Middle East
International 17/05/2021

The Iron Dome: cutting-edge technology against homemade rockets

Despite the effectiveness of its missile shield, Israel maintains its strategy of massive bombardment of Gaza

4 min
Shots fired into Israel from Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip

The same image has been repeated every night for the past week: against the backdrop of a night sky, fireballs exploding in the air. On one side of the border that isolates the Gaza strip from the world, homemade rockets launched by Hamas and other Palestinian militias; on the other, Israeli missiles that destroy them in mid-air a few seconds later. It is Iron Dome, the sophisticated pioneering Israeli defence system which intercepts short-range projectiles. With the help of experts, we explain how it works and what has changed since it was put in place a decade ago with US support. The Israeli military claims that since the beginning of this crisis, 3,000 rockets have been launched from Gaza, 90% of which have been intercepted by the shield.

How does it work?

Like almost all anti-missile systems, it is made up of three components: a radar that detects the rocket and follows its trajectory, a control system that processes the information and activates the interceptor, and a missile that destroys the rocket in the air. The anti-missile batteries can be fixed or mounted on a truck and moved depending on the attack. The system works in a matter of seconds, because rockets launched from the strip take between 15 and 90 seconds to hit Israeli territory. Each system has three or four missile launchers, each equipped with 20 projectiles. The missiles are only launched once it is established that the rocket would reach an inhabited area and can be manoeuvred from the air. The interceptor missile - Israeli Tamir missiles are usually equipped with sensors and have a length of about three meters - does not hit the enemy rocket, but explodes very close to it to destroy it, which does not prevent pieces from falling and causing damage. According to the manufacturer, the Israeli state-owned Rafael Defense Systems, a single battery can protect a medium-sized city and intercept rockets launched from 70 kilometers away.

The U.S. Patriot system works in the same way, but the specificity of the Israeli system is that it is designed for short-range rockets, not ballistic missiles. It is specifically designed for very unsophisticated weapons and is not suitable for intercepting missiles that could be launched from Iran or Lebanon, against which Israel is developing David's Sling and Arrow systems.

How does Hamas respond?

"Hamas is trying to overcome Iron Dome by overflowing the system: the more rockets they launch, the harder it is to intercept them," Jean-Loup Samaan, a researcher on the Middle East at the National University of Singapore, told ARA. "And they could still try to open two fronts, if they coordinate attacks with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, which last week fired three missiles into Israel from southern Lebanon. "Another tactic is to hide the launchers, as they did in 2014 with the construction of the network of tunnels connecting Gaza to Israel. If there was an attack from Israeli territory, it would be more difficult for radars to detect it." Michel Armstrong, a researcher at Canada's Brock University, has noted a significant increase in the number of rockets fired by Hamas: in the first hours there were 470, while in 2014 there were only 192 a day and in 2012 there were 312 projectiles launched in a single day. The other new development is that the militias have more long-range rockets: 17%, which have reached Tel Aviv. The number of rockets launched in this wave is unprecedented.

What is the arsenal of the Palestinian militias?

Despite the fourteen years of a fierce siege with which Israel controls everything and everyone that enters and leaves the Gaza Strip, Palestinian armed groups have managed to accumulate a home-made arsenal. They reuse pipes from the Israeli settlements abandoned in 2004, when Ariel Sharon's government decided to leave the strip; they also smuggle in parts or make them from the debris dropped by Israel. The rockets are attached to underground tunnels or in hidden workshops and Hamas claims to have improved them technically with the help of Iran. A very rudimentary material, next to the enormous destructive power of the Israeli air force, which has the most advanced material in the world and, in fact, uses Gaza as a testing ground for its military industry. But for many Palestinians, desperate inside and outside Gaza, these rockets are a symbol of resistance to the Israeli occupation and they celebrate every launch, even though many miss and end up falling inside the strip. Israeli intelligence estimates that 30,000 projectiles are stored in Gaza. Israeli commanders have expressed surprise in recent days at the volume and range of rockets from Gaza. According to Michael Herzog of the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, the Israeli attacks are aimed at dismantling "the production facilities, so that when this round of fighting is over there will not only be fewer rockets but less capacity to make them". Only a few Palestinian rockets have made it through the barrier, leaving ten dead in Israeli territory. The militiamen know that only by launching hundreds of rockets at a time is there any chance one will reach its target. Some of the short-range rockets, the Qassams, the name of the military branch of Hamas, travel a distance of only 10 kilometers and have an unpredictable trajectory

What has changed?

"The strategy does not change, it only intensifies, but it is the same as we have seen for fifteen years. For the Palestinians, the use of rockets is more effective than suicide bombings. As for the Israelis, every time there is an intervention in Gaza some people celebrate it and others end up saying it's a very expensive system to stop cheap rockets," says Saaman. "The nature of the conflict doesn't change either: the political objectives are the same and the balance of power is still clearly on Israel's side. The Iron Dome cannot defend Israel against all threats, and moreover, since its creation in 1948, the military has believed that it is not enough to defend itself, but that an offensive strategy is needed. In fact, the most sceptical voices come from the army: the anti-missile system only serves to buy time, but it is not a substitute for bombing or ground invasions," adds the researcher.

What role does the US play?

According to the Israeli press, each missile launched from the Iron Dome costs about €66,000. This cost that could not be sustained without the €146bn that the United States gave Israel last year in economic, military and missile defence assistance. Washington's interest in Iron Dome began in 2012 under the Barack Obama administration. Since then, the United States has funded the development of the shield and has purchased two of these systems in Israel for its own defence.