As the conflict between Hamas and Israel escalates, social media has filled with sci-fi videos of glowing interceptor missiles soaring into the night sky to wipe out incoming rockets in a flurry of flames. Comments like “Star wars” and “alien invasion vibrationsAbound to describe the Iron Dome defense system.
What is actually happening is a struggle between very high-tech and very low-tech forces, pitting advanced Israeli systems against simple homemade rockets. But Israel’s high tech might not be enough.
The Iron Dome, manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, made its first interception ten years ago. The company claims to have intercepted more than 2,500 threats with a success rate of over 90%. Iron Dome comprises a series of detection and tracking radars, manned combat management and weapons control centers, and unmanned missile firing units. The units are scattered, allowing Iron Dome to cover the maximum area.
The radar detects and tracks several incoming projectiles; the combat management system then determines whether each projectile is a threat and assigns one or more interceptors. Each launcher carries 20 Tamir missiles weighing around 200 pounds each and having a range of over 40 kilometers. They are estimated to cost between $ 20,000 and $ 100,000 each.
Iron Dome is very effective, and the vast majority of recent rockets fired by Hamas have been intercepted. However, some have succeeded, with reports of five Israelis killed and dozens more injured.
The rockets on the other side are less sophisticated. One of the original names proposed for Iron Dome was Anti-Qassam, Qassam being the term for rockets made by Hamas. These have grown larger over the years, but their design is unchanged. Rockets are produced locally, the main component being the body, which is a length of steel or aluminum tubing with fins welded to it. This one is filled with rocket fuel made by mixing fertilizer with melted sugar. The rocket is equipped with a homemade explosive warhead, and the detonator has been added.
A Qassam rocket has no guidance system and is fired from a simple metal frame, also homemade. The original version was about six feet long and weighed eighty pounds with an eighteen pound warhead, but only had a range of two miles. The larger one now weighs over a hundred pounds – still small enough to be set up and launched by two men – and has a range of over twenty miles. However, even these are much smaller than the Tamir missiles that intercept them and only cost a few hundred dollars.
Qassams are generally fired in bursts. They are extremely imprecise and can only be shot in the general direction of the target; touching anything is a matter of luck rather than judgment. Raw warheads do little damage compared to more modern weapons. Their effect is primarily on morale, forcing targets to interrupt their lives and hide in shelters when the alert sounds.
Hamas also has limited stocks of 122mm Grad rockets, the type fired elsewhere from multiple launchers mounted on Russian trucks, and other imported military equipment. These are also fired individually from the ground rather than from vehicles.
Iron Dome has been largely successful in preventing Hamas rockets from causing serious casualties to date. But it has its weaknesses: the system has a high but unknown “saturation point”, the maximum number of rockets it can handle at the same time. If this number is exceeded, the excess rockets will pass. The recent attacks look like a attempt to overwhelm the system with more rockets than ever before. The IDF says some 850 rockets have been fired since the latest escalation began.
In addition, the supply of Tamir missiles is limited and they are expensive, while Hamas is said to have stockpiled thousands of Qassams and other weapons. Sometimes Iron Dome launches two missiles against a rocket to ensure interception. If the defenders run out of interceptors, losses could escalate quickly. This can motivate military action to counter rocket launchers.
The effectiveness of Iron Dome could even be a strategic weakness, according to a 2016 RAND study. Because Hamas’ rocket offensives cause so little damage in comparison, any Israeli military response is seen as disproportionate and brutal. The death toll in Gaza, due to the latest Israeli airstrikes, is already estimated at 35, with more than 200 injured, several times higher than the number of victims in Israel.
Defensive measures alone will not be enough to stop the attacks, and resorting to Iron Dome means that if it fails – and the government is seen to have failed to defend its people – there will be dire consequences. On the other hand, a ground offensive to tackle the source of the rockets could also result in massive death tolls and global political ramifications. The problem with such a good defense is that you can trust it too much.