By now, you’ve probably seen the videos: dark skies, illuminated by exploding balls of light, like alien spaceships doing battle or a terrifying fireworks display, scored by air raid sirens.
This is the view of Israel’s Iron Dome, the aerial defense system the country uses to intercept incoming short-range rockets. The intensifying conflict this week between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militia in control of Gaza, has offered a renewed glimpse of the Iron Dome in action.
The system has been in place for about a decade, developed with heavy financial and technical backing from the United States. It is, according to Israeli officials, about 90 percent effective at blocking the short-range rockets commonly used by Hamas and other groups in the region.
The Iron Dome gives Israel what Jean-Loup Samaan, a research affiliate with the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore who has studied Israel’s missile defense, called an “insurance policy” — it reassures citizens and protects against loss of life and property damage.
But Israel’s ability to defend against these rocket attacks hasn’t altered how it responds to them, with airstrikes and artillery fire on Gaza or anywhere else rockets may be coming from. Palestinian civilians frequently bear the brunt of these strikes.
On the other side, faced with a defense like the Iron Dome, groups like Hamas try to overwhelm the system, launching dozens if not hundreds of rockets, knowing most will be intercepted and never hit their intended targets but hoping that if they send enough, at least a few will. As of Friday, according to Israeli officials, militants in Gaza fired 2,200 rockets, with the Iron Dome intercepting 85 to 90 percent of rockets that threaten people or infrastructure.
All of this raises questions about how the Iron Dome has — and hasn’t — changed the nature of the conflict. I spoke with Samaan to find out more about how both Israel and militant groups like Hamas see the defense system; why, despite having such robust protection from rockets, Israel still responds to them with overwhelming force; and whether having the system makes peace more or less likely.
The Iron Dome
The Israeli-designed Iron Dome system is meant to protect populated areas and critical assets by neutralising short-range aerial threats.
The first battery was deployed in March 2011 near the southern city of Beersheva – 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip, and a favourite Hamas target – to combat Soviet-designed Grad rockets fired from the Palestinian territory.
Israel now has 10 such batteries.
The head of the Israel Missile Defense Organisation, Moshe Patel, said that up to January Iron Dome had intercepted over 2,400 projectiles during the past decade.
With each launch costing reportedly almost $50,000, he told the Times of Israel that it had “saved hundreds of lives”.
ELM 2084 is a mobile, operating in S-Band, Multi-Mission Radar (MMR) Family implementing an active electronically steered phased array supporting modular and scalable architecture. The MMR family supports artillery weapon location up to 100 km and air defense operational missions up to 256 NM.
The MMR can be operated in two modes: rotating (360° azimuth) and sector mode (120° azimuth) combined with electronic scanning in bearing and elevation. The elevation coverage is from 30° to 50°.
Each battery has a radar detection and tracking system, a firing control system and three launchers for 20 interceptor missiles. Each has a range of between four and 70 kilometres (2.5 and 44 miles).
Iron Dome was developed by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, a state-owned arms company based in the northern city of Haifa.
But it is also partly funded by the United States, which committed $5 billion to its development costs in 2016.
It is one of the strategic pillars of the US-Israeli alliance which has been followed by successive Democratic and Republican administrations.
In August 2019 the US Army signed a contract to purchase two Iron Dome batteries.
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