What Is Israel’s Iron Dome Anti-Rocket System?

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired more than 4,300 rockets into Israel in the 11 days of hostilities before a May 21 cease-fire, but the vast majority caused little or no harm. That’s largely because of Israel’s Iron Dome, an air defense system designed to block projectiles launched by nearby enemies. It has an intercept rate of about 90%, according to the Israeli military.

1. Why was Iron Dome created?

Iron Dome was created to cope with mortars and rockets shot into Israel at relatively close range by militants in Gaza and by anti-Israel fighters in Lebanon belonging to Hezbollah. Its first interception was in April 2011 when it shot down a Grad rocket fired from Gaza into the Israeli city Askelon. It has since intercepted more than 2,500 rockets.

2. How does it work?

A sensitive radar detects an incoming round coming from 4 to 70 kilometers (2.5 to 43 miles) away and predicts its trajectory and point of impact. A control center processes that information and connects to a launcher that shoots a missile to destroy the round. The system is designed to respond only to projectiles that pose threats, particularly to population centers. It holds fire on rockets calculated to land in empty terrain and thus conserves missiles, which is especially important in the case of massive incoming rounds. The cost of each missile is about $40,000 to $50,000, according to a researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. The batteries are mobile, and Israel has ten of them deployed throughout the country, according to U.S. military contractor Raytheon Technologies, which in 2014 began co-producing Iron Dome with the system’s originator, Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Each battery has three to four launchers and is designed to defend a 155-square-kilometer (60-square-mile) populated area, according to Raytheon. The system is designed to work effectively in all kinds of weather.

3. Who funded it?

Iron Dome was originally developed without U.S. assistance, but in 2011 the U.S., Israel’s most important ally, began backing the program financially. As of November 2020, related costs for the U.S. totaled $1.6 billion. That includes $373 million for two Iron Dome batteries purchased for the U.S. army that are being tested at Fort Bliss in Texas. Once the U.S. invested in Iron Dome, Congress pressed for technology sharing and co-production, which is how Raytheon entered the picture. It makes components for the interceptors. Today nearly 50% of the anti-rocket missile battery is made in the U.S. American support for the system is part of a larger package of U.S. military aid to Israel, which according to an agreement between the two countries will total $38 billion in the years 2019 to 2028.

4. Who else is interested in Iron Dome?

A number of media outlets have reported that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are interested in purchasing the system; Israeli Defense Ministry officials weren’t immediately available for comment. The U.A.E. only established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020, and Saudi Arabia has not done so. In a government to government deal in 2019, the Czech Republic contracted to buy eight of the radars employed in Iron Dome for $125 million; they are made by Elta, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries. In March, Slovakia signed an agreement to procure 17 of the radars.

5. What are the ramifications of the Iron Dome’s success?

Iron Dome plainly has saved many Israelis from death or injury. That, arguably, has various knock-on effects. For one, it gives the Israeli government time and political space to decide when and how to respond to rocket attacks. In some cases, it has meant Israel has chosen against a ground invasion of Gaza. Some analysts argue that the Iron Dome’s protection lulls Israelis into a false sense that they can afford to ignore the age-old conflict with the Palestinians rather than engage in diplomacy to resolve it.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake on the latest burst of Israeli-Palestinian violence and another on the age-old conflict.
  • A short video on the Iron Dome by the Israeli military.
  • A Congressional Research Service report details discussions about integrating Iron Dome into U.S. defenses.

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