Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Raytheon’s decision to form an Iron Dome and SkyHunter joint venture in the United States solves a crucial problem for both companies.

Without a US manufacturing base and assured supply system, it was unlikely the US Army would buy more than the two Iron Dome systems they have ordered at the request of the US Congress.

Iron Dome is Israel’s defense system against short range rockets, cruise missiles and mortar rounds and as such is a complete C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery and mortar) system.

SkyHunter is Raytheon’s name for Israel’s Tamir interceptor missile used by Iron Dome. 

The Tamir interceptor is three meters in length and 16 centimeters in diameter, weighs 90 kilograms at launch and has a range of 2 to 40 kilometers.

Tamir has a proximity fuel explosive warhead which is revoked by an active laser fuse which is then used to destroy its own targets. Each battery is capable of protecting an urban area of approximately 150 square kilometers.

Iron Dome Tamir Interceptors in a file photo. Image: Getty via AFP

Rearguard moves in the Pentagon against the Iron Dome ostensibly turned on two issues:

1. Could Iron dome shoot down cruise missiles?

2. Would Rafael turn over its source code to the Pentagon?

When the Israeli army was asked whether it had any experience shooting down enemy cruise missiles the only answer it could give was “no.” That’s because no enemy cruise missiles have been fired at Israel so there have been none to intercept.

Iron Dome has been the world’s most successful counter-missile system focused on the threat of short-range rockets and missiles.

At the start of August 2020, Iron Dome intercepted a rocket aimed at underground shelters in the sensitive southern Israeli town of Sderot. Three missiles were fired from Gaza but only one of them threatened a populated area. 

Thanks to advanced algorithms built into its radar, Iron Dome only hits missiles that directly threaten populations or infrastructure.

Iron Dome accounts for well over 2,000 intercepts of missiles and has been deployed heavily in the south facing Gaza and with some units in the north anticipating threats from Hezbollah, Iran or Syria.

It is obvious that if Iron Dome can intercept short-range missiles it can destroy cruise missiles as well as aircraft and helicopters.

Israel now has a complementary system called Drone Dome, also made by Rafael that can handle the drone threat. According to Rafael, tests of that system even against cheap Chinese quadcopters have been 100% successful in tests. Drone Dome uses a laser to destroy drones.

Rafael C-Dome anti-missile system on display. Image: Facebook

There also is a naval version of Iron Dome called C-Dome, which has been fitted on to Israel’s SAAR-6 corvettes. It is designed to knock out sea-skimming missiles, cruise missiles and drone attacks. The system is said to be effective against saturation “swarm” attacks, a feature of Iran’s small but fast-moving missile-equipped vessels.

The issue over Iron Dome’s cruise missile capability is one of the excuses the US Army used to try blocking a larger procurement of the system. 

The US Army is working on its own “future” air defense tactical system called the Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC). Army program officers worry that Iron Dome would be so successful that having it in the US inventory would block funding for the IFPC.

One particularly sensitive issue is that Congress has long supported and funded the Iron Dome program and Congress has made it clear it wants Iron Dome used by US forces.

When the US Army started throwing roadblocks against Iron Dome after the Iran-backed missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, Congress wanted to know why Iron Dome wasn’t there protecting them.

The US Army has got itself in the unenviable position of bucking congressional intent and trying to explain why Iron Dome is not a good enough solution “beyond the Patriot.” The Patriot air defense system, a unit of which was recently sent to Iraq, has not performed well.

Poland, which is buying the latest version, has also ordered the Stunner missile installed on its Patriots. Stunner is a hit-to-kill missile designed to go after heavier missiles like Russia’s Iskander that threaten Poland.

Patriot is manufactured by Raytheon. The Stunner interceptor missile is described as an asymmetric kill vehicle with super maneuverability.  It is used on Israel’s David’s Sling and was jointly developed by Raytheon and Rafael.

Israeli soldiers stand in front of an Iron Dome defense system battery in the Hula Valley in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, July 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/Jalaa Marey

The Iron Dome source code issue remains unresolved. The US Army rightly claimed that it needed source code in order to integrate Iron Dome into the proposed integrated IFPC. But the Army has not yet decided on who will build the integrated system, and thus its demands for source code seem more of a political maneuver than an urgent requirement.

In the normal course of a procurement, the source code would be in the hands of the prime contractor or, if the supplier was a subcontractor, then the subcontractor would supply an interface – a sort of black box that would permit integration with radars, command and control, and with other defensive systems.

On August 3, a giant Antonov An-225 carrying Oshkosh truck beds for Iron Dome landed in Israel. Israel will install the Iron Dome system on the truck beds and ship the units back to the US.

The fact that the US Army decided to ship the trucks by air on a specially chartered flight (a Soviet-built aircraft flown from Kiev, a one-of-a-kind aircraft) suggests that it badly needs the Iron Dome system to protect US forward deployments in Syria and Iraq, and that it has decided to stop pushing back against the system.

In this connection, the deal between Raytheon and Rafael in Israel signals that the biggest impediment to US adoption of Iron Dome, either in a stand-alone format or as part of a larger integrated system, has been overcome since US manufacturing is critical to any chance of Pentagon support for a foreign-developed system.

Under the deal, Iron Dome is thus now becoming an Americanized product that is fully competitive in the US local market.