Iron Dome passes tests, but how much will it cost Israel?

The “Iron Dome” short- and medium-range rocket-defense system successfully completed its last round of tests Monday, the Defense Ministry and the IDF said.
According to a statement, the tests, which included the interception of multiple missile barrages fired simultaneously, were a complete success, and the two existing batteries will join the Israel Air Force antiaircraft division in November. However, the army is yet to decide how many batteries to order from producer Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, due to prohibitive costs.

The final tests were carried out in the Negev this week, and followed another successful series of tests, completed in January. Officials at Rafael and in the Defense Ministry said they were particularly pleased with the Iron Dome’s ability to simultaneously intercept a number of rockets from different directions and from different distances. The system is also capable of calculating an incoming rocket’s trajectory, and can avoid firing an interceptor missile if the rocket is destined for an unpopulated area.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised Monday that the defense establishment would work to have the Iron Dome batteries deployed within a short time.

The only budget ensured for the purchase of batteries, beyond the two existing ones, comes from American military aid. Recently, the Congress and the Obama administration confirmed a special aid package of $250 million to Israel, a sum that is meant to cover the purchase of up to nine Iron Dome batteries.

Each battery is estimated to cost between 40 and 50 million shekels, but funding will also be required for radar systems and interceptor missiles. Various estimates speak of a need for at least 20 batteries to cover the Galilee and the Negev, which face missile threats from Lebanon and Gaza, respectively.

The Defense Ministry released a video Monday showing the interception of Grad-type and Qassam-like rockets. The interceptor missiles homed in on rockets flying along a dangerous trajectory and ignored others that didn’t pose a threat.

The head of research and development at the ministry, Brig. Gen. Eitan Asher, said that in the latest experiment, the Iron Dome battery was for the first time operated by an air force crew and connected to air force control, command and communication systems. The battery is supposed to be able to shoot down rockets and missiles within a range of 4 to 75 kilometers, as well as mortar shells of a caliber as small as 120 millimeters, but no smaller.

The purchase of the batteries is expected to begin at the end of the year, but the training of enough anti-aircraft teams to operate the system may take longer. At the moment, the air force is training only crews from one battalion, which will only be able to operate a small number of batteries.

Although theoretically one Iron Dome battery should be able to defend a medium-sized town like Sderot, the air force may keep the batteries in bases, until and unless the situation escalates. That plan has been slammed by Negev mayors and council heads, who Monday demanded to deploy the units as quickly as possible.

The question of costs becomes all the more pressing in view of the government’s decision last week to cut 2.7 billion shekels from the defense budget, although the IDF already said it would oppose the use of its budget for purchase of the units. Some of the generals believe the units should be kept in air force bases even in the case of war, arguing the top priority in such a scenario would be allowing the continuation of IAF attacks and protecting strategically important sites.

The widespread deployment of the Iron Dome is not without political ramifications. The U.S. assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, Andrew Shapiro, said in a lecture in Washington last week that missile interception systems would allow Israel to make tough decisions required for lasting peace – in other words, that Israel would be able to retreat from more territories, without fearing an increased threat from missiles.