(March 30, 2021 / JNS) The announcement by the Israeli Defense Ministry earlier this month of successful trials of an upgraded version of the Iron Dome air-defense system represents the latest step in a lengthy arms race.
The current upgrade program has seen live-fire trials every few months, designed to test out how the improvements work in practice. This is the third installment of the current initiative to boost Iron Dome’s performance.
The work is being led by Rafael, Iron Dome’s prime contractor, and the Israel Missile Defense Organization, the agency within the Defense Ministry that is responsible for evolving Israel’s multi-layer air-defense system in response to changing enemy capabilities.
For security reasons, few specifics were given about the upgrades themselves with the Defense Ministry merely confirming that the tests “demonstrated a significant upgrade of the system’s technological capabilities,” and that “Iron Dome was tested in a range of complex scenarios and successfully intercepted and destroyed targets simulating existing and emerging threats, including the simultaneous interception of multiple UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], as well as a salvo of rockets and missiles.”
The trials were held in southern Israel with the participation of the Israel Air Force’s Air Defense Array personnel—the latest indication of the fact that the IAF takes an active part in the development of Iron Dome, rather than just receiving a final product and then giving feedback about it to engineers.
“The new version of the Iron Dome system will be delivered to the IAF and the Navy for operational use and will strengthen Israel’s multi-tier missile defense capabilities,” said the Defense Ministry. The mention of the Navy is a reference to the sea-based version of Iron Dome, known as “C-Dome,” which will be used on-board Israel’s new Sa’ar 6 missile ships to protect offshore gas rigs. These are strategic sites in Israel’s economic waters that adversaries like Hezbollah and Hamas would likely target in a future conflict. In light of the fact that some 70 percent of Israel’s electricity supply now depends on natural gas, defending the rigs is a top national priority, and Iron Dome has a big part to play in this defense.
‘Significant leap forward in technological capabilities’
A general sense of improvements being made to Iron Dome is discernable in recent comments to JNS by Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shachar Shohat, Rafael vice president and marketing and business development manager of the company’s Air and Missile Defense Division.
Shohat noted in February that a decade had passed since Iron Dome’s first revolutionary interception of a Gazan rocket heading towards an Israeli built-up area in 2011. Ten years and more than 2,500 interceptions later, Iron Dome’s interception rate surpasses 90 percent, while the system itself has undergone so many changes that it’s not the same as it was in 2011.
Upgrades include the ability to knock out threats at higher altitudes and lower altitudes and to strike larger numbers of incoming rockets—a key capability in light of intentions by terror armies like Hamas and Hezbollah to “saturate” Israel’s air defenses and try to punch through them after overwhelming them.
The Iron Dome of 2021 can protect not only cities but also vital strategic sites. In addition to rockets and mortars, it is designed to now take on drones and cruise missiles. The latter have low-altitude flight paths unlike the rainbow-shaped trajectories of ballistic rockets.
Rafael is the prime contractor and the developer of the Tamir interceptor, while the system’s advanced radar is developed by Israel Aerospace Industries–ELTA. Iron Dome’s, and the command and control system, is developed by mPrest.
The interface between operators and the system—designed to make it relatively straightforward to use—is also undergoing regular upgrades.
The head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, Moshe Patel, alluded to these changes when he stated, “Thirty years after the First Gulf War, which led to the establishment of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, and 10 years after the Iron Dome’s first operational interception, we have achieved a significant leap forward in the technological capabilities of the Iron Dome system. In the three test campaigns conducted in the last few months, the Iron Dome system demonstrated outstanding capabilities against evolving threats, including successfully intercepting salvos of rockets and missiles as well as intercepting multiple UAVs simultaneously.”
It’s also important to note the significant American financial assistance that goes towards the production of Iron Dome batteries, helping Israel position sufficient numbers of them to deal with multiple fronts at the same time.
In August, the U.S. House of Representatives greenlighted $500 million for missile-defense assistance to Israel, which includes $73 million for Iron Dome batteries.
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