Selling the Iron Dome? Everything you need to know about Israel's air defense market

While foreign policy matters for defense sales, there is often a misunderstanding of how costly and complex modern air defenses are and how countries go about acquiring them.

 IRON DOME interceptors destroy rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel in the skies over Ashkelon in May. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
IRON DOME interceptors destroy rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel in the skies over Ashkelon in May.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Israel’s military tech is today providing some of the best defense systems in the world, not only for Israel’s armed forces but also for international customers.

Israel boasts three of the leading defense companies in the world: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries and each firm has its own unique abilities and partners abroad.

However, when it comes to reporting on possible defense sales, a lot of discussion focuses on only a few of the better-known Israeli systems.

This is particularly true for Iron Dome. A recent report at Ynet said that Israel had refused a sale of the system to Ukraine ostensibly not to annoy Moscow.

The report says that “Kyiv began a pressure campaign on lawmakers in Washington to facilitate a deal. The Ukrainians also officially asked the US to deploy American patriot missile systems and the Iron Dome in their territory last spring, before a Russian invasion of the country became a real possibility.”

A Lockheed Martin Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interceptor is seen during the third annual ''Made in America Product Showcase'' on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, US, July 15, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)A Lockheed Martin Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interceptor is seen during the third annual ''Made in America Product Showcase'' on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, US, July 15, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

UKRAINE ISN’T the only country said to be interested in Iron Dome. A number of media reports have suggested that Gulf states want the system. With drone and missile threats increasing against the UAE, air defenses are needed more than ever in Abu Dhabi.

According to an article on February 6, Israel is in discussions with Gulf states about air defenses. Israel HaYom also reported on December 12 regarding the “UAE pressuring Israel to approve Iron Dome sale.” Ynet had an article last June saying Israel should sell Iron Dome to the Gulf. In January 2021, Bloomberg even reported that “Israel allows US to deploy Iron Dome to Gulf.”

None of these reports seem to understand the larger issues involved. According to Roll Call, the US has supported Iron Dome with some $1.7 billion in funding over the last decade.

In August 2020, Rafael, which makes Iron Dome in Israel, signed a new partnership for a joint venture with Raytheon, a US missile maker. In the US, the Raytheon-built system is called SkyHunter and in 2016 Raytheon was also authorized to offer what Israel calls “David’s Sling” as an interceptor in Patriot batteries under the name SkyCeptor.

DefenseNews said in 2021 that “Raytheon Technologies says it is gearing to deliver the first two Patriot Configuration 3+ batteries to Poland in 2022.

As Poland’s Wisla mid-range air defense program is advancing, the company hopes to benefit from its industrial cooperation with nine Polish partners to pursue the program’s second phase, and is offering SkyCeptor missiles to Warsaw, according to a senior company representative.”  

The intricate relationships between the US and Israel, US funding for these systems, and also partnerships between Israeli and US companies, are key to understanding what is happening.

The US Army has acquired two Iron Dome batteries. This took years to conclude. Considering how slow procurement works, the idea that Iron Dome batteries could be sold suddenly to the Gulf, Ukraine or to anyone else, is not reasonable. It takes time for these types of agreements to happen. The technology is also very sensitive.

Israel has sold the radar used in the Iron Dome system, made by IAI’s Elta, to the Czech Republic in a 2019 deal but radar is less sensitive than missiles.

ANOTHER ISSUE that is at the core of the misunderstanding about Iron Dome, is that while it is the most well-known system, Israel makes a plethora of other systems. For instance, Rafael showcased its Spyder air defense system at this week’s Singapore Air Show.

“Throughout the week, Rafael will showcase the Spyder All-in-One air defense system. SPYDER is a quick reaction, lower-tier Air-Defense system, designed to counter enemy aircraft, bombs, UAV’s, and precision-guided munitions. It provides effective protection of valuable assets, as well as first-class defense for maneuvering forces,” the company said.

“By incorporating an integrated radar, Toplite EO/IR sensor, and launcher onto a single platform, the All-in-One SPYDER can address a defense force’s individualized, operational needs. The Spyder Air Defense System is the only Israeli-made air defense system acquired by a NATO member state,” Rafael said. Spyder is one option for many countries that want a layer of air defense systems.

In addition, IAI makes the Barak 8 MRSAM air and missile defense, which is being used in India. These sales are worth billions for Israel’s defense industry. According to Middle East Eye, Azerbaijan also uses the Barak system.

“Azerbaijan has an operational land-based version of Barak 8-system with 12 launchers and 75 surface-to-air missiles, which could have been used,” the website said in March 2021. According to Globes, Israel and Morocco also recently agreed to a deal for the Barak MX air and missile defense system.  

The real world of Israel defense sales is far more complex than some of the reports about Iron Dome’s potential sales indicate. There are a number of systems produced by Israel, some of which may be easier for it to sell than those that are backed by the US and closely entwined with American defense companies, or which have sensitive operational details that allow for them to only be placed in the hands of reliable partners and allies.

A LOT OF Israel’s defense sales are not reported publicly due to the sensitivities involved, with Israeli companies are only saying that they have sold systems to an “Asian” country or to customers in South America or other places.

This means that in many cases, there is a lack of knowledge about the full story. That leads to headlines that appear to make it seem like Iron Dome could just be delivered overnight and be ready to use by any customer.

The reality, of course, is that acquiring air defense systems has a billion-dollar price tag that comes with buying interceptors, radar, command and control, waiting for delivery and then training on the system. Reports that seem to imply Iron Dome could be rushed over to some country, and that if it’s not being rushed over is because of political issues, misunderstands the nature of how air defenses are acquired.

The reports also often misunderstand the nature of modern air defense. Countries need multi-layered systems like Israel has. This means that while the US makes Patriot, the THAAD system and short-range C-RAM, Israel makes Arrow, David’s Sling, Iron Dome, Spyder, Barak and other systems. Sometimes these systems can work well together, especially the more that Israel and American companies work together.

But countries need to think about how to plan a multi-billion air defense budget. This is made even more challenging when they have systems supplied by the Russians or Chinese, such as the Pantsir-22.

Some countries are going through a transition, from one set of systems to another, and it’s not always an easy fit to take an Israeli, American or Western system and put it side-by-side with the concept of air defense that was developed by the Soviets and then modernized by Russia or China in the last decades.

In a complex world underpinned by more rivalry between the US and “near-peer” adversaries such as China and Russia – and the Middle East divided between Iran and other countries, such as Israel and the Gulf – countries are plowing money into air defenses. This is particularly true due to rising drone threats and maneuvering missiles, or PGMs and cruise missiles. However, as countries rush to acquire systems, they also have to look at new technologies, such as the lasers that Israel says it will soon roll out with Iron Dome, or the threat of hypersonic weapons.