Matti Friedman
The Associated Press
April 10, 2011 - 12:00am

A new Israeli-made missile defense system has gotten off to an encouraging start, shooting down at least eight rockets in a test run that could potentially change the long-running war between Israel and Palestinian rocket squads in Gaza.

Israeli officials say the $200 million "Iron Dome" has performed beyond all expectations, raising hopes the military has finally found a way to rob Hamas militants of their most potent weapon: the short-range rockets that have made life miserable for large swaths of the population over the past decade.

The repeated successes have raised spirits in Israel's embattled southern region, prompted a congratulatory visit to an Iron Dome battery on Sunday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and fueled calls, perhaps unrealistic, that the system be deployed nationwide. Experts say Iron Dome is the first system in the world capable of knocking down rudimentary rockets favored by militants around the globe.

Yet officials and analysts warn the excitement may be premature, noting the system is in its infancy and that armed groups in Gaza possess plenty of other formidable weapons.

"We will not be able to protect every house, every installation, every site in the state of Israel," Netanyahu acknowledged, even as he hailed the Iron Dome as a "most impressive technological achievement."

Iron Dome is a key element of what Israel refers to as its "multi-layer" missile defense shield, a series of systems meant to defend the country from everything from medium-range missiles that could be launched from Iran, hundreds of miles away, down to the short-range projectiles possessed by enemies on its northern and southern borders. These primitive rockets, which fly just a few miles and are in the air for just seconds, have eluded Israel's high-tech military for years.

With the system in use for just a few days, it is far too early to declare it an unabashed success. Two decades ago, Israel used the American-made Patriot missiles to shoot down incoming Scuds fired by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Israel and the U.S. touted the Patriot as a great success, only to admit in later years that it had often missed its targets.

But so far, the results have been encouraging.

Its computer system detects the launch of a rocket almost instantly and calculates its trajectory. If it is headed toward an open area, its operator can let it land. But if it is traveling toward a population center or other sensitive target, the operator can fire an interceptor missile from a box-like launcher pointed at the sky.

The interceptor homes in on the approaching projectile and destroys it in a shower of shrapnel. Israel has deployed two batteries, protecting the major southern cities of Ashkelon and Beersheba.

Ilan Bitton, a former commander of Israel's air defenses, said the system had "successfully passed its first baptism of fire."

"Those rockets, had they not been intercepted over the weekend and had they landed, would have caused serious damage, certainly to property and perhaps to human life," he said.

Officials caution that no system can hermetically seal Israel's skies. Iron Dome is expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars for every launch, a sharp contrast to the Palestinian rockets that can cost as little as several hundred dollars to make.

The two operational batteries can defend only a small area of the south, and the technology is ineffective against shorter-range projectiles like mortar shells. Since suffering heavy losses in an war against Israel two years ago, Hamas has replenished is arsenal with other weapons, such as guided anti-tank missiles like the one that struck an Israeli school bus last week, wounding two people.

Isaac Ben-Israel, a former Israeli air force general and lawmaker, said Iron Dome would be effective if combined with other defense systems and offensive military operations against militants.

"It's the beginning of a significant change," he said. "The road is long, but it's real." He said it was the first time that any country had developed a defense against short-range rockets like the ones fired from Gaza.

"A new chapter has opened in the history of conflict between offense and defense in border wars, (reducing) the feeling of helpless vulnerability that civilians and soldiers have felt," wrote the Haaretz daily in an editorial.

Israel's media brimmed with calls for wider deployment of the batteries.

Israel would need a total of 20 batteries to provide adequate defense for its borders with Gaza and Lebanon, said Meir Elran, a scholar at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Such a deployment would require financial assistance from the U.S., he said.

But even in its currently limited form, officially designated a trial period, the system is important, he said.

The Iron Dome is already raising great hopes among the public. It was featured on the front pages of all major Israeli newspapers Sunday, a reflection of how much years of rocket fire have shaped the national psyche.

All of Israel is now believed to be in the rocket range of Hamas militants in Gaza, or the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon. Removing that threat, or even limiting it, is key to easing fears in this jittery country.

Gaza militants began to fire rockets and mortar shells into Israel in 2001. Since then, thousands of projectiles have hit southern Israel, killing 18 people and wounding hundreds.

While the number of casualties is far below those sustained on the Palestinian side, the rockets and missiles have caused widespread panic and trauma, in part because they can strike civilian population centers at virtually any time.

In 2006, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon bombarded northern Israel with some 4,000 rockets during a month-long war, punctuating the helplessness of Israel's technologically advanced military.

Early the next year, Israel commissioned the development of Iron Dome, choosing an Israeli contractor, Rafael, over the American giant Lockheed Martin. Rafael officials have said foreign armies are now inquiring about purchasing the technology.

Iron Dome went from the drawing board to combat readiness within less than four years, a remarkably short period of time for a weapons system designed from scratch, according to military experts.

One of the programmers involved in the project was Eyal Ron, a manager at mPrest, a small company based in a high-tech park in a suburb of Tel Aviv. The company was put in charge of programming the core of Iron Dome's operating system.

"There was no system like this, anywhere in the world, in terms of capabilities, speed, accuracy. We felt like a start-up," he said.


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