Security and Defense: Iron Dome’s chutzpah factor

A year since its activation, the Iron Dome is on its way to changing the way Israel wages war.

Members of Iron Dome development team_370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Members of Iron Dome development team_370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Uzi was on temporary leave from work and was trekking with some friends in Chile. Meir, who had just marked 40 years at the company, was putting the final tweaks on the Israel Air Force’s next-generation air-to-air missile. Slava had come up with a revolutionary computer program to serve as the nerve center for the entire system and was competing – together with another colleague – against another company.
The three – who due to security restrictions can be identified only by their first names – are members of one of Israel’s leading technological teams, the developers of the Iron Dome.
For many in Israel, the past year was the year of the Iron Dome. It was successfully activated for the first time in April 2011, but in the recent round of violence with the Gaza Strip in March it really came into its own, performing even better than its inventors had thought it could.
Developed by Rafael, the Iron Dome is the only system of its kind in the world with the ability to detect, track and intercept short-range Katyusha and Kassam rockets like those that make up the backbone of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah’s growing arsenals.
In March, for example, the three Iron Dome batteries deployed in southern Israel intercepted over 60 rockets fired from Gaza, reaching a success rate close to 90 percent. In 2011, by comparison, the interception rate was 75%.
Designed to defend against rockets at a range of four to 70 kilometers, an Iron Dome battery consists of a multimission radar manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries and three launchers, each equipped with 20 interceptors called Tamirs. The radar enables Iron Dome operators to predict the impact site of the enemy rocket and decide not to intercept it if it is slated to hit an open area.
The defense establishment’s ultimate hope is that the Iron Dome – together with the other missile defense systems Israel is developing – will make Israel’s enemies understand that their investment in missiles and rockets is no longer effective. If that happens, Iron Dome could one day be credited with completely altering Israel’s strategic standing in the Middle East. In the meantime, though, it is already having an impact on the way Israel wages war.
Imagine if the 60 rockets the Iron Dome intercepted on their way to Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon in March had succeeded in hitting their targets. The extent of the destruction would have been greater and the possibility of civilian casualties as well.
Had this happened, the government would have faced overwhelming pressure from the public to order the IDF to launch a ground offensive into Gaza to stop the rocket fire as it did on the eve of Operation Cast Lead in late 2008. The Iron Dome helped prevent that from happening.
Essentially what this means is that Iron Dome provides the government with what can be described as “diplomatic maneuverability,” the ability to think before acting and to consider all options before launching large-scale operations based solely on casualties.
Uzi, the Iron Dome project manager, remembers the phone call he received in Chile as he was planning another hike. The call was from Rafael headquarters in the North. “Come home,” his supervisor said. “We need you.”
He admits that at first he was not completely convinced that development of the system would succeed.
“At first glance, it was a major challenge,” he explained in an interview this week. “But ultimately, the word ‘impossible’ does not appear in my lexicon.”
According to Meir, who will be retiring next week after more than four decades as a missile developer, one of the keys to the team’s success in developing Iron Dome was the previous work many of the members did on the company’s air-to-air missiles, such as the Python.
“They are both missiles that need to fly and hit a target,” he said. “In one case, it’s a plane. In the other, it’s another projectile.”
But even as the work progressed, there were still members of the team, as well as officials within the defense establishment, who were not completely convinced. Roni, one of the deputy project managers, who lives in the North and spent a large portion of the 2006 Second Lebanon War in a bomb shelter with his family, said that the greatest success was in being able to create a system from scratch within three years.
“Until you actually see it you don’t believe that it is possible,” he explained.
After the first interception test was successful, the team understood that it was on the right track but knew that there was still a lot of work to go before it could deliver an operational battery to the IAF’s Air Defense Division. That finally took place in 2010 and after receiving four batteries, the IAF has ordered several more with funding Israel has received for the project from the US. Ultimately, the IAF says about 13 batteries would be required to provide an effective defense against the short-range rockets in Lebanon and Gaza.
The day of the first operational interception in April 2011, the team was actually on a day off at a go-carting center in Haifa. There was no cell phone reception in the facility and when one of the members went outside and started jumping up and down the others, who remained inside, could not understand what the excitement was all about.
“We couldn’t believe it at first,” said Amir, the team member in charge of the tests. “We finally understood what it was we were doing and how critical and important it really was.”
Amir recalled how, when they started working on the team, the heads of Rafael told them to go home and tell their families and friends that they were developing the Iron Dome. The reasoning was to try and give the employees a sense of pride for their work, which came at a steep personal cost for many of the team members, who worked six-day weeks and often came into the office on Saturday nights as well.
“We didn’t see our families during this period but at least they knew what we were doing,” Amir said, noting that it was the first time in his career that his bosses openly encouraged him to talk about his usually top-secret work.
The main technological challenges were quite obvious. The first problem was how to get a small missile like the Tamir to intercept a small rocket like the Katyusha in just a few seconds. Second was how to create a system that could distinguish between several targets and decide which to intercept in even less time than the few seconds mentioned before.
“It was all new. Nothing like this had been done before,” said Slava, who helped create the Iron Dome’s computer brain, which performs these unbelievable calculations.
So what was it that enabled this team to succeed where no one else had before? Were they smarter than everyone else in the world? No, answered Meir, the deputy project manager.
“We had a necessity and knew how to improvise to make it happen,” he said. “In this case, the Israeli ‘trust me’ attitude really worked, which led us take risks and ultimately succeed.”
Amir added two other characteristics: courage and chutzpah.
“We are more daring and have more chutzpah in the way we do things than other countries and massive corporations,” he said. “That is the secret to our success.”