Welcome To The Anti-Terror Dome
By Irris MaklerNovember 23, 2012
Iron Dome — Israel’s revolutionary rocket-stopping defence shield — may have done more to avoid a Gaza ground war than any diplomatic fancy footwork from Morsi, Clinton et al.
On the second morning of the Gaza conflict, Thursday 15 November, 2012, Israel’s Iron Dome, a mobile, all-weather, air defence system, was not operational for 30 minutes, due to a malfunction. A rocket fired from the Gaza strip during that time killed three Israelis in the southern town of Kiriat Malachi.
Twenty-four-year-old Itzik Amsalem heard the siren sounding at 8.45am that Thursday. He lived with his mother on the top floor of an old four-storey apartment block, which didn’t have a bomb shelter. In those circumstances, people are instructed to move to the best protection they can find, such as a basement or a stairwell. But Amsalem refused. He wanted to stay on the balcony so he could photograph Iron Dome intercepting the incoming rockets. He didn’t know it wasn’t operational. The irony is horrible.
Amsalem’s mother remonstrated with him, begging him to come inside. One of their neighbours, Aharon Smadja, a well-known local figure who’d run the corner shop for years, heard the mother and son arguing and came to add his two cents worth and to tell the younger man to get inside. While they were arguing, the rocket landed a direct hit on the building. Amsalem and Smajda were both killed instantly.
Another neighbour, Mira Scharf, had recently returned from India with her family. They were staying in Kiriat Malachi while their visas for India were being renewed. She didn’t have time to make it to the stairwell with her children. She too was killed. Her husband and three children, the youngest 10 months old, were injured.
The sirens sounded again during Aharon Smajda’s funeral the next day, sending people running for cover. This time Iron Dome was working. No rocket hit; the mourners regrouped and returned to complete the burial service.
It was a glimpse of how much bloodier this recent conflict might have become without the protection of Iron Dome. It can identify a rocket once your enemy fires it, almost instantly calculate its trajectory and therefore calculate where it will land; and then, if necessary, it can fire one of its own missiles to meet the incoming rocket, and explode nearby. In this high-tech murder-suicide, both the missile and the rocket are demolished in the sky and virtually nothing is left. No other missile defence system anywhere in the world can do all that.
During the eight days of this Gaza conflict, 1,500 rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza strip. Iron Dome intercepted more than 400 of them, which is in fact an 85 per cent success rate, since it was only fired when the incoming rockets were heading for populated areas. If the computer calculated that the rockets were going to fall on open ground, they were left to do that.
Iron Dome kept casualties on the Israeli side low, and this had a strategic benefit as well.
“It’s big plus is that it allows the government the room to manoeuvre when considering a ground war,” says Yossi Druker, head of the Air Defence Directorate at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd, the high-tech-weapons-development company which produced Iron Dome, with joint US- and Israeli- government funding. “If, say, 100 rockets fell on the city of Ashdod — that may not be the right number, but whatever the unacceptable figure would be — then Israel would have been compelled to send ground troops into Gaza. This way the government can consider a number of alternatives. Its hand isn’t being forced.”
Earlier in the year, well before this conflict, the Israeli government had ordered another Iron Dome battery (typically a computer, a radar unit, and a few missile launchers), its fifth, for delivery in January 2013.
Last Thursday for the first time ever, Gaza militants fired a rocket as far north as Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial centre. After that, the Israeli government asked Rafael to speed things up. Could the defence supplier deliver by Sunday, so a battery could be placed in Tel Aviv? Rafael agreed, and after working round the clock, it supplied the new battery on Saturday morning.
On Saturday afternoon another rocket was fired at Tel Aviv. Iron Dome, in place early, intercepted it.
“Our stomachs were in knots when we handed over the battery after such an accelerated process,” said Yossi Druker. “I told them, it’s not a casino, it has been tested, but the final tests were done on the job, and it was a weight off my shoulders when it worked. Let’s just say if you were standing next to me, you could have heard my sigh of relief.”
Israeli military analyst Alex Fishman describes this as little short of a technological miracle. “It just continued the testing in real-time, and was successful. This does not often happen in armies anywhere in the world.”
Israelis took Iron Dome to their hearts. Many people began travelling to the batteries deployed across the country so they could watch them in action. It was the best show in town, their own computer game in the sky. They took photos of the firing unit, and themselves with it. They posted videos of it demolishing the incoming rockets on YouTube.
People brought food and gifts to the soldiers manning the batteries. In the coastal town of Ashdod, which came under heavy fire, one man set up a barbecue near the Iron Dome unit to cook lunch for the soldiers, and genially told the TV news he was “building a fire under fire”. There were even reports of Iron Dome dates, where couples brought pizza and a bottle of wine, and sat waiting for the missiles to be fired.
This new form of entertainment was actually dangerous and contrary to all the government’s instructions for what to do when a siren sounds, such as getting under cover as soon as possible, but that made no difference. They kept bringing food and spreading the love until it got out of hand.
“There were too many people, and too much food,” says Israel Defense Forces spokesman Major Arye Shalicar. “The police had to cordon off the area around the batteries to keep them away.”
Iron Dome is a game-changer for modern warfare, where conflict has moved into the sky. In Gaza, “no troops came face to face at all”, wrote Amir Mizroch, chief editor of right wing newspaper Israel Hayom English. “The war took place entirely in the sky. Hamas fired rockets at us, and we fired rockets at their rockets. Most soldiers on the ground, both theirs and ours, could do nothing but look up at the sky in incredulous wonder.”
While Iron Dome alters the balance of power, its cost is a drawback.
A Qassam rocket, the Palestinian militant’s staple homemade offering, can be constructed in a backyard in Gaza, for about USD800. A long-range rocket costs more, especially if it has to be produced in Iran, shipped to Sudan, and smuggled across the Sinai into Gaza, or even if it is produced in Gaza to Iranian specifications. But both are still cheaper than the Iron Dome’s interceptor missiles, which cost tens of thousands of dollars each. In addition, the Iron Dome battery, radar and computer centre cost millions.
Still, for Israelis, it’s worth it. Iron Dome made the people feel safe and gave the government room to manoeuvre. It was the hero of this conflict.
Irris Makler is the author of Hope Street Jerusalem. She blogs at hopestreet.com.au