Israel has again delayed the deployment of its new Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Now the first battery will be stored at an air force base until needed (by an imminent threat of numerous attacks across the Lebanese or Gaza borders). The system passed its final tests last July, and the first battery was supposed to enter service by the end of this year. But the air force says it wants to provide the crews with more training first, and for that reason, the first battery won't be available for service until early next year.
The first battery equipment was delivered several months ago. Israel has bought seven batteries, to be delivered over the next two years. Each battery has radar and control equipment, and three missile launchers (each with twenty missiles). Each battery costs about $37 million, which includes missiles.
Israeli politicians have been demanding that the air force deploy Iron Dome batteries immediately along the Gaza border. The air force preferred to save money and put the batteries in storage, to be deployed only for regular tests (and for training) and for an actual emergency. A compromise was negotiated, that had one battery deployed along the Gaza border, with the others kept in storage. Apparently the air force made a convincing case for delaying deployment. This was helped by the fact that rocket attacks from Gaza are few, and causing hardly any casualties. But if someone gets killed by one of those rockets, expect a political uproar, and the air force to suddenly discover that the troops were adequately trained and that an Iron Dome battery was on its way to the Gaza border.
During tests, the system detected and shot down BM-21 and Kassam rockets. The manufacturer, Rafael, was offered a large bonus if they got the system working ahead of schedule. When Iron Dome was first proposed four years ago, it was to take five years (until 2012) to get it operational. In addition to the cash incentive, there's also the rockets still coming out of Gaza, and being stockpiled by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But the current low rate of rocket attacks are more of a political and psychological danger, than a real one.
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. Still, a thousand interceptor missiles would cost $40 million. But that would save over a hundred lives, and hundreds of injuries. A cheap price to pay, especially if you are one of the victims, or potential victims. 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 3,200 more rockets were fired into Israel. The rate of firings increased after Hamas took control of Gaza in June, 2007.
The most numerous threat is the 122mm BM-21 rocket. These 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 (versus six kilometers for the 107mm model). Again, because they are unguided, they are only effective if fired in salvos, or at large targets (like cities, or 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 was designed to deal with even larger rockets, that have the range to reach larger Israeli towns and cities.
The rocket attacks from Gaza have been remarkably ineffective, killing only 40 people (half from rockets, the rest by mortars) in eight years. Hamas has had to fire about 270 rockets or mortar shells for each Israel soldier or civilian they have killed. Israeli counterfire killed or wounded a Palestinian for every three Palestinian rockets or mortar shells fired. One Israeli was killed or wounded for every 40 rockets or mortar shells fired. Israeli fire was much more accurate, with most of the Palestinian casualties being terrorists or others involved in building or firing the rockets and mortars. Hamas has tried to get civilians killed, by storing rockets in residential areas, and firing them from those neighborhoods as well. Although Hamas believes in the concept of "involuntary martyrdom" (getting civilians killed for the cause, even if the victims are not willing), many of its chosen candidates are not eager to die. So civilians stay away from areas where the rockets are launched, and try to conceal the fact that rockets are hidden under their homes.
Meanwhile, up north in Lebanon, Hezbollah have stockpiled over 40,000 factory-made rockets, mainly BM-21s brought in from Iran via Syria. This is three times as many rockets as they had in the Summer of 2006, when over 4,000 rockets were fired into northern Israel, killing about fifty people, most of them civilians. Over a thousand Lebanese died from Israeli counterattacks. Hezbollah and Hamas plan to launch a joint rocket attack on Israel eventually. The Israelis have been planning more effective countermeasures, which they have not been discussing openly. There is also the option of installing Iron Dome in the north, but that is not likely to happen unless it seems likely rocket attacks are going to resume.