How Israel’s missile defense system Iron Dome disables Hamas rockets

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The sound of air raid sirens reverberated through southern Israel again on Sunday, a day after an unprecedented attack took Israeli security forces by surprise.

Palestinian militants — including from Hamas — launched more than 3,000 rockets, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in an update Sunday. About 650 of them struck targets, according to the IDF. Videos taken during the attack show Iron Dome interceptors exploding against rockets piercing the sky.

The country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, later declared war against Hamas, and Israeli defense officials said it will take time to stabilize the area. Israeli officials have asked the Biden administration for assistance, including additional Iron Dome interceptors, people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.

As the fighting in southern Israel continues, here’s what you need to know about the country’s air defense system.

Rockets launched from Gaza in retaliation for Israeli airstrikes that killed over a dozen people are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome on May 10. (Video: Channel 13)

Israel’s Iron Dome is an air defense system developed by the Israeli firms Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, with financial and technical support from the United States.

First put into service in 2011, it is designed to stop short-range rockets and artillery like those fired from Gaza. Two separate systems, known as David’s Sling and Arrow, are designed for medium- and long-range threats, including planes, drones, rockets and missiles.

Iron Dome relies on a system of radar and analysis to determine whether an incoming rocket is a threat, firing an interceptor only if there’s a threat to a populated area or important infrastructure.

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The interceptors, which are fired vertically either from mobile units or a static launch site, are designed to detonate the incoming rocket in the air, producing the explosions in the sky that have come to accompany warning sirens during recent Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

Speaking to Israel Hayom in 2021, defense officials said that the hardware had not changed since the system was first deployed but that software changes have made it more capable over the years.

Moshe Patel, director of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, told the right-wing newspaper that Iron Dome had the “ability to counter cruise missiles, drones and more.”

But some critics have long said Iron Dome fundamentally serves to prolong conflict.

“Over time, Iron Dome may do them more harm than good,” Israeli political scientist Yoav Fromer wrote in The Washington Post in 2014. “… Iron Dome’s ability to protect Israelis from periodic rocket attacks so far will never remove the strife and discontent that has produced the motivation to ruthlessly fire them in the first place.”

How successful is it at stopping attacks?

Israeli officials and defense companies say the system has stopped thousands of rockets and artillery from hitting their targets, with a success rate of more than 90 percent.

However, some defense analysts question those numbers, arguing that the Israeli figures for successful interception are unreliable and that groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad that fire rockets and artillery from Gaza have adapted to the system.

“[N]o missile defense system is perfectly reliable, especially against an evolving threat,” Michael Armstrong, an associate professor at Brock University who has studied the system’s effectiveness, wrote in a 2019 assessment for the National Interest.

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During clashes in May 2021, the Israeli military again said that 90 percent of rockets that reached Israeli airspace were destroyed by Iron Dome. More than 1,000 rockets were fired from Gaza over 38 hours, per the Israeli military. In August 2022, the IDF put the Iron Dome’s interception success rate at 97 percent, the Times of Israel reported.

But the rate of interceptions dropped to 60 percent during a burst of rockets from Gaza in early May, the Jerusalem Post reported. A preliminary IDF investigation found that a technical defect had allowed a “small number” of rockets through, according to the newspaper. The problem was quickly corrected and the system’s effectiveness restored, the probe concluded.

The country again touted the system in a May 10 tweet, sharing footage of rockets being intercepted and writing, “Thank God for the Iron Dome.”

In past conflicts, the country’s Iron Dome helped provide some cover for residents who previously faced rocket strikes without the advanced defense system. Supporters of the system have said it has reduced the need for Israel to send in troops to Gaza during times of conflict, as it had done during 2008 and 2009.

Because it is designed to fire only on threats to human life or infrastructure, the system is relatively low cost, a feature that made it appealing to other governments. The U.S. Army has purchased two Iron Dome batteries.

But some Israelis say the government relies too much on the system and does not put enough resources into other defenses, including shelters.

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“The house is not protected, and it is not realistic to get to the neighborhood shelters, especially when the barrages are so continuous,” Guy Mann, a resident in Ashkelon, told Israel’s Army Radio in 2021 after a nearby building was struck by a rocket. “We can only rely on the Iron Dome and luck.”

What problems do rockets pose for Iron Dome?

Though Iron Dome has been in use for a decade, rockets are still fired into Israel during times of tension with Palestinian groups. Even at the upper estimates of Iron Dome’s success rate, some can get through to populated areas.

Experts who track the arsenals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad estimate that the groups may have tens of thousands of rockets, often made with little more than explosives and metal casing.

About 3,200 rockets have been fired from Gaza since the Saturday attack, according to the IDF. That number indicates that Hamas intended to try to overwhelm Israeli defenses, said Tom Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the former Homeland Security deputy assistant for counterterrorism policy.

Though the rockets are often crude and many lack guidance systems, their sheer numbers and low cost are an advantage against Iron Dome. While a rocket may cost as little as a few hundred dollars, each interceptor costs about $80,000, according to reports in the Israeli press.

Praveena Somasundaram and John Hudson contributed to this report.

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