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Iron Dome missile defense magic based on advanced hardware, software

Any ballistic missile interceptor system needs to meet at minimum three requirements: it must have a way to detect and track an incoming projectile, it must be able to use that tracking data to predict the future course of that projectile, and it must be able to accurately be able to get in the way of that projectile. In Israel’s case there’s a further requirement. Because most of Hamas’ arsenal has a range of just two to 20 miles, it has to do all of this very, very quickly.

An Israeli Iron Dome defense missile is fired in Ashdod, Nov. 18. / AFP

Iron Dome satisfies all three of these requirements remarkably well. It starts with radar stations that detect a missile or artillery shell moving toward Israeli airspace. Trajectory data on the missile are beamed to a battle control system, which quickly assembles a ballistic profile of the missle — where it is now, how fast it is moving, and where it is going to be. The system and its overseers then make a decision; Is this projectile a threat to a populated area, or is it destined for a rural field or some place where people are not likely to be harmed. Roughly two-thirds of the rockets fired thus far from Gaza have fallen into the latter category, and Iron Dome lets those rockets fall harmlessly.

But if an incoming rocket is perceived to be a threat, that radar data is quickly transferred to a fixed or mobile missile battery–each of which packs 20 radar-guided Tamir interceptor missiles. Those missiles have thus far proven adequately effective in tracking down Hamas missiles in flight and destroying them before they can reach their targets. Moreover, they seem to have grown even more effective since the system was first deployed last year. …

One reason Iron Dome is showing a much more robust capability than the Patriot system did in the early 1990s could simply be the fact that its battle control hardware and software are several generations more advanced than those early interceptor systems.

Whatever the reason, Iron Dome is working, and there are reasons to celebrate this technological achievement — lives saved, property spared, infrastructure preserved, continuity of daily life unchanged —and reasons to temper our optimism. As Cold War missile ideology demonstrated, a defensive countermeasure that is perceived as too potent can sometimes make an adversary feel cornered, pushing it toward more extreme measures. As one senior Israeli official has pointed out, Iron Dome must be frustrating Hamas, and without the ability to point to battlefield successes, it cannot declare any kind of political or military victory, nor does it have much to negotiate with. That could prompt Hamas to keep up the fight longer than it might otherwise.


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