In Depth

Iron Dome: how Israel's missile defence system works

Israel's Iron Dome intercepts Hamas rockets, but reports suggest that it may have been hacked by China

Israeli military chiefs say up to 20 rockets were fired at the country's military bases by Iranian forces in southern Syria, with some of the incoming missiles intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defence system.

There were no reports of Israeli casualties in the attack. A defence official told Haaretz newspaper that Israel’s main concern over the Iranian strike isn’t the limited, one-time launch of missiles at Israel, but a situation in which each Israeli strike in Syria is met with an Iranian strike on Israel.

“The situation today is one of who’s deterring the other more,” the official said. “Hitting missiles or other systems is a tactical measure, but the principal significance of these strikes is that we operate both before and after [any Iranian attack]; we won’t allow the rules in the region to be changed.”

Israel's mobile missile defence system has been hailed as a "game-changer" which saves lives rather than taking those of enemies, and as "an extraordinary homemade rocket swatter".

But what is the Iron Dome defence system and how effective is it?

What is it?

Iron Dome is an air defence system used by Israel to intercept and destroy short-range rockets, artillery shells and mortars fired from distances of up to 45 miles, to protect civilian areas in the path of such projectiles. 

How does it work?

It is a three-piece system of interceptor batteries that shoot rockets out of the sky. A radar tracks the rocket as it is fired across the border into Israel, and then advanced software predicts the rocket's trajectory. The information it provides is used to guide Tamir interceptor missiles, which are fired from the ground to blow the rocket into harmless pieces in the sky.

Has it been hacked?

Evidence emerged in 2014 of a security breach at Rafael, the company that builds the Iron Dome's rockets. Rafael at first confirmed that it had been attacked and then issued a denial, but security experts are confident that some data was stolen from the company. "The report seen by the BBC suggests sensitive data was taken from IAI [Israel Aerospace Industries] and that Rafael's network was compromised, with hackers able to deactivate security software and harvest authentication data, including passwords," the BBC reports. It said the attack was carried out using tools "known to originate from" China. It remains unclear what information was stolen and how, if at all, the system has been compromised.

How long has Israel been using it?

Iron Dome, built by the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, was first used in March 2011 and made its first successful intervention the following month, when it intercepted a Grad rocket fired from Gaza. Jerusalem decided to build the system after a war with Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006, when 4,000 rockets rained down on northern Israel, killing 44.

How much does it cost to run?

Each interception rocket costs around $95,000. Due to the cost, Israel usually uses it only against rockets destined for residential areas, rather than those headed for open ground. The cost of rebuilding infrastructure damaged by rockets can often exceed that of using the Iron Dome. The US has part-funded the system, pledging $429m towards the programme.

How effective is it?

After Israel clashed with Hamas during November 2012, Israeli officials claimed the system intercepted up to 85 per cent of the rockets fired from Gaza, although that number has been called into question. Some analysts in Israel have pointed out that as most rockets are invisible to the naked eye when in the sky, what is shown to the public could simply be footage of the Iron Dome missiles self-destructing in mid-air.

Bur other analysts state there is "no doubt" that the system works. And Time magazine’s defence expert Mark Thompson says the "lack of Israeli casualties suggests Iron Dome is the most effective, most tested missile shield the world has ever seen."

How many rockets has it stopped this time around?

Israel says that almost 1,000 rockets have been fired into its territory by Palestinian militants since hostilities began on 8 July, and that 87 per cent of them have been intercepted and destroyed by Iron Dome.

Are there any drawbacks to Iron Dome?

Apart from the risk of injury from falling shrapnel, some have suggested that the shield creates political risks by giving Israeli politicians a sense of invulnerability, allowing them to pursue a policy of "conflict management" rather than looking for lasting peace. "Iron Dome has altered the calculus of Israel’s political echelons in ways they have yet to understand," a former senior Israeli official tells The Economist. "It allows Israel to resist internal public and military pressure for a quick end to the conflict, and keep bombing Gaza." 

Could it be used in other countries?

Rafael has collaboroated with American firm Raytheon to develop a related defence system known as "David's Sling", which is intended to stop rockets and other projectiles with ranges between 45 and 200 miles.

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