Saturday, November 17, 2012

How Israel's 'Iron Dome' intercepts incoming rockets in Gaza conflict

Amir Cohen / Reuters
An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern city of Ashdod, Israel on Nov. 16, 2012.
As the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues along the Gaza border, Israelis have been putting to use an anti-rocket defense system called "Iron Dome" meant to intercept Palestinian rockets that are headed for major population centers. Along with its tally of "terror target" strikes, the Israel Defense Forces' Twitter feed has announced the number of incoming rockets grounded by the system.

Iron Dome is actually a nickname for the "Dual-Mission Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar and Very Short Range Air Defense System," a missile battery that works with sensors to detect and intercept short- to medium-range threats like rockets. It was commissioned by Israel in 2007 following a year in which the country endured thousands of missile attacks, mainly concentrated in the country's northern region.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.
Iron Dome infographic from a Rafael Advanced Defense Systems promotional brochure.
Built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the full system is made up of three parts, all of which are relatively portable.

A radar unit watches for threats in a radius up to about 40 miles.
Information on spotted projectiles is passed to a Battle Management and Control truck, where the information is evaluated and the command is given to either intercept or ignore. The projectile data is then passed to the interceptor unit, which launches a missile programmed to cross paths with the incoming rocket or shell, and detonate it in a way that is as harmless as possible.

This week, Iron Dome has been up against the rockets fired by the Qassam Brigades, the military faction of Hamas, the Islamist political party and militant group that has been governing the Gaza Strip separately from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority since 2007.

The rockets are crude, technologically speaking. Little more than an explosive charge attached to the end of a tube of propellant, they have not evolved much from the "buzz bombs" used by the Germans during World War II. While this means the rockets can be manufactured and deployed in great numbers, it also means that they have a relatively slow, ballistic trajectory that is an easy target for a fast-moving, guided missile.

Each missile fired from an Iron Dome unit costs around $40,000, but the cost appears to be offset by effectiveness. The Israel Defense Force has previously stated that as many as 85 percent of the enemy rockets can be intercepted. However, the current bombardment is more intense than previous situations when the Iron Dome was in use, and in one instance, the effectiveness reported by Israel was closer to 75 percent. As of Friday evening, current estimates. based on IDF reports. place rockets fired into Israeli territory at just over 600, with nearly 250 reported to be shot down by Iron Dome missiles.

Jim Hollander / EPA
Iron Dome blasts apart a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas as it approaches Sderot, southern Israel, 15 November 2012.
That may sound like a far cry from 85 percent accuracy, but the Iron Dome batteries simply ignore projectiles that are predicted to land in unpopulated areas like farmland or water. So while hundreds of rockets have been allowed to strike Israeli soil, comparatively few of them are causing serious damage or casualties.

The U.S. partly bankrolled the development of Iron Dome, beginning with a $200 million request by President Obama in 2010, later approved by Congress. As much or more is currently being considered for inclusion with other defense spending, though it may be contingent on a technology-sharing agreement between Israel and the U.S. Israel introduced Iron Dome in March 2011, and it intercepted its first enemy rocket that April.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is

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