January 15, 2012: Recently, 20 Israeli Iron Dome missiles were damaged when they fell off a truck. The missiles were improperly secured. Two supervisors were punished for the accident. A lieutenant received 21 days detention and a sergeant got 14 days. No one was injured in the incident, mainly because the missiles are designed to arm their warheads only after the missile has been fired (and rapid acceleration is experienced by a sensor). The rocket motors are difficult to ignite accidentally. Fortunately, the 90 kg (200 pound) missiles were being taken to a maintenance facility, where the three meter (9.8 foot) long missiles will now be checked for additional damage.
Israel has bought seven batteries of Iron Dome. Three are in service and the rest should be ready by the end of the year. Each battery has radar and control equipment, and four missile launchers. Each battery costs about $37 million, which includes over fifty missiles.
During tests, Iron Dome detected and shot down BM-21 (122mm) and Kassam (locally made) rockets. The manufacturer, Rafael, was offered a large bonus if they got the system working ahead of schedule. When Iron Dome was first proposed it was to take five years (until 2012) to get it operational. In addition to the cash incentive, there was also the rockets still coming out of Gaza and being stockpiled by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The rocket attacks from Gaza were seen as more of a political and psychological danger than a real one. But in the last year, terrorist groups in Gaza fired over a dozen longer range rockets and most of them were intercepted by Iron Dome missiles. Iron Dome arrived just in time to do this because Israel has no other defense for these BM-21 type rockets.
Iron Dome uses two radars to quickly calculate the trajectory of the incoming rocket (Palestinian Kassams from Gaza, or Russian and Iranian designs favored by Hezbollah in Lebanon) and do nothing if the rocket trajectory indicates it is going to land in an uninhabited area. But if the computers predict a rocket coming down in an inhabited area, a $40,000 guided missile is fired to intercept the rocket. This makes the system cost-effective. That's because Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets in 2006, and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired over six thousand Kassam rockets in the past eight years, and the Israelis know where each of them landed. Over 90 percent of these rockets landed in uninhabited areas and few of those that did hit inhabited areas caused casualties. Still, a thousand interceptor missiles would cost $40 million. But that would save large quantities of military equipment and avoid many dead and injured troops. Israel already has a radar system in place that gives some warning of approaching rockets. Iron Dome will use that system, in addition to another, more specialized, radar in southern Israel.
The rocket attacks had been around since 2001, but got much worse once Israel pulled out of Gaza in August of 2005. This was a peace gesture that backfired. From 2001 to 2005, about 700 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. Since the 2005 withdrawal, over 3,500 more rockets were fired into Israel. The rate of firings increased after Hamas took control of Gaza in June, 2007.
Hamas has been bringing in more factory made Iranian and Chinese made BM-21 and BM-12 rockets. Israel believes Hamas currently has, in Gaza, factory-made BM-21 rockets, each with a range of 20-40 kilometers. They also have some shorter range (six kilometers), Russian designed B-12 rockets. The 122mm BM-21s weigh 68.2 kg (150 pounds) and are 2.9 meters (nine feet) long. These have 20.5 kg (45 pound) warheads, but not much better accuracy than the 107mm model. However, these larger rockets have a maximum range of 20 kilometers. Again, because they are unguided, they are only effective if fired in salvos, or at large targets (like cities, large military bases, or industrial complexes). There are Egyptian and Chinese variants that have smaller warheads and larger rocket motors, giving them a range of about 40 kilometers. Iron Dome stopped eight of these longer range missiles aimed at Ashkelon and Ashdod a year ago.