Iron Dome developers set the record straight on its evolution

Marking 10 years since Iron Dome’s first operational interception, leading figures in developing the missile defense system set the record straight on its evolution

IDF SOLDIERS near The Iron Dome anti-missile system near Ashkelon, 2011. (photo credit: EDI ISRAEL/FLASH90)
IDF SOLDIERS near The Iron Dome anti-missile system near Ashkelon, 2011.
(photo credit: EDI ISRAEL/FLASH90)
 On April 7, 2011, a new era began for Israel’s air and missile defense forces – when the Iron Dome missile defense system completed its first successful operational interception against a short-range threat originating from the Gaza Strip.
Now, one decade later, it is time to analyze the decision-making process behind the system’s development, some lessons learned from a decade of operations, and the prospects for further advancements and adaptations over the next decade, including potential future connection with laser solutions.
Iron Dome’s unrivaled success on the battlefield – which has even made it, in many people’s eyes, the most important Israeli innovation in the country’s 70 years of existence – has produced countless articles, interviews, books and television programs on the path to develop the system and its progress over the years.
For the sake of history, those who made the decisions and developed the system, and for the purpose of drawing effective lessons for the future, it is essential that the record be set straight, and that the factual truth, albeit subjective, be known, as it primarily appears in the State Comptroller’s report 59A.
THE IRON Dome fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza, near Sderot in August 2018. (Photo Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
THE IRON Dome fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza, near Sderot in August 2018. (Photo Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Deciding to develop Iron Dome

In 1996, Israel and the United States agreed to collaborate on Project THEL (Tactical High-Energy Laser), mistakenly dubbed Nautilus (America’s earlier adventure in this technological field). From the start, the project was developed as a technological demonstrator. In 2001, a series of tests was completed proving a laser beam can intercept a threat, but concluded that a chemical laser-based interception system was not suitable for operational deployment in Israel. Low operational preparedness (technological reliability), complex logistics (size, availability, repairs and transfer from site to site) and environmental concerns were only a few of the many significant reasons why.
Israel and the US decided to plan another system, smaller and more portable, named MTHEL (Mobile THEL). From this decision, it can be understood that the cessation of the THEL program was not in any way caused by Israel’s exit from Lebanon, as some have argued.
From 2001 to 2005, Israel and its American counterpart worked on the new collaboration but decided to discontinue it in 2005 while still in the planning stages, as per advice from the Defense Ministry’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development (DDR&D) director Shmuel Keren and assessments shared by numerous experts. It was believed this project would not lead to an operational weapons system given that there was no foreseeable future for a chemical laser-based system. It was clear that any future laser-based interception system would be based on a solid-state laser, but such technology would not be available for – what proved to be optimistic – at least another decade.
In the end, by 2005, after roughly nine years of work and $600 million (mostly funded by the US), the outcome was a technological demonstrator, impossible to duplicate or be used operationally on an American test field. Over the years, a series of interception tests was conducted on the system with an actual success rate of less than 50% (based on American official data).
Additionally, a detailed on-paper plan was designed for a small mobile system, MTHE. The idea, later dubbed SKYGUARD, was not yet created. SKYGUARD’s status can also be deduced from a Northrop Grumman (NG) proposal submitted to DDR&D down the road. The proposal required higher development costs than all of Iron Dome’s development from zero. Statements contending that the THEL system could have been brought to Israel and operationalized, or that the MTHEL/SKYGUARD system was ready for production in 2005 were simply not factually accurate nor based in reality. This remains the case today, 15 years later.
In 2004 – facing elevated threats, especially in southern Israel – an interagency team was set up to draft solutions for defensive systems against short-range threats. This team, led by R&D unit director Daniel Gold, issued a call for proposals and tested dozens of potential solutions. Eventually, at the end of 2005, the team recommended developing a system based on Rafael’s proposal (with changes) – and it was named “Iron Dome.” The proposal was approved by DDR&D director Keren and a relatively small budget was allocated, out of the department’s overall budget, and a partnership with Rafael that financially supports part of the R&D efforts.
In 2006, in light of the changing threat landscape – with the Second Lebanon War and rockets launched into Israel serving as significant catalysts – and inquiries by NG and other defense industries, Keren presented the proposed concepts to then-defense minister Amir Peretz, recommending Iron Dome. Peretz adopted the suggestion and even called for expedited development. However, there still was not a significant budget allocated to the project,
In October 2006, after additional significant pressure, Keren appointed a professional committee led by his deputy Jacob Nagel, to test which solution would best protect Israel from short-range missile threats. The committee included dozens of internal and external experts in the fields of missiles, lasers, operational research and doctrine. Lt.-Col. Shachar Shohat – who later achieved the rank of brigadier-general and served as commander of the Air Defense Forces – served as the Air Force representative on the committee.
For three months, the Nagel Committee worked intensely to test all potential Israeli and international solutions. Finally, in December, the committee presented its findings and recommendations to Keren, to Defense Ministry director-general Gabi Ashkenazi and to Peretz, and they approved it. In February 2007, these recommendations were presented to prime minister Ehud Olmert, who authorized them.
Israel’s state comptroller noted, “DDR&D, through the work of the Nagel Committee, conducted an orderly process for testing alternatives, and presented the alternatives to different parties and noted the clear advantage with the Iron Dome system. Each of the parties – the director-general, minister of defense, and prime minister – approved DDR&D’s conclusions.”
Peretz declared that the Iron Dome concept was proven, but would require additional external funding. Olmert explained that Iron Dome’s development was unavoidable and directed the Defense Ministry to approach the Finance Ministry to allocate the needed budget. By June 2007 the project still had not received a substantial budget, and progressed with DDR&D and Rafael R&D budgets, increased by several dozens of millions of shekels from Peretz and acting director-general Yehiel Horev from the defense budget.
The Nagel Committee did not include the THEL system as a potential solution, given previous assessments casting doubt on its operational potential or relevance, and the inability to be duplicated. SKYGUARD, NG’s solution, was examined in detail. During the process, NG’s VP met with the DDR&D director and thanked him – in writing and in person – for the opportunity to present the proposal to the committee.
In 2007, upon taking office and facing lingering tension, defense minister Ehud Barak convened yet another hearing, calling for a re-presentation of the Nagel Committee findings and recommendations on each of the proposed solutions, including another external presentation of the SKYGUARD system. Barak then ratified these recommendations, declared development of Iron Dome as essential, and allocated the needed budget out of the Defense Ministry budget.
Following this approval, final negotiations were conducted with Rafael, the project was submitted to the government, and it was officially approved. In December 2007, Rafael signed a contract with the Israeli government for the development and equipping of the first two Iron Dome batteries.
From this point, development of the project was expedited by Rafael, ELTA and M-Prest under a DDR&D project team, led by then-Lt.-Col. Chicco with the close guidance of R&D director Gold.
Simultaneously, an unprecedented lobbying campaign for SKYGUARD kicked off, drafting senior retired military officers, academics and media figures. This campaign led to serious incitement, with personal attacks lobbed at director-general Pinhas Buchris, DDR&D director Keren and his deputy Nagel, who were dubbed the “high-priests of Iron Dome” by the campaign. 
The lobby’s efforts included drafting PR experts, distributing marketing brochures, pushing defamation both online and in newspapers, and planning an approach to key US figures in an effort to harm the State of Israel. This was revealed in articles by Channel 11’s Ayala Hasson and Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker. 
Buchris, Keren and Nagel were at the forefront of defending the decision to develop Iron Dome, while Gold and his team were working on developing the system with the industries. They held dozens of meetings with the leaders of Israel’s northern and southern communities, ministers, MKs, members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and members of the press and academia. Upon reviewing the factual data and decision-making process, almost every one of these individuals understood that they had been fed nothing but misinformation, and withdrew their support of the lobbying campaign.
As part of his efforts to defend the project, Buchris (with Nagel) traveled as part of a professional delegation to the US to see the THEL system in New Mexico. They met with representatives from NG and with relevant members of the US military who explained that the decision to stop development of the project was reached in consultation with Israel. Buchris returned to Israel more convinced than ever that the THEL system was not relevant, and they were completely in support of the decision-making process.
In 2008, Barak met with US secretary of defense Robert Gates, and they discussed ways the US could support Israel in its attempts to protect the home front from high-trajectory missiles. This was largely motivated by America’s desire to prevent Israel from entering a war with Gaza. As a result of these meetings, a joint committee led by DDR&D’s Nagel and US Gen. Robin Rand was formed to once again test each of the possible solutions (Iron Dome, SKYGUARD, Vulcan Planks and other proposed laser systems). Again the conclusion was reached that only Iron Dome could sufficiently supply the defense needed for Israel’s home front, while providing its leaders the freedom to act as needed.
The Nagel-Rand committee again determined that the SKYGUARD system, still only on paper, was not a suitable solution – either for Israel or the US. As part of this committee, a delegation of US missile, radar, command and control, and laser experts arrived in Israel, conducted in-depth discussions and visited both DDR&D and the Israeli defense industry. While the first visit started with marked skepticism surrounding the feasibility of developing the system, it ended with admiration for the system, but with expectation that the project would not be completed on time or within budget. Yet one year later during a subsequent visit, the delegation was enthralled by the pace of Iron Dome’s development and advancements in solving technical problems. They released a professional report, optimistic on the project’s success and keeping to the projected schedule and budget.
The Nagel-Rand Committee recommendations were presented to and subsequently approved by Keren, Buchris and Barak. They were then presented to relevant American stakeholders and resulted in then-president Barack Obama allocating $205 million in special assistance to the program. A central element of the committee’s proposal insisted that assistance be limited to equipping the Iron Dome system in an effort to prevent any future potential export restrictions on the system and ensure development remained “blue and white” in its entirety.
In the decade following that decision, the US significantly increased its financial contribution to equipping additional Iron Dome systems and launchers. Included in the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Israel, pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama (which entered into force in fiscal year 2019), a new, special section was added allocating $500 million annually to ballistic missile defense, with the equipping of Iron Dome components being an important component thereof.
(From left) WRITER JACOB NAGEL, then national security adviser, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Avi Dichter at a 2017 meeting in the Knesset. (Photo Credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
(From left) WRITER JACOB NAGEL, then national security adviser, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Avi Dichter at a 2017 meeting in the Knesset. (Photo Credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The past decade – analysis and lessons learned

Today, the Iron Dome missile defense system is highly regarded in professional, political, military and civilian circles both in Israel and abroad, and has received numerous prizes and praise for its groundbreaking military innovation and success in saving lives. The term “Iron Dome” has become ingrained in the Hebrew lexicon, synonymous with incredible success.
Despite its operational and technological success, those initial naysayers were not quick to mute themselves or their criticisms. At the tactical level, Iron Dome’s operational capabilities were called into question, while at the strategic level, concerns were raised that the damage outweighed any benefit, especially given the negative impact on the national-level decision-making process and international legitimization.
They claimed that Iron Dome, with the passage of time, had become a burden rather than an asset and a double-edged sword. An academic research project conducted at the National Security College, guided by one of the authors of this article, analyzed Iron Dome’s impact on the Israeli National Security Strategy – economically, militarily, socially and politically. After a decade of operational experience and more than 2,500 successful interceptions, the research conclusively finds that the Iron Dome system is a first-class asset and clear barrier breaker, not remotely resembling a double-edged sword. Iron Dome often changes the decision-making process of Israel’s political echelons, and our enemies’ methods and tactics.
Iron Dome is a key element of Israel’s multi-layered defense array, developed to protect the home front from incoming missile threats. While Iron Dome protects against short-range threats, the David’s Sling system defends against mid-tier threats, and the Arrow systems defend against upper-tier threats.
The US Army, facing many threats similar to Israel, decided to procure two Iron Dome batteries as an interim solution while deciding what the most appropriate enduring solution would be for its needs. Simultaneously, the US Marines also expressed interest in the system and have conducted several successful tests in America.
The continued collaboration between Israel and the US in the development and equipping of Iron Dome contributes to strengthening the strategic and technological collaboration between the two countries and their defense of their respective civilians and service members.
AS WE celebrate 10 years since Iron Dome’s first interception, we are reminded of the importance of recalling the overall goals that led decision-makers to develop this system:
• Life and limb: Save lives above all else, almost at any cost.
• Strategic assets: Protect strategic facilities, military facilities and national infrastructure.
• Economic defense: Reduce the amount of direct and indirect economic damage (cost of property, human casualties and injuries) and prevent interference with the economy and national gross production. 
• Strategic flexibility: Provide additional options to political decision-makers by reducing the risk posed by incoming rockets.
• Ability to act: Increase the military’s freedom to act via the ability to carry out offensive operations free from the fear of retaliatory rocket attacks.
• Confidence: Raise the national morale and spirit, decrease the psychological impact on the population caused by images of damage and destruction, especially in the age of social media.
IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS of relevant events of the past decade leads to determination of success on several levels, such as:
• Economic perspective: A review of the past decade’s economic data proves beyond all doubt that Iron Dome certainly stands up to the economic test. This is further supported with the realization that the comparison cannot be between the cost of the interceptor and the cost of a missile, but rather the total cost of a launch compared to the direct and indirect economic consequences resulting from incoming enemy missiles scoring direct hits.
• Societal Perspective: Iron Dome, as an effective defense system, significantly contributes to Israel’s sense of community and national pride. It contributes to Israel’s degree of resilience by reducing overall levels of fear and anxiety, creating a unified home front with all its civilians feeling protected. In the battle over public opinion, the system also contributes to Israel’s story of success over the enemy and improves overall morale both during and after periods of combat. However, it is also important to note that the system’s past success creates a danger of an illusion of security to civilians. To prevent such negative surprises, it is essential that our leaders set reasonable expectations for citizens.
 SHACHAR SHOHAT, then head of the Air Force’s Aerial Defense Unit, accompanies US national security advisor Susan Rice on a 2014 visit to Palmachim Air Force Base. (Photo Credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
SHACHAR SHOHAT, then head of the Air Force’s Aerial Defense Unit, accompanies US national security advisor Susan Rice on a 2014 visit to Palmachim Air Force Base. (Photo Credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Outlook for the next decade

Over the past decade, Iron Dome provided unprecedented superiority. During the next decade, we can expect enemies will respond with technological efforts of their own. All signs suggest they have already started, and thus there is no time to waste. Testing, improvements and adaptations of Iron Dome are constantly required as a way to ensure it maintains its legendary superiority. This is an endless battle in the fight between the threat and the interceptor. 
Without getting into specifics, it is clear that every system has limitations and vulnerabilities. However, if we do not put forth every effort to further its innovation and renewal, our adversaries will detract from Iron Dome’s effectiveness and superiority. There is no indefinitely hermetic defensive solution. 
We cannot rest on our laurels. We must consistently test the enemies’ advancements and threat trends, and adapt our systems to achieve optimal effective defense, in order to maintain relevance on the future battlefield.
ONE KEY area of interest is laser-based solutions.
During the Iron Dome decision-making process and continuously ever since, baseless allegations have been made related to the performance of laser-based systems versus kinetic interception-based systems using missiles.
Each solution has advantages and disadvantages that are important to raise and understand. Understanding the pros and cons of a laser-based system is especially important today, given the great progress recently made in Israel in technology development.
It is critical to correct some of the factually incorrect arguments in favor of transitioning to a laser-based system:
• “A laser-based interception system will prevent disruption to daily life, as it is an almost perfect and hermetic system.” Hermetic systems do not exist, and it is clear that with any system, daily routines will be disrupted. In any case, the performance of the missile-based systems seems to be better than those based on laser.
• “Laser systems will better handle barrage attacks.” Actually, the opposite is true and this is one of the most compelling disadvantages to a laser-based system, since such a system’s primary role would be to handle a series of threats. Statements alleging “interception at the speed of light” are misleading. While the beam can reach its target at the speed of light and notably faster than a missile, it must remain on each target for several seconds to destroy it (how long cannot be revealed) and largely depends on the threat variant, the strength of the beam and its distance from the target. The laser-based system would be quite limited in its abilities to counter attack salvos (unless it could be built with multiple beams, meaning another system, which would substantially increase the overall cost). In multi-purpose missile-based systems, the missiles are launched independently, are operated simultaneously by the system and operate instantaneously on the target to counter incoming threats.
• “Laser systems don’t require adaptations for new threats.” Laser-based systems are not robust, and each threat needs to be programmed for separately.
ON FEBRUARY 8, 2020, the Defense Ministry announced a groundbreaking technological achievement in the development of the solid-state laser. The depth and gravity of this achievement are noteworthy, as is its potential for strengthening Israel’s low tactical defensive layer capabilities. The correct and planned use of this new technology adds to the interception capabilities in a newer, cheaper way, based on an understanding of its limitations. 
While this is a major advancement that allows for a demonstration of the system’s battlefield capabilities, the full operational range of the system is still several years and hundreds of millions of shekels of development away. There is no doubt that the addition of a laser interceptor, alongside the classic Iron Dome interceptor, will improve overall performance and will also be beneficial to Israel’s partners, including the US.
TRAILS ARE seen in the sky as an Iron Dome projectile intercepts a rocket fired from Gaza, above Ashkelon in May 2019. (Photo Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
TRAILS ARE seen in the sky as an Iron Dome projectile intercepts a rocket fired from Gaza, above Ashkelon in May 2019. (Photo Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
IN SUMMARY, after a decade of operational work of the Iron Dome system, it can be said that we must tip our hat to all those who have worked on this project over the past 15 years, the decision-making stages, development of the system, its integration and its transition into successful operationalization and use, through continuous improvements along the way.
That being said, Iron Dome is not yet complete, and it will likely continue for many years to come. Our enemies are learning the system all the time and without question they never cease to try to surprise us. The role of all those involved is to always be one step ahead of them.
Brig.-Gen.  (res)  Prof.  Jacob  Nagel  is  a  senior  fellow  at  the  Foundation  for  the  Defense  of  Democracies  (FDD)  and a visiting professor in the aeronautics and space faculty at  the  Technion.  Nagel  served  as  acting  national  security  adviser  and  head  of  the  national  security  council  under  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, serving as head of the committee that recommended the development of Iron Dome.Brig.-Gen. (res) Shachar Shohat is executive vice president of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, previously serving as head of the Air Force’s Aerial Defense Unit. Shohat served as the Air Force representative on the Nagel committee.