Israel’s Operation Breaking Dawn in the Gaza Strip and the response of Islamic Jihad again highlighted the importance of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in protecting Israeli lives and allowing the Israeli economy to carry on almost as usual.
This success will carry a price that the Ministry of Finance is already prepared for. A senior ministry official told "Globes" that the bill for the Tamir interceptor missiles, the business end of the Iron Dome system, would shortly be presented in the form of budget demands by the defense establishment and demands for financing of the ammunition used in the latest round of fighting, reserve duty days, and operational hours for aircraft and tanks.
Iron Dome improves
Iron Dome, the technological miracle that enables Israel to conduct rounds of fighting with minimal damage, was developed jointly by three entities: Rafael, which produced the firing system and the smart missiles; Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), whose Elta unit produced the radar; and mPrest, which produced the command and control system.
Iron Dome was introduced into service, after rapid development, in 2011, and its performance has steadily improved over the years, from a 75% success rate in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 to 96% in the current round. This improvement, the IDF says, is thanks to improvements to the algorithms that operate the smart systems, to the radar, and to the interceptor missiles themselves, in addition to lessons learned from previous operations leading to greater efficiency.
Nevertheless, the success in Operation Breaking Dawn has to be put in perspective. Islamic Jihad has a small number of smart missiles, and most of its arsenal consists of locally made rockets. Its rate of fire is lower than that of Hamas, enabling Iron Dome to take out the vast majority of rockets fired.
Business as usual
Iron Dome is costly, both in development and in use. The Tamir missiles cost $50,000 each, and by Sunday morning the bill for firing 300 of them was NIS 15 million.
In September 2021, the US House of Representatives approved, by a large majority, an allocation to Israel of $1 billion for the procurement of Tamir missiles and the purchase of additional Iron Dome batteries following the running down of stockpiles in Operation Guardian of the Walls.
Naturally, the duration of fighting and the rate of fire from the Gaza Strip determines the cost of using Iron Dome. This cost, however, is dwarfed by the benefit from using the system. In the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Hezbollah managed to paralyze the whole of northern Israel, to hit vital infrastructure, to bring tourism to a halt, and to cause huge losses to the economy. The civilian cost of that war is estimated at NIS 10 billion at 2006 prices.
Eight years later, in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, after Iron Dome had become operational, the civilian cost amounted to just NIS 1.7 billion, according to the chief economist at the Ministry of Finance.
Attractive thanks to war in Ukraine
The latest operation represents a shop window, and will help in overseas sales of Iron Dome, to those countries to which it can be sold. It’s actually the Americans, partners in developing and producing the system, who are hardly buying. The US Army has two Iron Dome batteries that were purchased in 2018 for almost $400 million, but they have still not been commissioned for operational service. A year ago, Rafael and IAI suffered a disappointment when the US Army preferred to buy another system costing billions of dollars, developed by US company Dynetics. This choice came as a surprise, as Iron Dome is an operationally ready, proven system, while the US system is still under development and is thought to be more expensive.
Parts of the Iron Dome system, mainly the radar and the command and control module, have been sold to other countries, among others to Canada, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the UK, for billions of shekels. Sales of Elta’s radar amount to over NIS 4.5 billion. There have been media reports of a sale of the full system to Singapore, but these are unconfirmed.
In the past two years, with the signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, interest in Iron Dome has increased considerably. Sales to the UAE, Bahrain, and to Saudi Arabia have not yet happened, because of the fear of the leak of technological information, despite the urgent need of these countries for such a system in the face of the threat from Iran and its Houthi proxy in Yemen. Morocco has also made inquiries about the system that are still being examined.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also raised interest in the system.
Ukraine itself has several times made requests to purchase the system, but Israel has refrained from selling it out of the fear of Russia’s reaction. Other European countries that are now raising their defense spending have expressed interest, especially Germany. According to an Israeli source, German chancellor Olaf Scholz enquired about the system during his visit to Israel six months ago, and the request is in the process of being approved by the Ministry of Defense in consultation with Israel’s political leadership and with the US.
Laser system: Premature optimism
Iron Dome is just part of a five-layered system being developed by Israel against steep-trajectory weapons. Iron Dome is the fourth layer; the fifth is an interception system using laser beams known as Iron Beam or Light Shield currently under development.
Initial estimates spoke of operation readiness of Light Shield in 2023, but that now seems over-optimistic. According to Yaakov Nagel, who was acting head of Israel’s National Security Council and was involved in the development of the laser technology, the system will not be ready before 2025, and even then it will be a complement to Iron Dome only. Nagel says the new system will be based upon Iron Dome’s radar and command and control systems, and will be integrated with it. The system will decide whether to launch an interceptor missile at the rocket threat or to use a laser beam, in accordance with the range and speed of the rocket and weather conditions. This means that the hopes pinned on Light Shield are exaggerated.
Rafael too ejects the optimistic forecasts for Light Shield. "The assessment is that it will take three to five years for the system to be operational. That estimate was given at the start, and it remains valid," Rafael told "Globes".
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 8, 2022.
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