Meet the people behind Israel's Iron Dome system

MILITARY AFFAIRS: The people behind the machine – and their ability to respond and make decisions within seconds – are what make it work.

LT.-COL. YEHONATAN supervises soldiers monitoring the screens in the war room at a military post near the Gaza Strip, this week. (photo credit: IDF)
LT.-COL. YEHONATAN supervises soldiers monitoring the screens in the war room at a military post near the Gaza Strip, this week.
(photo credit: IDF)
 For the soldiers of the Iron Dome battalion defending Israel’s South, there is no difference between their day-to-day lives and an emergency – they are always on guard.
Although the daily routine of the 947th Battalion might resemble that of any other IDF unit, when the warning alert is heard, action needs to be taken – sometimes within seconds – in order to keep the skies of Israel safe.
Lt.-Col. Yehonatan, the battalion’s commander, told The Jerusalem Post – in an interview conducted in a military post that serves as a base for one of the battalion’s batteries, near the Gaza Strip – that one of the basic elements the commanders in the battalion teach new soldiers is how to make that “switch,” and to be able to respond within seconds.
“You need to be vigilant 24/7, 365 days a year, without knowing when the next incident will happen,” Yehonatan said.
“You should always be ready to move from “zero” to “one” in zero seconds,” he said.
Yehonatan’s battalion is in charge of keeping the skies in the southern part of Israel safe from rockets. Its main focus is on the Gaza Strip, from which most attacks on Israel come.
The Iron Dome system works in three phases. An advanced radar is constantly scanning the skies for a potential threat. When it catches one, a transmission is sent to two war rooms – the Home Front Command war room, which is in charge of sounding the alarm in the residential areas that might be affected by the rocket; and the Iron Dome war room, where a soldier and an officer need to make a quick decision as to which ammunition should be used to intercept the threat while it’s still in the air.
The time the Iron Dome combat warriors have to decide how to react to a threat depends on the destination of the rocket.
A “long event,” Yehonatan said, is not more than 10 seconds.
“Sometimes it’s even two seconds,” he said. “In this time they need to understand whether the threat is real or not; where it is heading to, and whether it’s an area that requires protection; and what is the right ammunition to use. Usually, it’s about two to three seconds.”
Yehonatan added that one of the main goals for his battalion is to ensure the “operational continuity” of the country and its “national strength.”
“I want to make sure that people can maintain their day-to-day lives with no interruptions,” he said. “On top of that, I want decision-makers to be able to make rational decisions, and not decisions resulting from pressure,” he said, implying that he understands that if a rocket hits a civilian area, this could easily lead to a situation in which Israel is dragged into a round of escalation with Gaza.
THE IRON DOME is one of four systems protecting Israel’s skies. Each system is in charge of a different layer of defense. The MIM-104 Patriot is a surface-to-air missile system used against fighter jets and ballistic missiles; the Arrow system is used against long-range missiles; David’s Sling (also known as Magic Wand) is used against medium-range missiles; and the Iron Dome system – the most frequently used – is against short-range rockets.
The Iron Dome is an Israeli development and was meant to be a solution for the rockets launched by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other organizations in Gaza.
Since it became operational in 2011, the system has been updated and improved. Earlier this week the Defense Ministry and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems announced that they had successfully completed a series of tests that will allow installing and integrating the system also on the navy’s Sa’ar 6 corvettes.
Yehonatan said that due to the fact that it is Israeli machinery, his battalion’s experience on the ground serves as a platform for constant improvement of the system.
“We have here what we call IAF [Israel Air Force] culture. It means that after every live-fire event we thoroughly examine what we did well, what we did wrong, and how we can learn from it,” he said.
“This – adding the fact that we are constantly using the system in real operational events – also leads us into understanding our systems better, and asking the IAF technicians for improvements. In fact, we have the privilege to teach the manufacturer how it works in real events,” he said.
In December, the Defense Ministry announced that, for the first time, an Iron Dome system managed to intercept a cruise missile.
Yehonatan said that as much as these developments are important, his battalion is not complacent, and understands that while the IDF improves, the enemy is also in a race to improve his weaponry.
WHILE OTHER military combat units still struggle to incorporate women into their battalions, the Air Defense Command is proud to say that it was the first to do so, in the late 1990s.
Yehonatan, who was the commander of the basic training program in his previous position, said that, as of today, some 55%-60% of the new recruits of the command are women.
“I am proud of what our command does,” he said. “We encourage women not only to join but also to become commanders and stay in long-term service in senior commanding positions.”
Capt. Noam, the commander of the battery in charge of protecting the area around the Gaza Strip, said that as far as she sees it, there is no difference between a man and a woman in the operation of the Iron Dome launchers.
“There are no dispensations for women in our unit,” she said. “We are working very hard to earn promotions.
“Unlike infantry or other combat units, our system does not require the lifting of heavy weights and stuff like that. So the challenges of being out there in the field are almost the same for both men and women,” she added.
Toward the end of the interview, Yehonatan said that it is important to stress that while it is true that the system itself has automatic components, the officers and soldiers who operate it need to make decisions in real time.
“We see headlines in the media saying the Iron Dome system intercepted this and that – but it’s not the system. There are people behind the scenes, and they are doing the actual job.
“These are people who need to make the tough decisions. They constantly work to keep this country safe,” he said.