Israels Iron Dome: what it does and how it works, explained by an expert – Vox

By now, you’ve probably seen the videos: dark skies, lit up by exploding balls of light, like alien spaceships battling it out, or a terrifying fireworks display, punctuated by air-raid sirens.

This is a view of Israel’s Iron Dome, the air defense system the country uses to intercept short-range rockets. This week’s escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militia that controls Gaza, has offered a fresh glimpse of the Iron Dome in action.

The system has been in operation for about a decade, developed with strong financial and technical backing from the United States. it is, according to Israeli officials, about 90 percent effective in blocking short-range rockets commonly used by Hamas and other groups in the region.

the iron dome gives israel what jean-loup samaan, a research affiliate at the national university of singapore’s middle east institute who has studied israel’s missile defense, called an “insurance policy”: reassures citizens and protects against loss of life and property damage.

but israel’s ability to defend against these rocket attacks has not altered the way it responds to them, with airstrikes and artillery fire on gaza or anywhere else the rockets might come from. Palestinian civilians are often the most affected by these attacks.

on the other side, facing a defense like the iron dome, groups like hamas try to overwhelm the system, launching dozens, if not hundreds, of rockets, knowing that most will be intercepted and never reach their intended targets, but hoping that if they send enough, at least a few. As of Friday, according to Israeli officials, militants in Gaza have fired 2,200 rockets, with the Iron Dome intercepting 85 to 90 percent of the rockets that threaten people or infrastructure.

All of this raises questions about how the iron dome has (and hasn’t) changed the nature of the conflict. I spoke with Samaan to find out more about how both Israel and militant groups like Hamas view the defense system; why, despite having such robust protection against rockets, israel still responds to them with overwhelming force; and whether having the system makes peace more or less likely.

Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, is below.

jen kirby

what is the iron dome?

jean-loup samaan

iron dome is an air defense system, which means that its purpose is to intercept rockets approaching Israeli territory. the project started in 2007 and became operational around 2011.

Basically, it has three components, as is the case with most air defense systems: radar that detects the approaching rocket; a command and control system that processes that information and then activates the third component, which is the interceptor, basically a missile whose function is to destroy the other rocket.

jen kirby

so the interceptor essentially blasts the rocket out of the air?

jean-loup samaan


jen kirby

is this system exclusive to israel?

jean-loup samaan

in a way; it is unique because it is the most advanced system for this type of threat. Which means, without going into details, and I’m a political scientist, I’m not an engineer, but you can’t defend against a rocket in the same way that you defend against a ballistic missile because of the trajectory, because of the range.

So, the iron dome and its specific domain, which is rocket destruction, is pretty unique. it is unique in that it was one of the first systems to be designed and, to date, to our knowledge, the most effective. One could argue that the Patriot system the US operates is a bit similar, but it doesn’t cover low-range rockets.

jen kirby

so the iron dome was designed for this very specific threat of low range rockets coming from gaza or other nearby locations?

jean-loup samaan

yes, and that’s the important part, because sometimes people think that the iron dome can detect and intercept anything, but it was designed for low-end weapons like rockets. it cannot intercept ballistic missiles coming from iran, for example; that would be something that the other systems the israelis are developing, like the slingshot or david’s arrow, would have to intercept.

even some of the weapons systems that hezbollah [an iran-backed shiite militia] uses in lebanon, like medium-range ballistic missiles, precision-guided weapons, these more sophisticated types of systems would be much more difficult to intercept.

jen kirby

So the iron dome is a very sophisticated system designed for relatively unsophisticated technology?

jean-loup samaan

that’s why if you look back over the last decade, every time there’s an operation with gaza, you have, first, the people who are fascinated by the iron dome, and then you have the others in israel who They say, “This is a very expensive system designed to intercept very cheap rockets.” So it is certainly impressive in terms of the technology it operates and the mastery of that technology, but it cannot, on its own, protect the country against all the threats around him.

jen kirby

has the use of the iron dome influenced or changed the way israel thinks about defense?

jean-loup samaan

yes and no. There have obviously been some budget implications, because the money you put into the iron dome you can’t put into other things. that is also why the israelis have made that issue (iron dome and air defense more broadly) an important component of israeli-us cooperation. it would be very difficult for the Israelis to sustain the costs involved with these systems on their own.

but if you look at israeli operations over the last decade in gaza, the iron dome did not change the fact that the israelis had to carry out air strikes from time to time against hamas and carry out operations that also involved ground forces. it would be curious to see in the next few days, because there have been talks about intervening on the ground, if that materializes, as it has in the past.

That actually tells you that the iron dome is good for buying time, it’s good for protecting the population, but it doesn’t really change the nature of the conflict. It doesn’t change the fact that the Israeli army has yet to use airstrikes and possibly the threat of ground intervention [against Palestinian militant groups like Hamas].

jen kirby

Why do you think this is the case, that it buys time but that, ultimately, the escalation of the conflict has not diminished, as we are seeing now?

jean-loup samaan

so that’s why it’s effective technically, but strategically, it doesn’t change the fact that the Israelis can’t completely rely on it. the most skeptical people about these systems like the iron dome are usually the armed forces. they consider that yes, it is fine, but you cannot rely only on defensive means.

we are talking about [groups like hamas, which are] non-state actors. it is not clear how rational they are, and whether they can be compelled by the logic of the iron dome, the logic of deterrence that the iron dome implies. that’s the reason why, after a decade of iron dome, it didn’t really change the situation, especially for the cities of southern israel.

I’m not saying the iron dome is useless, I just think it’s like an insurance option. it is a great way to reassure citizens, also to avoid the total interruption of daily life. but at the end of the day, this may not be the only option.

jen kirby

so where does the iron dome fit into israel’s broader military strategy?

jean-loup samaan

The iron dome is a significant component of military strategy, as a defensive measure that deters incoming rockets or defends civilian areas against an incoming rocket.

But at the end of the day, the Israeli military culture hasn’t really changed. traditionally, the Israeli army relied on an offensive posture. It is not because they consider themselves an aggressive military power, but because they really believe that it is not possible, given the territory, to rely on defense. that would be the best way to lead to defeat, failure and the destruction of the country. since its founding, israel has always been based on the idea that it is necessary to prevent an invasion or attack on the country by offensive means.

I would say he can balance offense and defense a bit. but at the end of the day, israel still relies on air strikes and ground operations, if it feels it has to escalate to that level. And right now, we clearly see the iron dome being used, but it’s not the only component of the Israeli response.

jen kirby

but it seems to have also changed the way hamas and other militants respond. they’re firing dozens and dozens and dozens of rockets.

jean-loup samaan

yes. and that’s the reason why, while you have an iron dome intercepting these rockets, you’ll also have the israeli army trying to detect [and destroy] the launchers inside gaza, because you can’t just wait and see how the iron dome intercepts these rockets. so they try as much as possible to target the launchers.

but this is very difficult. you can have mobile launchers. and this also relates to the discussion about what to do if these launchers are in civilian populated areas, hidden in schools, hidden in buildings in the middle of gaza. it is the same in lebanon; it is very difficult for israel to detect the launchers.

jen kirby

Is there any sign that the Palestinian militias are trying to change or adjust their tactics in any way to get around the iron dome?

jean-loup samaan

There are various ways they have been trying to circumvent the iron dome. the first is, as I said, to overwhelm the system. the more rockets you send, the more difficult it will be in the long run. I don’t think for a few days, that will be a problem.

plus the risk of having two fronts, if rocket salvos are fired at the same time from gaza and south lebanon. I don’t know the numbers, and probably some of them are classified, but I suppose this could become an issue in terms of sustainability for the system. so overwhelming the iron dome is a tactic.

Another tactic is to hide the launchers, as I said. and the other thing we have seen is the use of tunnels. I think it was in 2014 when that was a big thing, these tunnels that Hamas had built [from Gaza to Israel]. because iron dome systems are designed to monitor missiles or rockets coming from gaza. so if there is something coming from inside Israeli territory, I guess it would be much more difficult for radar to detect. so these are various ways that Palestinian militia groups have been trying to circumvent the system.

jen kirby

do you think the iron dome has fundamentally changed the nature of the conflict: how does israel or groups like hamas respond?

jean-loup samaan

I would just say it’s not changing. It’s clearly intensifying. but this has been a continuous development over the last 10 to 15 years. and from around 2006, with the conflict with hezbollah, missiles and rockets became the majority component of these groups. they are much more effective than suicide bombings, because the Israelis have been much more effective in countering suicide bombings. so it’s not something new, but it’s clearly intensifying in the last [several] years.

jen kirby

Does Israel having these kinds of defenses lessen its need for dialogue or involvement in efforts to reach a ceasefire with Hamas?

jean-loup samaan

I don’t know what is the cause and what is the consequence there, because you could argue that israel invested and trusts these systems because basically they don’t trust that there is any chance for a ceasefire or a solution to the conflict with hamas. — or, say, palestinian militias, because hamas is not the only one in gaza. if it was just hamas, one could argue that it would be possible to discuss and coerce hamas, but many other militias have their own rockets.

so there was no window of opportunity anyway.

jen kirby

You mentioned that the United States made a large investment in the iron dome. why? What is the interest of the United States in this?

jean-loup samaan

well, first, historically, the united states began cooperating with israel on air defense in the 1980s. so when missile defense became a major component of defense investment in the united states, israel got involved very quickly. there is a history of close ties between the two countries in that field. so it would seem, in a sense, natural that one consequence of that is to support something like an iron dome.

I think it was towards the end of Obama’s first term, in 2012, when the us. uu. he put more emphasis on the iron dome in terms of budget. i think it was probably not just the politics behind it, but also the strategic assessment that the priority is to protect and strengthen israel’s defense against these types of rockets.

jen kirby

Is there anything that has surprised you about what’s unfolding right now?

jean-loup samaan

apart from some technical aspects, like the range of rockets coming from gaza which seems to be improving. But I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. that is the nature of technology.

I don’t want to sound like a contrarian, but the only surprise I had was that there was no surprise. This whole scenario looks a lot like 2014-2015. this is the middle east, going back to the pre-covid era. you have Palestinian groups launching rockets, using the iron dome and air strikes at the same time. I doubt that this will lead to anything other than destruction, and I see no solution to the conflict.

Content Creator Zaid Butt joined Silsala-e-Azeemia in 2004 as student of spirituality. Mr. Zahid Butt is an IT professional, his expertise include “Web/Graphic Designer, GUI, Visualizer and Web Developer” PH: +92-3217244554

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