Iron Dome is getting more updates after nearly a decade in service as the threat of improving rockets, missiles, small drones, and more grows.
By Joseph Trevithick on January 13, 2020.
Israel says that an upgraded version of its combat-proven Iron Dome defense system successfully knocked down all of the simulated targets it faced in a recent series of tests. Israeli officials say that the updates will ensure that the system, which entered service nearly a decade ago, will be able to engage “evolving threats in the region,” which include terrorists armed with ever-improving rocket and missile capabilities, the growing danger posed by small unmanned aircraft, and more.
The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced that the tests had occurred on Jan. 12, 2020, but did not say when or where specifically they had taken place. The Directorate of Defense Research and Development and the Israel Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) conducted the testing program in cooperation with Iron Dome’s manufacturer, Rafael. The Israel Defense Forces first declared that the defense system, which it had developed with significant assistance from the United States, was operational in March 2011.
“We have completed a series of tests with a success rate of 100 percent,” Rafael’s Vice President Pini Yungman said in a statement. “The system intercepted all threats, which were simulated in an area secured for the purpose of the experiment.”
The test targets “simulated the future threats that the system may confront,” according to Israel’s Defense Ministry.
“When we deliver it to the Israel Defense Forces, the Air Force will be equipped to confront evolving threats in the region,” Moshe Patael, the head of IMDO, said in his own statement. He further added that these first deliveries of the upgraded Iron Dome systems would begin in the near future.
Israeli authorities have not offered any specific details on the improvements to Iron Dome. The complete system, at present, consists of launchers firing fast and agile Tamir interceptors, as well as associated air defense radars.
Tamir has an active radar seeker to home in on its targets and receives additional targeting information in flight via a data link for increased precision. It employs a high explosive blast fragmentation warhead with a proximity fuse to actually destroy the threat. You can read more about how Iron Dome works in detail in this past War Zone piece.
Since its entry into Israeli service in 2011, Iron Dome’s primary job has been countering rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds, also known as C-RAM. In this role, it forms the core of the low-end of Israel’s layered missile defense network.
However, it has already reportedly demonstrated its ability to engage other target sets, including cruise missiles. Improvements to Iron Dome could include further opening up Tamir’s engagement envelopes and other updates to better allow it to engage different types of threats.
Israel’s most immediate adversaries, especially the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, have made significant strides in recent years in expanding and improving their own rocket and missile arsenals, which presents new challenges for the country’s entire multi-tier missile defense architecture. There is also an increasing risk that those groups, among others, may field new systems, such as suicide drones and cruise missiles, that Iron Dome may not be best equipped to respond to in its present form.
Iran, Israel’s chief regional opponent, has been particularly active in proliferating unmanned aircraft, rocket, and missile technology to its proxies throughout the Middle East. In September 2019, Saudi Arabia, and, by extension, the world, saw just how serious these emerging threats could be when it suffered unprecedented suicide drone and cruise missile attacks on oil-related sites. The United States accuses Iran of carrying out those strikes itself and using proxies to provide plausibility deniability of its direct role.
More general improvements to Iron Dome’s ability to reliably detect incoming threats and engage them, especially where there is a large volume of targets, would be important, as well. Israeli officials say that Hezbollah, which is based in neighboring Lebanon, has more than 100,000 rockets of various types, which threaten to simply overwhelm the country’s defenses, including its Iron Dome batteries. The Lebanese terrorist group has notably threatened attacks on Israel in response to recent U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, as well as in the event of any U.S. retaliation to the subsequent Iranian missile attacks aimed at U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Improving the probability of achieving a kill also reduces the total number of interceptors needed to ensure the destruction of a single target, which in turn effectively increases the magazine depth of the system. This would also improve the overall cost-effectiveness of Iron Dome.
“Throughout the last decade, we have conducted dozens of interceptions as part of a framework of tests and more than 2,000 operational interceptions,” IMDO head Patael said. The Israeli Ministry of Defense says that Iron Dome has successfully intercepted approximately 85 percent of all targets it has faced over the course of its operational history.
Concerns about opponents developing and employing countermeasures to Iron Dome, beyond just large scale attacks, can only be growing after nearly a decade of having the system in operation. Israel has been a pioneer in multi-mode seeker systems and could potentially be looking to integrate such a system onto Tamir. Adding an imaging infrared seeker to the interceptor, for example, would give it an alternate method of finding its target in the event of a jamming attack that blinds its radar guidance system and should provide a high probability of kill overall.
There is now an increased risk that Tamir’s engagement capabilities, in their existing form, may be compromised, at least to some degree. In November 2019, reports emerged that seeker and fuse sections from a Tamir interceptor had fallen largely intact in the Gaza Strip following a Hamas rocket attack, giving Israel’s adversaries a particularly worrying opportunity to examine how these systems work up close.
Any such updates that expand Iron Dome’s capabilities or improve its general performance will no doubt be of interest to existing and potential foreign customers, as well. The U.S. Army notably announced last year that it would buy two batteries worth of the defense systems, primarily for use in the counter-cruise missile role.
The Army subsequently said that it did not see Iron Dome as a long-term solution to its needs, but added that it might still acquire more in the future for lack of readily available alternatives. It’s Iron Dome batteries could easily see action overseas against a variety of threats.
They would be particularly well suited to operations in Iraq, for instance, where Iranian-backed militias were firing rockets at bases where U.S. forces are stationed on a regular basis even before the strike that killed Soleimani. The recent Iranian missile attack targeting American troops in that country underscored the pressing need for improved air and missile defenses and more of them to shield American troops from various threats, in general.
For Israel, the updates to Iron Dome show that the country continues to invest in the system and view it as an important part of its air and missile defense capabilities in light of various emerging and evolving threats. With these latest upgrades, and likely additional ones in the future, it wouldn’t be surprising if the system serves in Israel, as well as in other countries, for another decade.
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