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Beyond the Iron Dome: Placing Missile Defence in its Regional Context

Commentary, 23 November 2012
Aerospace, Defence Policy, Technology, Middle East and North Africa
The latest crisis between Israel and Palestine highlighted the utility of the Israel Defence Force’s Iron Dome system. It emphasises once again the importance of missile defence and has gained the attention of the United States. Still deemed as a key US priority, it sees cooperation with Israel as integral to developing future capabilities.

The latest crisis between Israel and Palestine highlighted the utility of the Israel Defence Force's Iron Dome system. It emphasises once again the importance of missile defence and has gained the attention of the United States. Still deemed as a key US priority, it sees cooperation with Israel as integral to developing future capabilities.

Iron Dome

Picture by IDF Online

A central feature of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defence during the latest Gaza crisis has been, the Iron Dome Short Range Artillery Rocket Defence System, designed to intercept short-range rockets, missiles, and mortars launched against Israel. The system has been deployed in five civilian population centres including Tel Aviv and has reportedly intercepted more than 400 rockets with an overall success rate of 90%. Over 1,000 missiles have been launched from Gaza into Israel and the system selectively targets incoming ballistic missiles targeted towards urban areas. It is designed to counter short-range missiles with a range of 45 miles; such as rudimentary Katyusha and Qassam rockets, Soviet-designed (but developed-in-Gaza) Grads, and most recently intercepted an Iranian-made Fajr-5 missile. This proven capability provides the civilian leadership with more time and space to decide on the most appropriate next course of action: be that political, diplomatic or military in nature.

In contrast to the often ponderous nature of Western procurement procedures, the Israel Defence Ministry gave Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd the contract for Iron Dome in 2007 (following the second Lebanon War in 2006), allocating 811 million Shekels to develop the first two live Iron Dome systems to intercept Qassam rockets. By March 2009 the system was ready for testing and was declared operational and deployed in towns near the Gaza strip by March 2011. The Iron Dome has enjoyed some success, but the overall operational effectiveness of the system will not be known for some time.

Its effectiveness is partly down to the modifications the system has undertaken; with constant improvements being implemented since its first combat intercept was undertaken in April 2011. It is hoped that this thorough preparation will aid its evolution and adaptability, especially if Hamas acquires an arsenal that is more powerful and accurate.

Iron Dome as Part of a Wider Missile Defence Architecture

Despite the effectiveness of the Iron Dome system, a sense of perspective is required with regards to the wider missile defence debate. It does not vindicate President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative as some commentators have suggested. It is not a panacea for missile threats and it should be emphasised that Iron Dome is part of multi-tier Israeli missile defence architecture, aimed to specifically counter short-range rockets currently possessed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel utilises the 'Arrow' weapon system for long-range threats and the 'David's Sling' system, intended to stop short/medium-range missiles, which will be operational by 2014. Both are deemed necessary to counter the Shehab-3 ballistic missiles and the more advanced, longer range Sejjil-2 now under development in Iran. The US company Raytheon signed an agreement with Rafael in 2011, with the belief that Iron Dome would complement intercept capabilities to the US Army's Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar initiative at forward operating bases. Raytheon and Rafael are also cooperating on the David's Sling System. Similarly, the Arrow Systems are co-owned by Boeing and Israel Aerospace Industries.

Iron Dome and US Investment

The US Congress has been highly supportive of the burgeoning relationships between US and Israeli defence industries on missile defence. Congress' objective is to ensure that Israel has a qualitative military edge against both state or non-state actors as well as trying to embrace and exploit Israeli technological advances in the missile defence field. These efforts complement the Austere Challenge series of bilateral air defence exercises, the most recent of which was undertaken in October this year. In 2010, President Barack Obama requested $205 million to help Israel purchase two more Iron Dome batteries. Subsequently, the Iron Dome Support Act, enacted in March 2012, authorises the US President to provide assistance to the government of Israel for the procurement, maintenance, and sustainment of the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system. The US Congress has approved $675 million over three years for the systems.

In May 2012, the US House of Representatives passed the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, with $680 million apportioned for the for Iron Dome system through to 2015. The report accompanying the bill called for the United States Missile Defense Agency (US MDA) to initiate long-term co-operation with Israel on the programme, prior to disbursing the authorised $680 million for Iron Dome. The report argued that the US should have appropriate technological rights as well as the opportunity to enter co-production, considering significant US investment in the system. This would be implemented in a similar way to prior US-Israeli missile defence co-operation on the Arrow and David's Sling systems and presents yet another significant task in the in-tray of the new Director of the US MDA, Vice Admiral James Syring.

The Benefits of Partnership

A tangible partnership, as envisaged between Raytheon and Rafael, will offer the opportunity for US industry to see at first-hand how Israeli ingenuity can be channelled the context of sclerotic procurement processes and shrinking budgets, as well as developing future capabilities. Iron Dome's current success could also likely resurrect a push for the US Department of Defense to co-produce the system. Buying in, or having joint ownership is beneficial for both the US and Israel. For Israel, it would lock in a tangible US commitment towards its defence as well as guaranteeing a long-term US commitment to the development and evolution of the system. Having signed the agreement with Raytheon to market Rafael's Iron Dome system globally, Washington D.C., with its hefty political muscle, is ideally placed to market the system. Potential deployment would be to enhance defensive capabilities across US bases in the Middle East, the Korean peninsula and the NATO presence in Afghanistan.   

For Rafael, co-operation paves the way to gain US investment, helping to lower production costs as well as provide access to an enlarged customer-base. The Iron Dome system can be perceived as a classic example of an indigenously developed high-tech niche capability that in the long-term can be a global commercial asset for Israel. However, the partnership created by US investment in Israeli missile defence systems could be vulnerable to divergent national interests. In the context of a sluggish defence market, with both countries looking to court emerging economies or if Israel sought to re-establish defence links with China, halted in 2005, US and Israeli objectives may not be completely complementary (especially in relation to technology transfers). The US blocked the Israeli sale of four $250 million Phalcon advanced early warning aircraft to the People's Liberation Army in 2000, citing US components used in the system. When Israel agreed to upgrade the Harpy UAVs it had sold to China in the 1990s, the US retaliated by downgrading Israeli participation in the F-35 programme.

The current conflict has not only put the capabilities of the Iron Dome system in the spotlight but also set in motion future challenges, such as adapting to the more sophisticated missiles that Hamas is seeking to acquire, as well as accruing strategic opportunities from cooperationing with the US.

 The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

 

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