In the recent coverage of the ongoing strife in Gaza and the West Bank, you’ve probably heard people discussing Israel’s Iron Dome. This defense system is heavily touted in media coverage, but often goes unexplained. What is the Iron Dome and why does Israel need it?
The rocket is the preferred weapon of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and when you look at them it’s easy to see why. Rockets are long range "set it and forget it” weapons allowing terrorist operators to strike at a distance without putting themselves at risk. They are inexpensive. A simple rocket that contains a small payload and can strike a target a few kilometers away only costs around $100. It is a weapon simple enough to be constructed in small scale basement workshops and garages but given the massive proliferation and availability of them in the region, this often isn’t necessary.
The typical drawbacks of the weapon, that they are typically inaccurate and lack the firepower to attack hardened targets, does not impact Hamas. If you were trying to fire a single rocket to attack a specific target a few kilometers away, you’d be out of luck - it would be like trying to hit a hole-in-one. Especially if you were trying to damage a bunker or tank where even if you did somehow manage to hit it, you still might not do any real damage. That’s why you don’t see modern armies using rockets except under very specific conditions. But what if you don’t care what the rocket hits as long as it hits something? What if you weren’t going after military targets, but homes, apartment buildings, and people? Well then rockets are pretty much perfect.
Terrorist groups in the area have embraced this fact. In a little more than a week, more than 3,440 rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza and the West Bank. Imagine more than 3,000 rockets randomly demolishing homes throughout your city, causing fires and knocking out roads. They are the ideal terrorist weapon when your target lives next door.
Thankfully, the Iron Dome stopped more than 90% of these attacks.
How it works
You’ve heard of fighting fire with fire, right? Well, how about fighting rockets with missiles? At it’s most basic level, the Iron Dome is a system that will recognize when a rocket is fired and hit it out of the sky with a Tamir interceptor missile. But just saying it like that does nothing to recognize what an incredible feat this is.
First, the system needs to recognize that a rocket has been fired. This involves an incredibly complex system of radar surveillance, thermal imaging, and coordination. The equipment here is incredibly fine-tuned. Think of stories where air traffic control loses track of an airplane. They use massive radar systems to identify and track large commercial aircraft flying pre-booked flight plans at high elevations where there is nothing else to get in the way and there are still cases where slip ups happen. The radar system the Iron Dome uses has to identify and track unannounced surprise attacks of rockets that are often less than two meters in length, fly much closer to the ground than a jet (meaning you need to take terrain and buildings into account), and can have unpredictable flight paths. And again, you only have a few moments of flight time to figure this all out!
Then the interceptor needs to be fired and achieve close proximity to the rocket to explode and take it out. This is incredibly difficult! It’s easy to forget what an accomplishment this is when we’re so used to reports of success, but think of what is involved here. The interceptor needs to be fired soon enough to have time to engage the rocket in a safe area, so we’re talking an incredibly short reaction time from detection to launch. Crews need to be manning these stations 24 hours a day to make that happen. Then the interceptor needs to know where the rocket is, stay in communication with all that radar information to know exactly where it is going, and achieve a flight path that will cut off the rocket. And the firing position isn’t always catching a rocket from straight on either, they could be firing at something from a sideways angle, or even having to catch up to a rocket from behind to make the save. imagine if your life depended on knocking one golf ball out of the air with another one and you don’t even know where the other golf ball is going to be originally hit from.
That it works at all is extraordinary. That the success rate of the Iron Dome rests between 90%-95% is miraculous.
Not only does the Iron Dome system do all of this, but it also has a sorting system which measures the likely damage a rocket will achieve. Super computers will look at the rocket’s current heading, maximum estimated range based on the size of the rocket (larger the rocket, the further the range), and likely splash down area. If the rocket is likely to peter out over a field or impact into the side of a mountain, operators will make the call whether or not to deploy a rocket. "Smart” doesn’t do the system justice.
All that said, for as incredible as the Iron Dome system is, there are some pretty big drawbacks. The most directly evident is cost. Each of those Tamir interceptor missiles cost in the neighborhood of $40,000 USD. Keep that price in mind and then remember that Israel had to defend against more than 3,000 rockets in a single week in May. Obviously saving lives is worth any amount of money, but the strain this places on the state is impossible to ignore. In a battle of attrition, one side has the luxury of firing off rockets that cost pocket change while the other has to fire the cost equivalent of a fully loaded luxury car at them. This is why the rocket attacks are being done in such high volume. Not only is it an effective method of terror to keep Israeli cities under constant fear of bombardment, it’s also a massive, and perhaps not sustainable, expense.
This is to say nothing of the massive number of men and women it takes to staff and operate the system and the monetary and human cost associated with them. It’s easy to get lost in the trappings of the technology on display, but it’s important to remember that real people still need to be monitoring those stations, loading Tamir missiles into the launchers, moving and maintaining complex equipment. There are many stories of IDF members pushed to the breaking point to keep up with attacks.
The system also has a maximum saturation point. While it admirably dealt with the last round of massive rocket attacks, there is an upper limit to how many rockets the system can respond to at once. Enough rockets fire at the same time in the same area will outstrip the tracking and reloading speed of the system.
While the Iron Dome is a formidable and effective weapon against terror, it is not a solution. Israel will never be safe until the tensions, feuds, and generational grudges of the area are dealt with. This is why it is more important than ever to stand with Israel as it faces this latest hostility from Gaza and the West Bank.