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An assessment on Israel's 'Iron Dome' Defense System

In its ten operational years the “Dome” has shown effectiveness, but a comprehensive political regional solution is needed

In 2011 Israel deployed its “Iron Dome” mobile defense system in response to the rocket attacks it suffered the previous years from Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas). The Israel Defense Force claims that the system has shown an 85% – 90% success rate. However, it offers mixed results when other considerations are taken into account. Its temporary mitigation of the menaces of the rocket attacks could distract Israelis in seeking out a comprehensive political regional solution; possibly a solution that could make systems like the “Iron Dome” unnecessary. 

How “Iron Dome” works; explanation on an image produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems

▲ How “Iron Dome” works; explanation on an image produced by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems

ARTICLEAnn M. Callahan

The “Iron Dome” is a mobile defense system developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries developed, produced and fielded in 2011 to respond to the security threat posed by the bombings of rockets and projectiles shot into Israel, many of which landed in heavily populated areas.

Bombings into Israel intensified during the 2006 Second Lebanon War when Hezbollah​ fired approximately 4,000 rockets from bases in the south of Lebanon. From Gaza to the South, an estimated 8,000 projectiles were launched between 2000 and 2008, mostly by Hamas​​. To counter these threats, the Defense Ministry, in February 2007, decided on the development of the “Dome” to function as a mobile air defense system for Israel. After its period of development and testing, the system was declared operational and fielded in March 2011.

The system is the pivotal lower tier of a triad of systems in Israel’s air defense system.

The “David’s Sling” system covers the middle layer, while the “Arrow” missile system protects Israel from long-range projectiles.

The Iron Dome functions by detecting, analyzing and intercepting varieties of targets such as mortars, rockets, and artillery. It has all-weather capabilities and is able to function night or day and in all conditions, including fog, rain, dust storms and low clouds. It is able to launch a variety of interceptor missiles. 

Israel is protected by 10 “Iron Dome” batteries, functioning to protect the country’s infrastructure and citizens. Each battery is able to defend up to 60 square miles. They are strategically placed around Israel’s cities in order to intercept projectiles headed towards these populated areas. Implementing artificial intelligence technology, the “Dome” system is able to discriminate whether the incoming threats will land in a populated or in an uninhabited area, ignoring them in the latter case, consequently reducing the cost of operation and keeping unnecessary defensive launches to a minimum. However, if the “Dome” determines that the rocket is projected to land in an inhabited area, the interceptor is fired towards the rocket.

A radar steers the missile until the target is acquired with an infrared sensor. The interceptor must be quickly maneuverable because it must intercept rudimentary rockets that are little more than a pipe with fins welded onto it, which makes them liable to follow unpredictable courses. It can be assumed that the launchers of the rockets know as little as the Israelis as to where the rockets would end up landing.

Effectiveness

The IDF (Israel Defense Force) claims an 85% - 90% success rate for the “Iron Dome” in intercepting incoming projectiles. Operational in March 2011, to date the “Iron Dome” has successfully destroyed approximately 1,500 rockets. The destruction of these incoming rockets has saved Israeli lives offering physical protection and shielding property and other assets. In addition, for the Israelis it serves as a psychological safeguard and comfort for the Israeli people. 

Regarding the “Dome” as an asset for Israel’s National Security Strategy, while standing as an undeniable asset, has had mixed results regarding its four major pillars of Deterrence, Early, Active Defense and Decisive Victory as well as some unintended challenges. 

For instance, regarding the perspective of its psychological protection for the Israeli people, it is thought to also effect Israeli public in a negative manner. Regardless of the fact that it currently offers effective protection to the existing threats it could, in fact, help cause a long-term security issue for Israel. Its temporary mitigation of the menaces of the rocket attacks could distract Israelis in seeking out a comprehensive political regional solution; possibly a solution that could make systems like the “Iron Dome” unnecessary. 

In addition, while the “Dome” suffices for now, it cannot be expected to continue this way forever. Despite the system’s effectiveness, it is just a matter of time before the militants develop tactics or acquire the technology to overcome it. The time needed in order to accomplish this can be predicted to be significantly reduced taking into account the strong support from the militant’s allies and the considerable funding they receive.  

Still a comprehensive diplomatic solution is needed

Today, the world’s militaries of both state and non-state actors are engaged in a technological arms race. As is clearly known, Israel’s technological dominance is indisputable. Nevertheless, it, by no means, stands as a guarantee as destructive technology becomes more accessible and less expensive. As new technologies become more available they are subject to replication, imitation and increased affordability. As technologies develop and are implemented in operations, counter techniques can shift and new tactics can be developed, which is what the militias are only bound to do. Moreover, with the heavy funding available to the militias from their wealthy allies, acquiring more advanced technologies becomes more probable. This is a significant disadvantage for Israel. In order to preserve their upper hand, constant innovation and adaptation is a necessity. 

The confusion between the short-term military advantage the technology of the “Dome” offers and the long-term necessity for a comprehensive and original political, diplomatic solution is seen as a risk for Israel. Indeed, Amir Peretz, a minister in Israel’s cabinet, told the Washington​ Post in 2014 that the “Iron Dome” stands as nothing more than a “stopgap measure” and that “in the end, the only thing that will bring true quite is a diplomatic solution.”

Despite these drawbacks, however, in all the positive aspects that the system offers clearly outweighs the negative. The “Iron Dome” stands undeniably as a critical and outstanding military asset to Israel's National Security, even while Israel works to address and mitigate some of the unforeseen challenges related to the system.