Israel's Iron Dome system in action. Photo: IDF

You can say what you like about Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, but the fact remains, it is the most combat-tested system of its kind — end of story.

Yes, it can be over-sensitive, launching the occasional missile by mistake, but the mobile all-weather weapon developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, is designed to protect the population and critical assets and can be strategically placed to reduce collateral damage, Army Technology reported.

The poster child for missile defense, Iron Dome detects, analyses and intercepts a range of incoming threats, including C-RAM, precise guided missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and air-breathing threats — even tactical rockets and mortar shells.

So why, exactly, did the US military give it a thumbs-down.

According to a report by Michael Peck of The National Interest, a top US Army general told Congress that Iron Dome can’t be integrated into the Army’s new Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) air and missile defense system.

Despite Army protests, Congress in 2019 mandated the Army buy two Iron Dome batteries. But in February 2020, General John Murray, chief of Army Futures Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that Iron Dome was not compatible, the report said.

“It took us longer to acquire those two batteries than we would have liked for a lot of different reasons,” Murray testified. “We believe we cannot integrate them into our air defense system based upon some interoperability challenges, some cyber [security] challenges, and some other challenges. So what we ended up having is two stand-alone batteries that will be very capable, but they cannot be integrated.”

“My assessment right now is, it would be — and I hate to ever use the word ‘impossible’ — but exceptionally difficult to integrate Iron Dome into our layered air defense architecture [and] to get Iron Dome talk to other systems, other radars, specifically the Sentinel radar,” Murray told a reporter for Breaking Defense.

“What you’re probably — almost certainly – going to see is two standalone systems, and if the best we can do is standalone systems, we do not want to buy another two batteries.”

But to boil it down, the Pentagon was miffed that Israel has not allowed full access to Iron Dome software, the report said.

“Army officials reportedly requested the ‘source code’ of the Iron Dome from Israel, which supplied engineering information but refused to provide the code detailing how the system works – a necessary component to integrate the two countries’ defense systems,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

The US Army is revitalizing its air defense systems – which have languished since the Cold War – in light of threats from Russian and Chinese ballistic missiles as well as drones fielded by numerous nations, the report said.

Key to this effort is an integrated approach that combines air defense weapons, sensors and command systems. If Iron Dome can’t be linked to other US defense systems in the age of multi-domain operations, then its utility is somewhat limited.

Iron Dome – partly funded by American military aid to Israel — was conceived as a way to protect Israeli towns from Hezbollah and Hamas rockets. Nearly 4,000 rockets, mostly of the short-range Katyusha type, were fired on Haifa and other northern regions of Israel, the report said.

According to the military website, Full Afterburner, the main constituent of Iron Dome is the Tamir missile.

The latter uses several steering fins for high maneuverability and is equipped with electro-optic sensors and a proximity fuel explosive warhead which is triggered by an active laser fuse. It is designed for high efficiency and low cost (US$95,000 each).

The Tamir missile is guided by an EL/M-2084 Radar which detects the rocket’s launch and tracks its trajectory. It receives commands from the control centre until it is close enough to home in to its target using its own radar seeker.

Israel claims it can track up to 1,100 air surveillance targets at a maximum distance of 256 nautical miles.

Each battery (20 rockets) is capable of protecting an urban area of approximately 150 square kilometers.

However, American and Israeli critics have questioned whether Iron Dome is as effective as Israel claims.

Ted Postol, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a longtime harsh critic of Israeli and American missile defense, said Youtube video of Iron Dome interceptions shows the system isn’t working, National Interest reported.

Postol dismissed the IDF’s claim of an 86% interception rate. “Five to 10 percent is more likely,” he said. “It’s not Iron Dome. It’s Iron Sieve.”

The Pentagon also worries that Iron Dome might not function so well outside Israel.

“Iron Dome’s a good system,” U.S. Army acquisition chief Bruce Jette said at a recent conference. “It’s designed really well to do what it does —  which is [to counter] rockets, artillery, and mortars, in a particular configuration, in a particular environment.”

“They [the Israelis] have espoused, and to some degree demonstrated, the ability to deal with some cruise missiles,” Jette said. “The problem is we have to deal with all cruise missiles, and we don’t think we’ve gotten there yet.”

The loser in this, is not just Israel — it is US troops, who would probably sleep better at posts in the Mideast and elsewhere, knowing that Iron Dome was on guard.