The Dome vs. the Qassam

Amir Rapaport's weekly column examines the lessons to be derived from the most lethal round of fighting the Israeli rear experienced since Operation Protective Edge

Iron Dome missiles intercept rockets fired from Gaza near Sderot, Israel (Photo: AP)

The most recent round of fighting between Gaza and Israel, which ended last week, on the eve of the month of Ramadan (and a few days before the beginning of the Eurovision Song Contest) was a fascinating battle between the IAF's air defense setup and the developers of the Iron Dome system, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who have been challenging the performance of the system for the past eight years, since the first successful interception.

From a perspective of the few days that have elapsed since the beginning of the ceasefire, one can address a few major questions that arose, especially in view of the fact that for the first time in years, the Israeli rear sustained numerous casualties: four deaths and about 150 injuries. One of the victims, Moshe Feder from Kfar-Saba, was killed when his car was hit by a Kornet antitank missile launched from the Strip. The others were hit by Qassam rockets, which have been upgraded significantly over the years, especially with regard to the explosive contents of their warheads (some of the short-range rockets carried dozens of kilograms of explosives each).

The main question is this – has the Iron Dome system failed this time, in view of the fact that rockets did land in inhabited areas and did inflict casualties and damage?

The increase in the amount of explosives carried by the rockets has definitely affected the scope of casualties and damage. As far as the interception percentages are concerned, the last round was particularly successful – more than 90% success opposite rockets launched in the direction of inhabited areas (the Iron Dome system can ignore rockets making their way toward uninhabited areas, and does not attempt to intercept them).

These high percentages were maintained even when the enemy launched a massive salvo of not less than 117 rockets within one hour (mostly in the direction of the city of Ashdod). The reason for the relatively high number of rockets that landed in inhabited areas was the massive amount of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip to begin with – not less than 690 launches within the span of 36 hours (in comparison, during the peak day of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hezbollah had launched about 300 rockets).

With high numbers, statistics count. The 10% failure figure was reflected in 35 rockets that should have been intercepted, but were not. Incidentally, when IMOD's Directorate of Defense Research and Development (DDR&D) had issued, years ago, the request for the development of a rocket interception system, the requirements specified a rate of success of 70% only. In those days, that figure had been conceived as fantastic, but reality has surpassed the imagination: during a brief round of fighting opposite the Gaza Strip, a few weeks ago, 100% of some 50 rockets launched into Israel's southern region were intercepted successfully. A world record.

"In a retrospective analysis, the Iron Dome system succeeds above and beyond anything that could have been anticipated, and even the last round has proven that no other system, worldwide, can even come close to the interception percentages of the Iron Dome. The (last) round was definitely very successful for the Iron Dome," a senior source at Rafael told IsraelDefense. Rafael developed the system jointly with IAI, which was responsible for the surveillance radar detecting the rockets.

"The challenge we face is increasing, as the enemy tries to cope with the system in different ways, but we are improving, too. In fact, the only similarity between the Iron Dome of today and the one that became operational in 2011 is external. In all other respects, it is a completely different system. I can state with confidence that we are a few steps – not just one step – ahead of the enemy."

So how come there are still rockets that the Iron Dome fails to intercept?

It is important to understand that each interception depends on the perfect timing and integration of numerous sensors, radars, communications and the interceptor missiles, as well as, naturally – on the human element. Even the smallest glitch by one of those elements might lead to failure. In an attempt to improve the statistics, in some situations, the operators launch more than one interceptor missile toward a rocket making its way toward an Israeli settlement, but still, there is no such thing as "hermetic protection" nor will there ever be. Incidentally, the lion's share of the interception process is automatic, and in the last round, the warfighters of the IAF air defense setup operated flawlessly, around the clock. The rocket hits were not their fault.

One of the main arguments of the opponents of the Iron Dome system within the IAF in the previous decade (the Minister of Defense at that time, Amir Peretz, decided in favor of the development of the system, contrary to the position of the IAF), was that the best way to stop the launching of rockets was not defense but rather massive offensive measures and deterrence. Has the last round shown that the Iron Dome system only encourages Hamas and Islamic Jihad to launch more rockets than they would have launched if the system had not existed, as they expect that the majority of their rockets would be intercepted anyway? Does that support the opponents' argument?

"The allegation that Hamas and Jihad are firing as they do not intend to hit their targets to begin with is simply baseless," says the senior source from Rafael. "From our analysis of all of the launches and interceptions, we have seen, again and again, that they are doing their best to inflict maximum damage and casualties. We can estimate that the number of deaths would have been hundreds of times higher if the Iron Dome had not existed, at least as high as the number of casualties in the rear during the Second Lebanon War."

The question once again arises regarding the cost of a single Iron Dome interceptor (about $50,000, according to some sources) compared to the insignificant cost of each rocket.

The senior source at Rafael said that "the question of the economic worthwhileness of the Iron Dome system was decided long ago. The actual 'value' of each interception is not determined by the cost of the rocket, but rather by the cost we would have paid if we did not have a defense system. Beyond the human lives saved, which are priceless, even with regard to this round it is easy to imagine the damage that would have been sustained if life in the central region of the country had been paralyzed because of concerns regarding rocket attacks. Even Ben-Gurion international airport might have been closed down, so the benefit exceeds the costs several times over."

Fortunately, Israel has not yet faced the scenario of a war in the north and in the south simultaneously. Do we have a sufficient number of Iron Dome batteries to defend the rear in such a scenario, when the precedence in defense is expected to be assigned, first of all, to IAF bases and to such strategic installations as the power station in Hadera?

For obvious reasons, the IDF does not divulge any exact numbers regarding its order of battle, but it is clear that the number of Iron Dome batteries currently available is not enough to provide optimal protection to the entire country (according to a plan prepared during Ehud Barak's term as Minister of Defense, which has never been budgeted). In a future substantial war, additional batteries will be required, just as several batteries were established during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and started operating just a few hours after they had been deployed on the ground.

Is there a sufficient number of interceptor missiles for an eventuality of a large-scale conflict?

Naturally, the number of Tamir interceptor missiles (which is kept secret) is not infinite, but the situation today is far better than it was during the first few rounds of fighting in the Iron Dome era. In any case, Rafael is prepared to manufacture many new interceptors, should they be required. The employees of Rafael always report to their workplaces without fail every time a new round of fighting begins – as if they were reporting for reserve military duty.

Are confrontations such as the last round of fighting beneficial to the global sales of the Iron Dome system?

The senior source at Rafael answered: "Truthfully, yes. We will not sell the Iron Dome system to any country – only to our closest strategic partners, but every time the system demonstrates its tremendous interception percentages, the interest in it intensifies. Next year we will deliver the first two Iron Dome batteries ordered by the US Army (a joint project with Raytheon), and we hope that the Army and other branches of the US military will order many additional batteries later on."

Does the Iron Dome system fit as planned into the multiple-tier missile defense concept devised years ago by the special administration known as Homa at IMOD?

Definitely. After the Iron Dome system, the IAF took delivery over the last few years of the Arrow-3 and David's Sling systems.

The first Israeli missile defense system became operational at the beginning of the previous decade. It was the Arrow-2 system whose development had been initiated following the first Gulf War in 1991 – despite strong opposition on the part of the IAF, which always prefers to invest its funds in offensive setups. The interception process of the Arrow-2 system takes place within the earth's atmosphere.

The Arrow-3 system is a completely different story: the interception process is intended to take place in outer space, at extreme heights, and provide a solution to the Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) technology the Iranians are developing for their missiles. This system is currently the main project of the Homa administration, in cooperation with the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The system, developed by IAI, constitutes a primary element of the multi-tier missile defense system of the State of Israel, and is intended to provide the uppermost tier of defense against the ballistic missile threat.

The David's Sling air defense system (formerly known as Magic Wand), developed jointly by Rafael and Raytheon, is intended to intercept medium-range and cruise missiles. The multi-tier defense concept is based on the idea that several interception attempts will be made against every missile launched in the direction of Israel – starting in outer space and converging to closer ranges. Accordingly, the higher the point from which the threatening missile arrives, the better the chance of successfully intercepting it within one of the tiers.

As far as rockets launched from ranges of a few dozen kilometers only, like those being launched from the Gaza Strip, the Iron Dome system is the only relevant defense system. The David's Sling and the various types of Arrow missiles are only relevant for the more distant threats.

What about the Point Defense project for extremely short-range threats (including mortar bombs), also decided upon by the Israeli defense establishment?

This new project of IMOD's DDR&D, which is already underway, has only just begun. It involves a tier below the one covered by the Iron Dome system, with the intention of further improving the chances of intercepting any missile while at the same time providing a solution for the munitions launched from extremely short ranges – just a few kilometers. At this point, a number of industries, including Rafael, are hard at work developing solution proposals for this technological challenge. IMOD will subsequently select one of these proposals, which would evolve into a project.

In this context, the senior source from Rafael said that "Technologically, any threat may be intercepted – even a rifle round fired from a range of just a few dozens of meters. It all depends on the technological effort and the cost. The state should decide up to which level and as of what range it wants to defend itself, and the defense industries and the IDF will develop the technological and operational solution according to that decision."

Finally, a much more acute question – has the state of emergency of the air defense setup ended when the informal ceasefire opposite the Gaza Strip became effective?

No. The state of alert remains high throughout the IAF, and particularly within the Iron Dome setup. The situation may – possibly – return to normal after the end of the Eurovision Song Contest events, which currently maintain the alertness of the Israeli defense system at a very high level.


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