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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Israel's Iron Dome Missile interception system to be launched in 18 months

Is 18 months from now too late for the next war?
By Yuval Azoulay 
Israel's short-range rocket-based missile interception system will become operational in 18 months, officials at Rafael, the national authority for the development of weapons and military technology, told Haaretz yesterday. A future pullout from the West Bank could be hinged on the system's deployment. Yesterday, Haaretz reported that Defense Minister Ehud Barak is insisting on commissioning an operational Iron Dome system as a prerequisite for an Israeli pullout from the West Bank. Barak is insisting on a dependable means of protection for Israeli settlements from the threat of Palestinian ballistic capabilities, like the Qassam rockets which Gaza militants have been firing at the northern Negev for the past five years.

The Iron Dome system will use the Israel Defense Forces' early warning radar system to identify short-range missiles and rockets in flight. In addition to Qassam rockets, Iron Dome is meant to protect against Hezbollah and Syria's Katyusha rockets. After the launch is confirmed, Iron Dome will locate the speeding rocket through a dedicated radar developed by Elta Systems, a group and subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries. Once the system acquires the rocket as a target, it will launch a rocket of its own to intercept the hostile missile mid-flight. The Iron Dome intercepting rocket is designed to travel at a much greater speed than the Qassam's 300 meters per second. Additionally, Iron Dome aims to intercept the hostile rocket at the highest altitude possible, for fear it might carry a chemical or biological warhead. High interception would make contamination less concentrated. The entire target acquiring process is performed in less than one second. And so, the system is designed to launch the intercepting rocket approximately one second after the hostile rocket is detected on radar. The cost of a single Iron Dome launch is $30,000 to $40,000. The system will, however, not launch an intercepting rocket if its calibrations indicate the hostile rocket will land in an open, uninhabited area - thereby dramatically reducing costs. Before going ahead with Rafael's Iron Done, the Defense Ministry reviewed 13 other suggestions. Some of the proposed systems were rejected because their development process would have been too lengthy for the defense establishment's needs. Others, like the Israel Military Industries (IMI) Magic Shield proposal, were abandoned because of cost efficiency considerations. 
"The Defense establishment would not afford us the funds required for developing our systems," a senior Israel Military Industries (IMI) official said. The official noted that the IMI's proposed system would have been more expensive to operate than Rafael's Iron Dome.

Meanwhile, the government is considering resuming funding for the advanced laser-based Skyguard missile protection system (Nautilus). Defense establishment officials said that if the system were approved, it too could be operational in 18 months.

The Nautilus project was dropped about a year and a half ago, despite several successful tests and despite repeated rocket attacks from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, but Public Security Minister Avi Dichter has been enlisted to spearhead the effort to resurrect Nautilus by a strong lobby group, including former defense ministry officials.

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