Inside Iron Dome's secret manufacturing plant

Iron Dome Photo: Uri Scop

"Globes" visits the complex of bunkers where Rafael produces Israel's short range missile interceptors.

The complex of bunkers in which Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. is producing the Iron Dome missile interceptors looks just like you would imagine: it is well protected and guarded, the safety procedures in it are rigorous, and access to it is strictly limited to people with authorization. Those entering are received at a locked iron gate opened only by arrangement after being properly identified, even if the person involved is the head of the project himself. There are illuminated signs on the high fences enclosing the secret bunkers reading, "Work with explosives is taking place in this compound."

The condition for entering the bunker in which final assembly of the missile takes place is leaving behind any device capable of broadcasting or creating static electricity. Cameras, telephones, and recording devices are out of bounds. A heavy door opens, showing long white corridor leading to workspace whose purpose is unmistakable: Tamir Iron Dome interceptor missiles that Rafael employees have been manufacturing for the past seven years are piled on a cart in the center of the room.

Only a few people working at Rafael and the Ministry of Defense know just how many of these missiles have been produced to date. They are keeping this number secret; they merely give a wink to the curious, as if to say, "Don't worry; we've got enough."

The well-built Tamir is colored in glittering silver and gold, weighing 90 kilograms with a three-meter length. It has earned great praise with 1,800 interceptions of rockets fired against vulnerable human and property targets in populous areas in southern and northern Israel.

"Every missile leaving here gets a pat and a kiss"

We are stopped two meters away from the Tamir by those responsible, who want to make sure that Iron Dome's secret is kept. "Stop right here, man. Keep a safe distance away," says the polite but assertive security officer accompanying every step we take along the assembly line for Israel's most esteemed product. "You're already too close."

"For us, everyone of these missiles is like a person's body," says Rafi, a production system engineer who has been working at Rafael for 20 years. "It has a head - the sensory and homing systems. It has hands - wingtip devices that are used to aim it. It has legs - the engine. Each of these parts is made separately. They bring all of them here, and we put it together, like Lego."

Rafi's full name, like those of Yuval, Michal, and Ben, each of whom holds a very responsible senior position in the Israeli defense industry's flagship program, cannot be revealed. It is a matter of information security. Rafael and the Ministry of Defense are fully aware of Israel's enemies' hunger for any scrap of information involving this project, and the rare glimpse of the bunkers containing the system's assembly line afforded to "Globes" by Rafael is accordingly measured and controlled.

While Rafi anthropomorphizes the missiles that he and his colleagues are assembling, drills tightening the last screws in the body of the Tamir are audible in the background. They expertly tighten its parts, aware of the curiosity and interest created by the product emerging from their bunker to defend people living in the most attacked house in the jungle. They contain this curiosity with understanding and an ocean of patience. They only asked that they not be disturbed too much, because nevertheless, with all due respect to the general excitement and with true gratitude for the praise, someone here still has to work.

As in any other workplace, here, too, someone has hung a sign reminding people to observe an internal rule: "Don't leave missiles in the corridor."

"It's a factory for all intents and purposes," Rafi says. "The fact that we're producing Iron Dome here doesn't mean that we do whatever we feel like. We're always committed to the cost of every missile, the safety of its production process, and staying within the budget framework and timetables for delivery to the customer."

The production bunker is the point of no return for the Tamir. This is the last point at which it is exposed and visible, before four more interceptor missiles are packed into a special case, or as they call it at Rafael, a "cassette."

The next time that this missile is exposed to the human eye will be when an order is given by the command and control center to break open the case in which it is stored and launch it at some target in southern Israel, the hills around Eilat, the Upper Galilee, or the Golan Heights. There is no lack of troubles here. When that happens, it will be exposed to the naked eye for only a few seconds before become a disappearing point in the sky, leaving behind it a white trail outlining its path on the way to the target - it can be any target, a rocket or a mortar. It ends in an explosion in the sky of two objects filled with explosives: good versus bad, defender against attacker, modern versus primitive. When the sky is dark, this encounter is spectacular. When the sky is clear, it creates a small gray cloud and a good enough reason to aim a smartphone upwards for documentation and sharing on the social networks.

In the yard outside the bunker, two cassettes are resting on wooden pallets. "That's it. There are already ready for delivery to another satisfied customer," Yuval announces proudly. "Another satisfied customer" means the only customer, at least as of now, for Iron Dome: the Israel air force defense system, which is responsible for deploying it and operating batteries of the defense system throughout Israel, depending on the situation assessments and operational needs in the field. It is possible that the army of another large country will also enter the list of customers for these missiles.

$50,000 per missile interceptor

Every sharp technician knows that there is no margin for error. A carelessly produce missile is liable to go anywhere when fired in battle. If the missile is an ordinary one designed to destroy a target, negligence means failure that can ruin a rare operational opportunity, or in a worse situation, destroy a place that must not be damaged, such as a place where civilians gather - and then you have another international complication, investigatory committee, and a wave of condemnations. When lifesaving missiles are involved, such as those fired by Iron Dome, such failure is very likely to result in the loss of human life.

Several stops before the assembly bunker, we found parts of mechanisms and components that will be part of the next missiles leaving the bunker. As of now, these missiles-in-the-making are still in the infant stage, with the general shape of random parts collected for the annual metals conference somewhere in Israel. The systems are lying near electronic cards, plugs with the appearance of USB plugs, mini-connectors, and glittering wires, some of which are sticking out here and there. Each of these plays a critical role in the interceptor's hurried path to the threatening target rocket.

Every component and part is separately monitored and tested, put next to electrodes connected by cables to monitoring systems, computers, and screen full of news and figures. It is doubtful whether anyone who has not excelled in the study of algorithmics, mathematics, physics, etc. at Technion, Israel Institute of Technology is capable of understanding what they are for.

While the numbers change rapidly on the control screens, the mechanism that operates the wingtip devices of the missile is attached to a device monitoring its function for an extended time. They explained to us that this is an essential test due to the critical function of the wingtip devices when the Tamir leaves the launcher and travels in the sky: the wingtip devices compare the ability to maneuver left or right and increase or decrease altitude at enormously high speeds, depending on the location of the target and its position relative to the area being defended by the battery.

"We never go backwards in the production process, so every production station has a laboratory that tests the function of every single unit. They test the durability of each part to changes in temperature and in a state of tremor, and all are connected to one missile that operates flawlessly," Rafi declares.

Every launch of a Tamir is aimed exclusively at a rocket whose flight trajectory the systems have calculated will hit a populated area, military base, or important facility requiring protection. No interceptor will be fired at a rocket that the system has concluded will fall outside the defense areas defined for it.

The company's engineers claim that they are able to calculate with great precision the extent of damage to the Israeli economy, human life, and property saved by the 1,800 Tamir interceptions that destroyed Gazan rockets in flight to date.

Rafael is not disclosing the full figures, and repeated attempts to tease the information out of them by a curious correspondent were unsuccessful. "It is many billions," says Rafael EVP air superiority systems division head Brig. Gen. (res.) Pini Yungman. "Believe me, you don't want to imagine what would have happened here without Iron Dome. In Operation Pillar of Defense, a single Fajr missile got through and destroyed a house in Rishon Lezion. Had it not been for Iron Dome, there would have been thousands of such cases. What would we have done then?"

The defense establishment calls Iron Dome's selective interception capabilities "battle economics." This situation can make it a little easier to accept the cost of reach interception. It is believed that the Ministry of Defense pays Rafael $50,000 or a little more for each interceptor missile delivered. Rafael does not state the price, but emphasizes that since the first interceptor was supplied to the Ministry of Defense, the price has not been raised by even one shekel - "and this is despite the enormous difference in capabilities between the first interceptor and those of the more up-to-date interceptor now leaving the assembly line. It's an enormous difference," Yungman says.

At the beginning of the Iron Dome era, the cost of a single interceptor was a big headache for Rafael and the Ministry of Defense. They wondered how it was that for every ridiculous rocket produced on a primitive lathe in the Gaza Strip costing at most a few hundred shekels Israel was launching a missile that cost as much as an expensive car. This criticism faded almost by itself when Iron Dome provide its spectacular capabilities in the field. Even if its critics were not completely silenced, they were marginalized and classified as nuisances.

At least 90% of the cases in which Tamirs were launched at threatening rockets ended in a successful interception, according to Ministry of Defense figures. "This is great," Yungman says. "Defense systems of various types developed around the world guarantee users defense rates in the 60-70% range. The figures here are completely different; it's a whole other world. In Operation Protective Edge, a rocket was launched at Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip. People sitting in cafes heard the siren and entered the protected rooms while Iron Dome was intercepting the threat. The coffee cups left on the tables did not even get cold before activity returned to normal. That's huge."

"This is a sign that we're doing this right," one of the production workers says in response to the figures, while pushing a cart bearing one of the missile's rear parts. The engine is already inside.

"The people we're up against don't rest for a moment"

The production process is taking place simultaneously with continuation of Iron Dome System's development process and deep research into its performance in the recent rounds of conflict in the south, even though seven years have passed since the first interceptor was launched. "The first interceptor launching was crossing the Rubicon, but I admit that I am honestly grateful that the today's Iron Dome doesn't resemble the one from 2011," Yuval says. "It's confusing, because from a distance, the launcher looks the same, and even the missile's form hasn't changed, but they are completely different. The first iPhone that went to market also looks similar to the new iPhone X, but everyone knows that these are completely different devices."

The upgrades installed in Iron Dome in recent years have made it a multi-purpose defense system capable to destroying Grads and Kassams in the air, but also, as has been learned in recent months in the Jewish communities around the Gaza Strip, mortar barrages that were hitherto difficult to intercept because of their short flight path.

The need to frequently install upgraded and revised versions arises from the situation on the ground. The terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip are frustrated by the system's success, after years of basing their offensive force building on high-trajectory weapons supplied by Iran or produced in the local arms industry. It is clear that this frustration is only motivating the terrorist organizations to look for weak points in Iron Dome and challenge it with various and sundry attack plans, such as large dense barrages aimed at finding loopholes that will enable them to hit a home in Tel Aviv with a missile or two.

"The people we're up against don't rest for a moment," Yuval says, and explains why he and his colleagues are not resting on their laurels. "The terrorist organizations are trying every day to overcome Iron Dome. They're evaluating it and looking for weak points, and challenging it. We've got to stay two steps ahead of them. In practice, this means that we have to detect the weak points that they're looking for, eliminate them, and provide Iron Dome with new capabilities that will be put into operation in the future."

The production and development personnel from Leshem Institute are working together. One of Rafael's main challenges is found near Karmiel in the pastoral vista of a natural thicket.

Two cranes lifting heavy loads high above the ground indicate accelerated construction of a new site. "They're probably constructing a building here," people from the company answer one after another with clear unwillingness to answer and evading the obvious question of what is being built here. "We're developing and growing constantly," adds one of the Rafael people.

The most veteran of the Institute's workers remembers the summer of 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, when their work was disturbed by a five rocket barrages against the area. "There were days when we stopped working every hour and went down to the bomb shelters," Yuval remembers. No rockets landed on the site itself. At that time, Iron Dome was only a wild idea in the head of a few scientists in the company; it made it to the drawing board only a year later. He himself was absorbed at the time in the company's other missile plans.

"From the time we started this development, there was no doubt that we'd succeed," he says, explaining that this feeling of confidence was already then based on the enormous knowledge accumulated by the company over decades of research and development, mainly in the air-to-air missile sector, which made Rafael a national focus on knowledge on the subject.

Rafael invested NIS 400 million from its budget at the beginning of Iron Dome's development. Later the US entered the picture, and the Obama administration opened the faucet and gave Israel hundreds of the millions of dollars that turned Iron Dome from a technologically proven idea into a product deployed in the field shooting precise interceptors at an impressive rate.

The minimal return from Israel for all the benefits provided by the US is reflected in the fact that today, 70% of the interceptor missile's components are produced in the US at a series of companies and factories and imported to Israel for final assembly. "At the same time, we're preserving independent and immediate production capabilities here," says Yungman.

"All of our telephones have a "Color Red" app"

A few minutes of travel separate the secret bunker complex from the Iron Dome administrative offices - the defense system's nerve center. "Even if the system makes an interception in the south in the middle of the night, within half an hour at most, this corridor is alive and bustling. A random check is made by telephone of everyone here. Everyone has a 'Color Red' app, and when they aren't sleeping in the communities near the Gaza Strip, no one sleeps here, either. Everyone shows up. They come to test the system's performance in real time and answer questions arising from the batteries in the field and the air defense system. There are always dilemmas that have to be solved," Yuval says. "In all honesty? We're less caught up with the system's successes. It's obvious that we find the numbers and achievements of the system heartwarming, but what really interests us is analyzing every possible figure and installing another update and another improvement in the system."

Michal, the head of the Iron Dome project in the air force, lives five minutes away from the missile plant at Leshem Institute, and the "Color Red" app has already summoned her enough times to work in the middle of the night or during an evening run. "I've even had to come here on the Sabbath. I live close by, so I get here quickly," she says. "Sometimes, in rounds of escalation in the south, we find ourselves here sitting in groups and analyzing recordings from interceptions from an hour before. Questions always arise from the field, and sometimes we travel to the batteries themselves in order to instruct the soldiers in various matters."

During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, long before the defense system had accumulated the necessary mileage, Michal and her team went down south in order to install an urgent up-date in the system in an attempt to improve its performance. "We gave the soldiers a short course in the field and then sat at the battery for another two hours. Shooting from the Gaza Strip was detected and the battery launched interceptors, which worked exactly according to the upgrade we had installed for the scenario for which we had prepared. To this day, when I hear on the news that Iron Dome has made a successful interception, I get very emotional," she says.

The walls of the Iron Dome administration corridor are decorated with photographs of successful interceptions in the south, pictures of launchers deployed in the field, and pictures of the Tamir interceptor - all of them reflecting the unit's pride and spirit of mission among the workers there.

On one of the prominent walls, someone has hung the Israel Defense prize awarded to Rafael in 2012 for developing of the system in record time of only three and a half years. "In the development process, we building several missiles simultaneously, and we eventually selected the Tamir, which was the best for this mission," Yungman reveals.

Rafael says that Iron Dome as we have known it up until now has yet to utilize most of its capabilities. On the other hand, it can also be said that we also deserve a little more peace and quiet and breathing easily. Yungman? He predicts more great years for the system: "Iron Dome is far from saying its last word. It's turning into an entire family of products."

Naval Iron Dome: "Missile boats and the areas that they are responsible for are better protected, thanks to a technological breakthrough"

At age 34, married with three small children, two degrees, and seven years of seniority at Rafael, Ben is leading on the company's behalf one of the biggest projects linked to Iron Dome - development of a naval version to be installed in the Israel navy's missile boats in the framework of the IDF's preparation for the mission of protecting Israel's economic waters.

He was hired at Rafael to work in algorithmics after finishing his BS in aeronautics and space at Technion. "Later, I wanted to see the bigger picture and moved to administration, so I did an MBA at Technion and came to Iron Dome," he says.

He lives in the Western Galilee, and while leading the naval Iron Dome program at Rafael, he also spends time raising his three year-old twins and his four and a half year-old daughter. "Completely hardcore, but four years of aeronautics and space studies are far more tiring, he says. "How do we maneuver between functions? The mutual backup that exists here is very helpful and makes things easier. We share things among the employees. Someone works a half-day, goes home to take care of their kids, and comes back in the evening to Iron Dome. We work in a harmonious atmosphere of great team spirit, and that's what enables us to make progress on the development plans. This dynamic is essential. Iron Dome is a startup within Rafael, a plan that works at a very rapid pace, and the managers flow with our enthusiasm."

At the end of last year, the naval Iron Dome system completed a series of trials, after the Iron Dome launcher was placed on the deck of a navy Saar 5 missile boat and carried out successful interceptions. The system itself will be structurally installed on the new Saar 6 missile boats that the navy will receive from Germany in the coming years.

As an ex-navy man who frequently went on long voyages with missile boats during the course of his service, Ben feels that he is closing a circle: "These boats are now better protected and the areas for which they are responsible are better protected, thanks to a technological breakthrough we have achieved in recent years, while applying the land-based Iron Dome capabilities to naval Iron Dome."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 7, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Iron Dome Photo: Uri Scop
Iron Dome Photo: Uri Scop
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