Air Defense: Iron Dome Finds A New Home

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January 1, 2017: After years of trying Israel has finally obtained an export order for its Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Export customers were hard to find since few other countries had problems with stray mortar and rocket fire. Actually there are several countries that fit that description but they are all Moslem and thus under tremendous political and financial pressure from other Moslem nations to maintain the trade boycott of Israel. Not all Moslem majority nations observe the boycott but Azerbaijan is one of few with oil wealth that does. Moreover, Azerbaijan is populated largely by Azeri Turks who have long been on bad terms with neighboring Iran. The major military threat to Azerbaijan, however, is Christian Armenia, a very hostile neighbor because of an old territorial dispute. Despite efforts by Russia to quiet things down and get a negotiated settlement, border violence continues. This is the sort of thing Iron Dome deals with. Details (quantity purchased, delivery schedule) of the sale have not yet been made public.

In 2016 Iron Dome was successfully modified and tested to shoot down various types of UAVs. This required some software modifications and was done at the request of the U.S. Army. Iron Dome was already capable of shooting down aircraft and helicopters. The UAVs were often much smaller, but so are the rockets and mortar shells Iron Dome can knock down. The United States has contributed over a billion dollars to development and procurement of Iron Dome. Adding new features like this were also expected to help produce export sales. This new feature was of interest to Azerbaijan.

Iron Dome has been in service since 2009 and has proven itself in combat. Iron Dome uses two radars to quickly calculate the trajectory of the incoming rocket 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 one (or often two to be sure) $50,000 Tamir guided missiles are fired to intercept the rocket. This, and the fact that the Iron Dome fire control system can track hundreds of incoming missiles at once makes the system cost-effective. By 2016 Iron Dome had shot down 700 rockets, which is about 85 percent of the rockets it calculated were headed for a populated areas. The Tamir missiles used by Iron Dome weigh 90 kg and have a range of 70 kilometers against rockets, mortar shells and artillery shells up to 155mm. Iron Dome can also shoot down aircraft and helicopters at altitudes of up to 10,000 meters (32,000 feet). Iron Dome is the principal Israeli defense against short range rockets fired from Gaza or Lebanon. Work is underway to increase Iron Dome range from 70 to over 200 kilometers.

By 2014 Israel had fifteen batteries of Iron Dome and over 2,000 Tamir missiles. That was enough to shut down the Hamas effort to hit Israel with thousands of rockets. Each battery has radar, fire control equipment, and 3-4 missile launchers (each with 20 missiles) and costs about $37-50 million depending on how many missiles it is shipped with.

In 2014 the U.S. Army has purchased an Iron Dome battery from Israel, mainly for evaluation purposes. The Americans wanted to see if Iron Dome would be worth getting for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, where American troops are still stationed and probably will be for some time to come but an American order did not materialize.

Despite years of Iron Dome success in knocking down rockets under realistic combat conditions the system did not become a hot export item. Israel is one of the top ten weapons exporters in the world mainly because Israeli stuff works well and is usually combat tested. But all that has not helped Iron Dome. Although Iron Dome system had shown is worked reliably and consistently it did so in a unique situation. Few other countries have a situation similar to the rocket threat against Israel.

The main problem is that Iron Dome was designed to deal with an enemy that is a terrorist organization (Hamas) operating out of an area (Gaza) that is basically home for Palestinian refugees who have been there for over 60 years and want nothing less than the destruction of Israel. A similar organization (Hezbollah) controls southern Lebanon and is also dedicated to the destruction of Israel, using 40,000 unguided rockets they received from Iran. This is the unique situation that Iron Dome was designed to deal with.

Another interesting aspect to this is that Azerbaijan has had bad relations with neighboring Iran, which has long wanted Israel destroyed and has supplied most of the rockets now sitting in Gaza and Lebanon and aimed at Israel.

 

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