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Each interceptor missile costs roughly $62,000, is tasked with destroying improvised "Qassam" rockets from Hamas

In recent days, Israel has been pounded by waves of low-tech, crude, but deadly rockets fired at it from the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory.  But as the picture has emerged, it appears that Israel's missile defense system has spared it some of the potential damage.  The so-called "Iron Dome" system was fielded only as recently as 2008. Now it stands as perhaps the largest scale use of a wartime missile mitigation system in the history of modern warfare.

I. Hopes for Peace Fade

Israel thought that its concerns in the Gaza Strip were over in 2005. At the time, it made the bold decision to pull the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) out of the region and force all Israeli citizens to leave the 356 square kilometer part of the Palestinian territories which borders Egypt and Israel.

Despite having conquered the region in 1967 during the Six-Day War, in which Israel was attacked by several Middle Eastern nations, Israel's policy has been increasingly hands off.  Israel allows the Palestinian territory its own independent government.  For many years Egypt helped run this government, but more recently local politicians have controlled it.

The recent conflict began in 2006 when Hamas -- which the U.S. government categorizes as a terrorist organization -- took over the government of the Gaza strip, and in the aftermath silenced opposition party leaders in a bloody purge.  After the consolidation of power, Hamas called on its people to wage "holy war" with its neighbor.  Article 7 of the Islamist organization's covenant states that Palestinians must drive the Jews out of the Middle East, so that the Judgment Day predicted by the Islamic Prophet Mohammed can be realized [source].

For the past several years that directive has been behind escalating violence as Hamas's militia -- al-Qassam -- fired "Qassams" -- crude fertilizer-based improvised explosive missiles (IEMs) with a firearm cartridge, spring, and a nail serving as a detonator.

But the conflict dramatically escalated over the last week.  Following the November 14, 2012 air strike that killed top Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari (in retaliation for late 2011 and early 2012 missile strikes on Israel), Hamas appears to be pushing for full-blown war with Israel.  In the past five days, 877 rockets were fired at Israel according to the IDF (al-Qassam claims slightly more; 1093 rockets on its Twitter).


But according to the IDF, only 570 of those rockets reached targets; 307 were shot down by the Iron Dome system.

II. Iron Dome Steps Up

So what is Iron Dome?  


Iron Dome is a series of batteries deployed near the border of the Palestinian states.  Compared to Qassams, the Iron Dome missiles are on the other extreme of the technology spectrum.

Computer controlled, the warheads are nearly 10 feet long (3 meters), are roughly 6 inches in diameter, and weigh 90 kilograms (198 lb) according to security analyst group IHS Jane's.  The different models have ranges from 4 km (2.5 miles) to 70 km (43 miles) and carry a payload of 11 kg (24 lb) of high-impact explosives.  

Where as the Qassam rockets likely cost under $100 to manufacture, each Iron Dome interceptor missile carries a sticker price of around $62,000 USD.  Batteries to fire them cost approximately $50M USD.

The system is smart enough to assess where enemy missiles will land and determine whether it's worth it to send up an interceptor.  If the enemy missile is expected to kill civilians or damage key infrastructure, the battery locks in the course and attempts an interception.

Iron Dome
Iron Dome interceptors kill a Qassam rocket in this AP footage from Tel Aviv.
[Image Source: YouTube/AP]

The IDF describes the system's radar-based operation, commenting, "The radar detects a rocket launch and passes information regarding its path to the control center, which calculates the predicted point of impact.  If this location justifies an interception, a missile is fired to intercept the rocket. The payload of the interceptor missile explodes near the rocket, in a place that is not expected to cause injuries."

In 2011, three years after the first field tests, the system was boasting a 70 percent interception rate.  But such claims are often just hype -- the real question is how it would perform under a serious conflict scenario.

The answer has come this last week, as the system recorded a "real world", as IDF missiles killed 35 percent of incoming rockets.  In other words, roughly 1 in 3 missiles shot at Israel was successfully intercepted.

III. Finally a Successful Interceptor System?

Regardless of how many missiles targeted, the success rate appears to be well over 30 percent, making it arguably the highest real world success rate to date.  Israeli news agencies have suggested that approximately 80 to 90 percent of the rockets targeted have been hit.

Of course such claims are hard to verify; it's unclear whether the actual interception rate is better or worse than 70 percent figure the IDF previously boasted.  But what is clear is that the success rate is remarkable.

To put the kill rate in context, Raytheon Comp.'s (RTNPatriot interceptor system -- a similar system -- is though to have had an under 10 percent real-world success rate in the Gulf War, according to Congressional testimony by Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Reuven Pedatzur of Tel Aviv University  -- a pair of top military experts.

Further, in operation Iraqi Freedom the Patriot interceptor system suffered some serious glitches, with three friendly fire incidents.  In another incident a F-16CJ Fighting Falcon jet fighter detected that a Patriot battery had erroneously locked onto it.  To defend itself, the U.S. Air Force pilot engaged countermeasures which destroyed the battery; fortunately no injuries were reported.

F-16CJ
Raytheon's Patriot interceptor system has suffered from performance issues; in Operation Iraqi Freedom a F-16CJ had to fire on and destroy one of the Raytheon batteries to prevent its own destruction, after the battery's malfunctioning control algorithms accidentally locked onto it.
[Image Source: Andrews Air Force Base]

To be fair, part of the Israeli success is owed to the U.S. who has subsidized the system.  Congress in 2010 allocated $205M USD to Iron Dome, and President Obama last year pushed through an addition $70M USD in funding.

In a speech he commented, "This is a program that has been critical in terms of providing security and safety for Israeli families.  It is a program that has been tested and has prevented missile strikes inside of Israel."

The system is designed by company called Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., an advanced technologies firm which is also responsible for the Protector USV -- an unmanned 11 meter ship, which the company claims is the world's first surface unmanned naval war vessel.

Iron Dome
RAFAEL's missile defense system is proving relatively effective. [Image Source: Rafael]

An important note is that the interception claims have not been thoroughly independently validated, and may only be sorted out in the aftermath of the conflict.  Observers on the ground have reportedly witnessed some of the interceptions.  And the IDF's claimed interception rate seems more feasible than the U.S. Military and Raytheon's potentially misleading claims from the two Iraq conflicts.

At the end of the day, it appears that Iron Dome may be the world's most sophisticated and proven successful anti-missile system.  Thus in some ways it is the realization of many a failed Cold War dream, such as President Ronald Reagan's (R) infamous Star Wars project.  It should be interesting to watch the results as the Israeli-Gaza conflict continues and Iron Dome continues its trial by fire.

Sources: IDF [Twitter], al-Qassam [Twitter], Janes, AP/YouTube [Interceptor hit footage]



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Interesting math
By lightfoot on 11/19/2012 5:28:28 PM , Rating: 5
quote:
"The radar detects a rocket launch and passes information regarding its path to the control center, which calculates the predicted point of impact. If this location justifies an interception, a missile is fired to intercept the rocket.

So the system chooses not to intercept every missile?

quote:
In 2011, three years after the first field tests, the system was boasting a 70 percent interception rate.
In testing when fired it has a 70% interception rate?

quote:
The answer has come this last week, as the system recorded a "real world" success rate of around 35 percent. Roughly 1 in 3 missiles shot at Israel was successfully intercepted.
35% of all missiles fired are shot down. Assuming the 70% rate listed above, the system would need to be firing interceptors at 50% of all fired missiles to achieve this rate. If anything this seems to suggest that the system is operating at or beyond the levels it was during testing. Other sources seem to indicate that a very large percentage of these missiles are falling harmlessly in unpopulated areas, suggesting that interception isn't even necessary in the vast majority of launches.

Correct me if I am wrong, but this sounds like a huge success.




RE: Interesting math
By JasonMick (blog) on 11/19/2012 5:59:57 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
So the system chooses not to intercept every missile?
Yes, read the IDF spokesperson commentary. Some missiles are off course, given their improvised nature and the often hasty launches to escape air strikes. Shooting a $62,000 missile at a rocket that's headed for a dusty patch of desert is a waste.
quote:
35% of all missiles fired are shot down. Assuming the 70% rate listed above, the system would need to be firing interceptors at 50% of all fired missiles to achieve this rate. If anything this seems to suggest that the system is operating at or beyond the levels it was during testing. Other sources seem to indicate that a very large percentage of these missiles are falling harmlessly in unpopulated areas, suggesting that interception isn't even necessary in the vast majority of launches.

Correct me if I am wrong, but this sounds like a huge success.
No you are absolutely correct that the 70 percent was overly optimistic, but if they're achieving a real world hit rate of 35 percent it IS a big success.

My point (maybe you missed it) was that the 2011 field test rates were in artificial test conditions versus a real war scenario. Thus the 70 percent figure is pretty misleading.

The true test is the current rate. Of course the IDF could be lying about its success rate, but if it's telling the truth, a 35 percent REAL WORLD shootdown rate is very good, considering all the unpredictable variables.


RE: Interesting math
By Morvannec on 11/19/2012 6:28:28 PM , Rating: 5
If 1,000 enemy missiles have been fired, and 350 of them have been intercepted... a 35% success rate would mean that 1,000 interceptor missiles would have been fired. But that isn't right, is it?

So if we say that half of all enemy missiles (500) had an interceptor fired at them, and 350 of those were successfully shot down, then the success rate for those interceptor missiles is 70%.

If the interceptors have a 35% success rate and only 500 were fired, then only 175 enemy missiles would have been shot down.

So just how many interceptors were fired? (as 500 is unlikely to be the right number) Or rather, how many enemy missiles have been aimed at dust (thus not needed to be intercepted)?


RE: Interesting math
By JasonMick (blog) on 11/19/2012 7:42:23 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
If the interceptors have a 35% success rate and only 500 were fired, then only 175 enemy missiles would have been shot down.

So just how many interceptors were fired? (as 500 is unlikely to be the right number) Or rather, how many enemy missiles have been aimed at dust (thus not needed to be intercepted)?
True, the information is incomplete.

But even if you consider the missiles to be somewhere in the 850-1100 range, 350 shot down is more than the roughly 10 percent or less real world success rate the Patriot interceptor is estimated by experts to have had in the Iraqi conflicts.

Is it hard to get unbiased, full information? Sure.

But the whole point is that the system appears (including based on AP footage) to be working pretty well, though of course there's a lot of room for improvement.

Considering how tiny the Qassam rockets tend to be, it's still a very impressive achievement and arguably one of the most formidable battle demonstrations of a live missile defense system, probably the most formidable, considering the glitches in Patriot interceptor battery targeting logic.


RE: Interesting math
By sheh on 11/20/12, Rating: 0
RE: Interesting math
By MGSsancho on 11/20/2012 4:48:09 AM , Rating: 3
1/3 = 33% which is similar to 35% as reported to us from the IDF. Yes I rounded but the title is close enough.


RE: Interesting math
By maugrimtr on 11/20/2012 10:11:48 AM , Rating: 3
Entire article is misleading. It intercepted roughly 35% of all rockets fired in a period. However, the system only chooses to engage rockets it determines are a threat. Ergo, the rate of successful interceptions will be higher than just 35%. It could conceivably approach 70% - we just have insufficient date (how many actual interceptions were attempted) to calculate it.

35% is the absolute minimum success rate assuming the launchers decided that ALL rockets were an immediate threat to the populace.


RE: Interesting math
By JasonMick (blog) on 11/20/2012 12:43:54 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
35% is the absolute minimum success rate assuming the launchers decided that ALL rockets were an immediate threat to the populace.
Exactly, that's the point I was making.

The success rate is 1/3rd or greater, as 1/3rd of the rockets were shot down, and we don't know how many were targeted.

I've reworded the article slightly, once I understood what the confusion was re:

I initially thought the op was griping about me saying 30% was a "good" shootdown rate (which it is... but 70, 80, or 90 percent would be even better!).

We're all on the same page... what you said here is precisely the message I intended to convey along with details of the program. Let me know if you find any of the current text problematic.


RE: Interesting math
By Alexvrb on 11/20/2012 12:46:41 AM , Rating: 3
I still don't think he gets what you're saying. Maybe I can try to explain it...

Iron Dome intentionally ignores some rockets. You can't make claims like 35% until you know the number of rockets the system chose to engage as well as the total number of rockets. 70% might very well be closer to the correct value.

Look at it another way. If they reprogrammed the system to engage every rocket it saw, and not ignore any, what would be the number of rockets intercepted? That doesn't even factor in the possibility of the system being overwhelmed because it is no longer carefully choosing its targets, but even so, the number of interceptions would skyrocket (pun intended).


RE: Interesting math
By JasonMick (blog) on 11/20/2012 9:35:57 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Iron Dome intentionally ignores some rockets. You can't make claims like 35% until you know the number of rockets the system chose to engage as well as the total number of rockets. 70% might very well be closer to the correct value.

Look at it another way. If they reprogrammed the system to engage every rocket it saw, and not ignore any, what would be the number of rockets intercepted? That doesn't even factor in the possibility of the system being overwhelmed because it is no longer carefully choosing its targets, but even so, the number of interceptions would skyrocket (pun intended).
I gotcha, if that's what he meant, that's fair enough. I've amended the text slightly to better convey that.

Basically it's impossible to verify, though how many missiles were targeted.

If it is truly 80 to 90 percent of the targets killed as the Israeli news and some of the ops below are suggesting, that would be incredible.

My original point is even if the rate was ONLY 30 percent, that would be incredible, compared to what Raytheon's systems were able to accomplish.

At this point the only thing open to debate is the magnitude of the success, as the real numbers slowly emerge in weeks to come.


RE: Interesting math
By Alexvrb on 11/21/2012 1:03:52 AM , Rating: 2
Thank you. It never invalidated your point, but to be fair, Patriot was terrible early on for ABM purposes. It was supposed to be anti-aircraft and replace HIMAD and other systems. They tried to make it better for ABM purposes, and went through several upgrades and revisions. I think they had MIM-104C in the Gulf which (although better than older variants) was still pretty poor.

MIM-104D and F are much better. I think if you saw the modern Patriot system in use, you'd find it was vastly improved over older models used in the Gulf.


RE: Interesting math
By H0rnet on 11/20/2012 3:47:39 AM , Rating: 3
They aren't targeting every piece of ordinance launched, they would simply burn out their stock of missiles. Their system can identify impact sites, If they find the area is uninhabited, then it doesn't justify spending the expenditure of a missile.

I've been watching this very closely on the Israeli news network when I get a chance. Also here is another article that explains the system more if someone is genuinely interested.

http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-11/f...


RE: Interesting math
By steelmanx on 11/19/2012 7:41:07 PM , Rating: 2
The actual data shows that 80-90% of interceptions are successful.
Most of the rockets are not intercepted as the system identifies(correctly) that they are going to hit in open areas.


RE: Interesting math
By boobo on 11/19/2012 8:20:35 PM , Rating: 2
I think you misunderstood him.

What he meant is that 35% is -not- the effectiveness rate of iron shield. 35% is the percentage of all the Hamas rockets fired that were shot down. 877 Hamas rockets were fired in total. 307 of those were shot down. That would give a 35%, but not all of those 877 had an interception attempt.

Therefore, if iron shield missiles were launched at only 50% of all the Hamas rockets, then 307 of 438 rockets were successfully intercepted.

That means that the actual interception rate really would be around 70%.


RE: Interesting math
By 91TTZ on 11/19/2012 9:05:38 PM , Rating: 3
If interceptors cost $60,000 a piece, and these Hamas missiles are $100 a piece, it sounds like they are extremely effective at hitting Israel and the US right in the wallet.

1000 $100 missiles fired- cost to Hamas: $100,000
500 $60,000 Iron Dome missiles in self-defense: $30 million

That's quite a lot of money to shoot down what are effectively model rockets.


RE: Interesting math
By Samus on 11/19/12, Rating: -1
RE: Interesting math
By sheh on 11/20/2012 12:27:17 AM , Rating: 2
Except that there's no blockade on medical supplies or food or most of anything else. As for the rest, like weapons, they're smuggled through tunnels from Egypt.


RE: Interesting math
By Dribble on 11/20/12, Rating: -1
RE: Interesting math
By 1prophet on 11/20/2012 9:18:23 AM , Rating: 2
Except each Hamas missile that is destined for a populated target has the ability to cause more than $60,000 worth of damage and that doesn't include death and injuries/medical care.


RE: Interesting math
By bonnyr on 11/19/2012 10:20:42 PM , Rating: 2
Hi Jason,

If the system chooses not to intercept a missile, because it considers that the missile will not cause damage and therefore there's no need to, then these missiles are not part of the strike rate of the system. You may want to argue whether this is an acceptable view, but this is how the system operates.

There ought to be two measures of success here -
1. number of missiles shot down vs number of missiles fired
I think you'll find the success rates claimed are in relation
to this figure, not wrt to the overall number of missiles launched

2. number of misjudged missiles which triggered no response, and caused damage. This number should be very small - but I've not seen it published.

Therefore I'd say you cannot use the overall number of missiles launched as the sole indicator and your figure of 35% is not valid, and the claims made about the success of the system are actually closer to reality.


RE: Interesting math
By inperfectdarkness on 11/19/2012 11:01:35 PM , Rating: 2
i'd agree. pity that it's $62,000 to $100. kinda just makes the case for barrage-firing the lowest-cost missiles israel can afford into gaza--since that's all hamas is doing.


RE: Interesting math
By gilboa on 11/20/2012 2:39:17 AM , Rating: 2
According the incomplete numbers presented here by the IDF, Iron Dome batteries only attempted to intercept ~30% of the incoming Quassam (home-built), Grad and Fajr (Iran-made) rockets. As others pointed out most of Hamas' and Islamic Jihad rockets were/are fired blindly into the desert.
While not citing an official launch count per target, the IDF does cite a ~89% hit rate per attempt.
The very low number of actual civilian hits (compared to previous conflicts with the Hammas and the Hizbulah) seem to concur with this assessment.

If you take into account the average damage per rocket hit (Civilian causalities, medical expenses, damage to housing and equipment, insurance, etc), the interceptor price (be that one at 35,000$ or two at 70,000$) is redundant at best.

To put things in perspective, thus far we has 3 civilian deaths and ~200 wounded (most of them due to shell shock). To the best of my knowledge misguided / failed rockets killed twice as many Palestinians (Call it divine justice :)).

- Gilboa


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