The Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) Iron Dome system has intercepted close to 2,000 rockets and mortar shells launched from Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip against Israeli civilians since 2011. So far during the current barrage of missiles from Gaza, Iron Dome has neutralized over 80% of rockets that would have hit population centers.
The Iron Dome’s radar is able to detect incoming rockets up to seventy-kilometers (43 miles) away. The system calculates the missile’s trajectory to determine whether it is likely to hit a population center or fall in empty areas. In a split second, the operating soldiers decide whether or not to fire the Dome’s anti-missile projectile.
The Iron Dome fires three-meter-long (10 feet) Tamir interceptors which can travel up to 2.5 times the speed of sound guided by the ground-based radar towards the target. Nose-embedded sensors take over when the target is in range and deliver a thirty-five-pound warhead into the oncoming rocket just prior to impact.
Elisha, an Iron Dome operator, spoke to Israel Today about how the system is protecting Israeli civilians from the latest onslaught of terrorist rockets from Gaza. “These are incredibly intense moments when we need to decide to shoot down the rocket or not,” Elisha explained. “With so many rockets coming in all at once, we must decide in a flash which ones to take down. If we waste our ammunition on wayward rockets, we will not be ready to take down those heading for population centers,” he said.
The Iron Dome system combines a state-of-the-art detection system together with the quick judgment capabilities of the human brain. The final decision to shoot down a rocket is always left to the soldiers’ discernment. The soldier pushes the firing switch that releases the heat-seeking anti-rocket missile towards the target.
“There are always unexpected situations that cannot be left to a machine to decide,” Elisha points out. “There could be a child playing in a sandy area that is outside the city that our radar would not pick up. We do not want to let the system alone make those decisions,” he said.
The soldiers’ battle instincts are also necessary in order to determine how many rockets to shoot down during a barrage because it takes some minutes to reload and prepare for the next bombardment. Hamas fires as many rockets as possible at once because they have learned that the Iron Dome has difficulty intercepting numbers of rockets fired at the same time in the same direction.
In addition, the soldiers are dealing with hackers simultaneously trying to break into the Iron Dome system. “This is an intense job, around the clock, and we are all aware that we are protecting people’s live. We sweat a lot,” Elisha said.
An Iron Dome battery is capable of intercepting aircraft, drones and even cruise and ballistic missiles in addition to the short-range rockets from Gaza. The system brought down an Iranian Fateh ballistic missile on January 20, 2019.
The Iron Dome project was conceived in response to Palestinian militants who have stockpiled tens of thousands of mortar shells, Qassam rockets, Grad, Katyusha and Fajr rockets to launch at Israel’s population centers.
When Hezbollah, the terrorist organization backed by Iran in Lebanon fired over four thousand rockets killing forty-four Israeli civilians in 2006, the IDF began developing the Iron Dome. The system was deployed in March 2011 and intercepted its first rocket just 12 days later.
Initially the Iron Dome was an IDF project, but from 2011-2018 the US invested $1.5 billion in exchange for access to Iron Dome technology. Each Iron Dome missile costs $150,000. Each Iron Dome battery is made up of three launchers carrying 20 Tamir interceptors each. The battery includes a search and control radar unit and a trailer that serves as a war room from which soldiers coordinate the launcher. The entire battery is easily deployed to battle zones on 12-wheeler military vehicles.
In July 2014 Gaza militants fired around 4,600 rockets and Iron Dome batteries intercepted between 85 percent to 90 percent of those with a trajectory headed for Israel’s populated areas. Since its deployment in 2011, Palestinian rockets and mortar fire have killed six Israelis, one Thai worker and injured about 85 civilians.
Ironically, close to three hundred militant rockets fired at Israel landed back in Gaza killing thirteen Palestinian civilians, many of them children.