's civilian population and Iron Dome has played a central role in safeguarding Israel's civilians.”

Postol says that he believes the interception rate could be more like 5 percent, and he says he should know.

“Remember, I was the guy who showed that the 96 percent intercept rate claimed for the Patriot missile in the Gulf War of 1991 was instead probably zero, and pretty much everybody now accepts that finding,” he said.

If he is correct, how is it that only one Israeli has died?  

According to the Israeli Home Front website, the rockets being fired into Israel carry a relatively small amount of explosives which can damage buildings and injure people out in the open.  But thanks to a sophisticated civil defense system that includes shelters in every building and a sophisticated early warning system, Postol says most Israelis are able to quickly get out of harm’s way.

As for Binnie, he says Israel is “firing a very expensive system in order to intercept a very cheap threat,” adding, “It would be nice to have a lot more information so that people have a better idea of what’s going on here.”

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by: steve donato from: florida
July 22, 2014 2:31 PM
Jeremy Binnie said " Iron dome is a one of a kind system" But, is it not a COPY of the USA designed and built, Patriot Missile System which appeared before Iron Dome?

by: Not Again from: Canada
July 19, 2014 10:31 PM
In my opinion, Postol is arguing theoretical issues, which are good on paper; the facts are absolutely clear, if you look at the amount of destruction, in Israel, before Iron Dome, during the the last two wars Hamas started, and today with Iron Dome protecting Israel; the difference is like night and day. And when you compare the size, range, and quantity of missiles launched, by the Hamas terrorists, in this war, their third war on Israel, it further adds to the fact that Iron Dome is providing very a effective shield. Add it all up, and Postol is demonstrated to be talking, for the purpose of grabbing headlines..
Like any human built system, Iron Dome is not perfect, but it does provide a huge level of protection, compared to the situation Israel faced without Iron Dome.
Postol needs to look at the results on the ground, rather than just wrap himself in the calculations. Postol needs to investigate from the observed facts today, as compared to the observed facts in the last two wars.
From a regional perspective, Israel will need to field, at least, six times the number of anti-ballistic defensive systems, to in essence account for the numbers that Israel's enemies could potentialy launch. Based on current arsenal estimates, by the IDF/intel orgs from media rpts, the potential total numbers exceed 50,000+ projectiles. What is really required, is a system that can destroy the projectiles launched by terrorists, immediately upon launch, or before the projectiles' trajectory arches towards its destined path.
Bottom line, Iron Dome is clearly making a tremendous difference in shielding Israel and its civilians from terrorist attacks.

by: tom from: Texas
July 19, 2014 9:06 AM
Sounds like a lot of sour grapes from anti-Israeli people.

by: Decker from: Beer Sheva
July 18, 2014 1:46 AM
Trust me, it works
In Response

by: Abe Bird from: Brussles
July 18, 2014 2:25 PM
It started as conspiracy theory made by Mordechai Shefer, the Israeli engineer that lost his "Bell" Laiser project to "Iron Dome" as the first rocket system against missiles. .Shefer tried hard to spam of the "Iron Dome" and called Theodore A. Postol to help him. But other 300 engineers proved that the system works well, as we see actually in reality for at least 4 years. Let the conspirators hearts break!

by: Gene Murphy from: Northern California
July 17, 2014 4:51 PM
It's hard to hit a bullet with a bullet, Patriot missileers claimed the world but the only guarantee is/was the pieces fall back to earth
In Response

by: AbeBird from: Brussles
July 18, 2014 3:32 PM
The Patriot of 1991 was designed to tackle aircraft and not missiles. That's why they couldn't intercept any of the 39 Iraqi Scud B missiles that were shot against Israel in 1991 Gulf War. Only the later improved version, which Israel offered to the US was designed and affective to intercept medium and long range rockets/missiles. The improved Patriots are not effective against short range rockets that are used to terrorise Israel from Gaza.
In Response

by: Gerald O'Hare from: New Jersey, USA
July 17, 2014 6:57 PM
This is Patriot 2.0

by: scristaldi from: US
July 17, 2014 4:13 PM
Israel does not need financial help from the US. They are doing just fine by themselves.

It's time the US politicians stop funding the world and start taking the US budget and deficit down NOW.
In Response

by: heu from: UK
July 28, 2014 10:16 PM
Yet they keep on asking for money and never seems to be enough, don't they? How would you call that?

by: Awesome
July 17, 2014 4:03 PM
Why is American taxpayers money being spent on Israeli defense? Perhaps Israeli citizens should pay taxes to Uncle Sam in order to defend itself. The bottom line is Americans have no representation whatsoever is Israeli parliament. This is taxation without representation. Our forefathers must be turning in their graves. American media is deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to American involvement in Israel's affairs.

by: Bernie from: New Jersey
July 17, 2014 3:31 PM
Mr Postol knows nothing what he is talking about. He should stay in the classroom and read all about the successes of the
Iron Dome.
In Response

by: meanbill from: USA
July 18, 2014 12:44 AM
THE WISE MAN said it; .. If the Iron Dome missile defense system was so effective, why is Israel spending all that money using all those Iron Dome missile defense systems, fighter planes, rockets and missiles against the Gaza Hamas Palestinians, and calling up all those Israeli troops and reserve troops, tanks, artillery, and mobile missile launchers, for a ground attack, (against Hamas who only fires some rockets, and have some assault rifles, and RPGs)...... It's like Israel using a sledge hammer, to kill an ant, isn't it?

by: Ed Simonis from: Carmichael, CA
July 17, 2014 3:27 PM
As long as Israel keeps suppressing the Palestinian people, I don't want any of my tax dollars used to support Israel.
Israel must rescind their settlement scheme before we consider any kind of support....
In Response

by: Mike from: New York
July 17, 2014 11:28 PM
Israel is not suppressing the Palestinians, in fact Israel helps the Palestinian authority financially, they give them taxes collected in Israel for items brought in from the Palestinian territory, on top of that Israel provides work opportunity for tens of thousands Arabs living in Israel, Israel provides freedom of all kinds to the Arabs living in Israel including freedom of speech and most of all Israel NEVER initiates fighting, the Palestinians are the ones to initiate any sort of confrontation by launching rockets at innocent civilians.
To make a long story short Israel is the only democratic country in the middle east and the ONLY humanitarian country in the region.
Your money is being used for good cause, better than Obama wasting it on pet projects and a failed American economy.

by: Scott Hamlin from: Georgetown
July 17, 2014 3:26 PM
Actually the only thing "everybody accepts" ...or at least is likely to accept and assume...is that Postol is full of the stuff that comes out of the south side of a north bound mule.
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