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updated: 11/17/2012 7:45 PM

Israel's U.S.-financed 'Iron Dome' effective against rockets

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  • An explosion Saturday of an Iron Dome missile sent skyward to intercept a rocket fired from Gaza Strip toward Israel, as seen from the Israel Gaza Border.

    An explosion Saturday of an Iron Dome missile sent skyward to intercept a rocket fired from Gaza Strip toward Israel, as seen from the Israel Gaza Border.
    Associated Press

Bloomberg News

Israel's U.S.-funded anti-missile system, known as Iron Dome, appears to be effective against short-range, unguided rockets used by Hamas, according to U.S.- based analysts who follow missile defense issues.

Israeli officials including Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said the system has been about 90 percent effective this week against the Hamas rockets fired from Gaza against Israel. That figure is seen as credible by analysts such as Steve Zaloga, who's with the Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group.

"What they mean is, of the rockets that they are actually shooting at, they are hitting 90 percent," Zaloga said in a telephone interview yesterday. The military has been "tweaking" the system for improvements since its first combat intercept in April 2011 because "early on they weren't scoring at that rate," he said.

Ninety percent "is an extremely high level," Zaloga said. "Air defense systems are typically not in that range."

The Israeli military action known as Operation Pillar of Defense is proving to be the biggest test of the U.S.-funded Iron Dome. The Israeli Defense Forces reported today that a total of 737 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza, and that the Iron Dome system intercepted 245 of them. Another 492 landed in Israeli territory, the IDF said in a message posted today on Twitter, Inc.

Four Batteries

Iron Dome, made by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd, is designed to intercept and destroy rockets capable of flying as far as 70 kilometers (44 miles). Israel has fielded its first four batteries consisting of launchers and interceptors costing as much as $90,000 apiece, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Iron Dome's effectiveness depends on a battle management system that determines a rocket's trajectory within seconds of launch, based on radar and electro-optical sensors. In the same instant, the system determines whether the rocket is headed toward a populated area, making an intercept necessary.

"They didn't design a system that would shoot down everything," Jeff White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a telephone interview. "They designed a system that would shoot down threat rockets and it works pretty good."

The system is effective "because the concept behind it is not to engage all the rockets, because a lot of these are poor quality rockets that aren't going to hit anything," Zaloga said.

Discriminating Defense

"You will see reports where a rocket hit near Tel Aviv and someone will say Iron Dome is not doing its job," Zaloga said. "Iron Dome is not supposed to shoot at all the rockets coming out because you just can't afford to do it. There's too many of them, so they use radar to discriminate."

A challenge Israel faces is that many of the Hamas rockets are low-quality and fail to follow a normal ballistic trajectory, throwing off the Iron Dome radar, he said.

"It's going after rockets that threaten a defended area -- people, industries," Michaela Bendikova, a Heritage Foundation research associate who follows the system, said in a telephone interview. "That happens only about 20 percent of the time."

Israel will activate a fifth Iron Dome system two months before schedule "following recent events," and it will be delivered to active air defense units from a testing area today the Ministry of Defense said by e-mail.

The Israeli military plans to field nine batteries across the country by 2013, the CRS said in a March report.

One shortcoming is that Israel is using the $90,000 interceptors against crude, inaccurate Hamas rockets that may cost a few hundred dollars each. So Israel sought a system that would hold down that cost while providing a defense for civilian areas, said Zaloga.

It "remains to be seen" whether the Iron Dome will have a strategic impact on Hamas and deny them an effective capability, Bendikova said. "I'm not sure if the Iron Dome has the potential to do that because there are other classes of threats with different launch points," she said.

The Iron Dome instead may prompt Hamas to attempt to acquire more powerful rockets, such as the Russian-made BM-21, to overwhelm the system's batteries, analysts said.

Iron Dome "definitely improved morale, especially in southern Israel, but it hasn't totally relieved the issue," White said. "Israel's got like a million people within range of Hamas rockets."

Air Strikes

Israeli leaders say the air strikes against Gaza are intended to remove that threat by destroying the launch sites and storage areas for Hamas rockets. Israel's strikes have eliminated most of the long-range missiles in Gaza, and the remaining threat is mostly from missiles with a range of as much as 31 miles, Oren told reporters on a conference call yesterday.

Iron Dome is one of four legs of an eventual multi-layered system designed to defend against a variety of weapons fired at Israel. The other legs include the current Arrow missile, an upgraded Arrow model in testing and another system called David's Sling.

Since 2010, the Obama administration has requested about $650 million for these defense systems, including $205 million for Iron Dome. The administration said in May it's seeking an additional $70 million for Iron Dome.

'Deep Appreciation'

In a telephone call yesterday with President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "deep appreciation" for the U.S. financial support for Iron Dome, "which has saved countless Israeli lives," according to a statement from the White House.

The missile threats to Israelis range from salvos of low- altitude, short-flight rockets fired from the Gaza Strip to more powerful, medium-range models from Lebanon and long-range missiles from Iran.

"The Iron Dome system has proven itself to be remarkably effective," said U.S. Army Major Ryan Donald, a spokesman for the U.S. European Command, which works with the Israeli military.

Its success may spur international sales to nations such as South Korea that face short-range missile or artillery threats.

Raytheon Co., based in Waltham, Massachusetts, announced a partnership agreement with Rafael in August 2011 to market the Iron Dome system overseas. No sales have been announced to date. When asked yesterday about the status of that pact, Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle said "we have nothing further at this time."

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