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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.

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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RE: Please check your history
By bug77 on 11/19/2012 6:17:37 PM , Rating: 1
The Israeli only chose to strike first while all Arab nations around them were amassing troops at their borders. Wikipedia is your friend.

RE: Please check your history
By nolisi on 11/19/2012 8:17:03 PM , Rating: 4
Care to eat your own dogfood?

During 1965-7, Israel's armed forces staged numerous provocations along the Israeli-Syrian border area.[34] This escalation led the Syrians and the Soviets to believe Israel was planning to overthrow the Syrian regime using military force.[34] On April 7, 1967, a serious incident broke out between Israel and Syria over a cultivation problem within the demilitarized zone. Israel took military action against Syria, and eventually both sides employed artillery, tanks, and mortars.[35] During this clash Israeli airstrikes were launched a few miles from Damascus. Israel bombed both Syrian border villages, and Syrian military targets, and had refused a cease-fire proposal by the Chairman of Mixed Armistice Commission.

I'm not saying the Arab Nations were innocent- I'm simply pointing out that Israel struck first in the Six Day War. All nations "amass armies" at their borders, should they leave their borders undefended?

RE: Please check your history
By nolisi on 11/19/2012 8:20:54 PM , Rating: 2
For clarity- this was before the start of the Six Day War. Israel was already attacking neighbors prior to it.

RE: Please check your history
By Ringold on 11/19/2012 11:07:49 PM , Rating: 1
All nations "amass armies" at their borders, should they leave their borders undefended?

Yep. Ft. North Dakota, keeping those crazy Canadian's in line with its 100,000 man infantry force! And those Mexicans! Border Patrol is a branch of the Army, amirite?

Nation's do not "amass" armies on their borders in peace. Study history at all? Moving forces to a border is understood as intention to invade. Remember, especially for the last 100 years or so, even so much as activating a higher level of alertness has been done VERY carefully, as other countries view it as prelude to invasion.

Another counter-point. Countries don't amass armies on borders they want to defend. They entrench and fortify, but go light on troops. Defenders build Maginot Lines and pre-position artillery, etc. Invaders move in personnel.

And beyond it all, you only have to listen to what Arab leaders themselves were saying. They, if they were all alive, would call you a naive fool if you thought they were there to peacefully defend their borders. They wanted to push the Jews out of the Middle East.

RE: Please check your history
By nolisi on 11/20/2012 2:57:44 AM , Rating: 2
A- you have a serious problem reading context. I explicitly said "I'm not saying the Arabs were innocent"

B- Jumping to an extreme comparison like the Canada/US border is not an effective argument, and you're just grasping at straws. Again- your issue is context. Would you leave a border undefended if you're at hostilities with your neighbor who has already bombing major cities and villages alike? The quote I brought up clearly depicted Israeli aggression prior to the Six Day War. Of course Syria and Egypt are going to amass armies at borders and use evocative language. They were being attacked.

And beyond it all, you only have to listen to what Arab leaders themselves were saying.

I love this so much. It basically says 'let's pay more attention to what Arab leaders themselves were saying and let's ignore what Israel was *doing*.'

D- Again, learn context. The official start of the Six Day War began with Israel attacking all of its neighbors simultaneously, and was preceded by disparate incidents of Israeli aggression.

RE: Please check your history
By Ringold on 11/20/2012 10:07:37 PM , Rating: 2
How's the Canada/US border an extreme comparison? You just want to troll, or are blind, one or the other. That's what a border between two peaceful nations look like. Very similar to, say, the Franco-German border. Italy and Switzerland. No massive troop movements or formations, no need for such, no need to even have them mobilized.

Even peaceful Asian neighbors have relatively lightly defended borders, definitely nothing at all like the movements Israel responded to. And if they were being attacked, its sure funny Israel didn't significantly expand itself, because at the end it had the Arabs by the nuts. Your argument falls apart.

But I know in loony-lefty world, Israel should've just waited until the Arab's overran them before raising arms. 'Cause that would work so well for a tiny country surrounded and vastly outnumbered with its back to the sea. What a fool.

RE: Please check your history
By nolisi on 11/21/2012 1:11:43 PM , Rating: 2
How's the Canada/US border an extreme comparison?

Again, you missed the context- my comment about amassing troops at a border was under the context of nations who are hostile to one another, not the extreme opposite comparison of Canada/US, two nations not only at peace, but with numerous economic agreements. I didn't think I needed to break down my comment regarding "massing troops at the border" to the degree of specifying hostile nations- I thought the context was clear.

By the way, if "amassing troops" on a border alone is such a crime, where's your criticism of Israel? They were not only doing that, but also bombed Damascus and staged numerous assaults against Syria in the lead up to the war.

Apparently, if you're Israel, and bombing others is "defending yourself" while "using aggressive language" and "massing troops at a border" is offensive.

But I know in loony-lefty world, Israel should've just waited until the Arab's overran them before raising arms.

Why do you keep ignoring Israeli hostility and attacks prior to the Six Day War...?

Calling me a fool isn't going to get me to shut up about historically verifiable fact.

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