News / Middle East

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

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.
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
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
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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Comments page of 2
by: M. D. Block from: USA
July 17, 2014 3:22 PM
To support the Iron Dome for Israel's security is to place the security of the American people in peril as one of the stated reasons for the assault on 9-11 is our 'support for Israel.'

Congress can't find tax dollars for our infrastructure, but can always find America's hard-earned tax dollars for Israel. It is time to rid our country of those who have Israel's best interest at heart, not America's.

by: Joe from: New York
July 17, 2014 3:20 PM
According to Mr. Postol Israelis have a very sophisticated shelters in every building and "THAT'S" the reason there are such few casualties on the Israeli side, well those so called "sophisticated shelters" have been there for many years and they did not help prevent casualties in previous wars, the only thing that has been effective to prevent casualties is the Iron Dome system, regardless of where it's hitting the missile, front back or middle, it's doing it's job bringing in great results successfuly hitting over 90% of the rockets destin to fall in populated areas proving Mr. Postol's theory as nothing but absolute ridiculous mad-scientist nonsense and nothing more than a finding a way to trash Israel and an attempt to cut funds for the only democratic country in the middle east.

by: Ed from: USA
July 17, 2014 3:16 PM
Irregardless of whether or not its effective, why should we in the US be funding it? No argument that many Islamists are narrow minded and intolerant but so are the Jews! As an example, after all the problems and world dissension caused, the Israeli majority is still supporting the crazy "settlers" Both think their religion and culture is the be-all and end-all! Problem is that many here in the US swallow this warped line of thinking.

by: Marietta Alexander
July 17, 2014 3:15 PM
Also, there are millions of Angels standing shoulder to shoulder ringing Israel's borders right now! Man's weapons only go so far!

by: Bill from: MI
July 17, 2014 3:07 PM
The Iron Dome system would be easy to overcome with guided missiles that can change course. Program the missile to head toward a site that Iron Dome thinks is unoccupied, then change course to hit an area that is highly occupied. Israel is very lucky that Hamas does not have guided missiles, only inaccurate unguided missiles.
In Response

by: AbeBird from: Brussles
July 18, 2014 4:01 PM
No other country in the Middle East have missiles of that kind. Most of the attack missiles are not maneuvering in purpose to avoid locking of some interceptor, but to follow the topography. Sure not in short range. Any case, if that happens there can be some technological solutions.
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