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Israel’s Iron Dome built with eye to the future

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the Israeli city of Ashkelon November 19, 2012.

DARREN WHITESIDE/REUTERS

Brief and nasty as it was, the eight-day clash that just ended between Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli military has some experts wondering how, in the longer term, it could reshape future warfare in the region.

A key development was the performance of Israel's Iron Dome defence system, which has been credited with curtailing the impact of short-range rockets from Gaza.

In case of a conflict between Israel and Iran, the Iranians are expected to retaliate through surrogates such as Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, said Ilan Berman, vice-president of the American Foreign Policy Council.

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"Iron Dome becomes very important in the calculus because it means Israel can defend against what these groups can do on behalf of Iran," he said.

Israelis say that during the last conflict, Palestinians launched more than 1,500 rockets, including Iranian-supplied Fajr-5 technology. Iron Dome was only fired at incoming rockets that posed serious threats and it intercepted 421 – more than 80 per cent of the warheads it targeted.

The all-weather system deals with threats fired from ranges of up to 70 kilometres. Five of batteries have been deployed.

The system's growing relevance is striking considering that it was just developed in the past three years while the Israelis are still refining the Arrow and the David's Sling, the country's two other layers of defence against longer-range missiles.

Iron Dome was initiated after Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets at northern Israel from Lebanon during the month-long 2006 war.

Iron Dome works in three steps. A radar system detects and tracks an enemy rocket launch. Control software calculates the rocket's trajectory. If the enemy rocket is headed toward a populated area or a military site, Iron Dome will fire an interceptor missile to blast the incoming warhead in mid-air.

"We cannot intercept each one of the rockets, but we don't need to," Israel Missile Defence Organization Lieutenant-Colonel Merav Davidovits said at a Washington conference last month.

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Each battery can defend a medium-sized city, she said.

The first battery was deployed in March, 2011, near the Gaza Strip. "The success rate of Iron Dome has already been very good during operational testing, but in the conflict that took place in the last week it really proved itself," Mr. Berman said.

Still, there have been problems. Israeli media said a technical malfunction in one battery was blamed for letting through a rocket that landed in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi, killing three residents.

Also, each Tamir interceptor missile costs up to $80,000, while rockets fired from Gaza cost only a few thousand dollars. U.S. financial aid subsidized Iron Dome to the tune of more than $200-million.

In an age of asymmetrical warfare, Iron Dome has further widened the gap between Palestinian and Israeli casualties.

In total, four Israeli civilians and two soldiers died during the offensive, while the UN estimates at least 158 Palestinian have been killed in Israeli attacks, including 103 civilians.

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Editor's note: The number of Israeli and Palestinian casualties was updated to reflect figures reported by the United Nations.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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