The Iron Dome - A Comparison of Israeli and Iranian Air Defense Capabilities

The Iron Dome - A Comparison of Israeli and Iranian Air Defense Capabilities

by Tomislav Lovrić

Israel’s Iron Dome defense system successfully defended the Jewish state from hundreds of missiles and drones launched by Iran on April 13th, 2024. The Iron Dome, one of the Israeli systems deployed, is, without doubt one of the best air defense systems in the world – perhaps the best to ever exist, and it’s been playing a crucial part in Israel’s defensive capabilities for decades, getting more spotlight ever since the open war of Israel and Hamas.Six days later, Israel attacked Iran with what is believed to be a drone or a missile. 

Details of the Israeli strike are sketchy, including what the actual target was. But the Israeli launch penetrated Iranian defenses and hit its mark.

In this article, we’ll break down the Iron Dome and its functionality as a crucial part of Israel’s defensive network, and also shed some light on Iran’s often overlooked defensive capabilities, and see how both can be used in the ongoing conflict and future conflagrations. 

Table of Contents

  • 01

    What Is the Iron Dome?

  • 02

    How Does the Iron Dome Work – A Detailed Breakdown of the Iron Dome

  • 03

    How Effective Is the Iron Dome?

  • 04

    Israel’s Defensive Capabilities

  • 05

    Iran’s Defensive Capabilities

  • 06

    What Lies Ahead?

What Is the Iron Dome?

The Iron Dome is one high-tech component of Israel’s air defense system. Its mission is to protect the country from short-range rockets, missiles, and artillery shells.

No air defense system in the world can rival it. According to the latest reports, many countries, most of them NATO allies, are working on developing versions of the Iron Dome system.  Most notably, the Republic of South Korea has confirmed plans to spend over $2.5 billion to create and implement a similar system by 2035 to defend its peninsula in case of an attack from the communist north. Azerbaijan, a nation that maintains close ties to Israel, reportedly purchased a version of Iron Dome in 2021, to protect  the country from short-range missiles.

At this point in time, however, there is no air defense system in the world akin to the Iron Dome, which has faithfully served Israel and its people since 2011.

Why Was the Iron Dome Built?

Known in Hebrew as Kipat Barzel, Iron Dome has been operational since 2011, and was designed as a countermeasure to artillery shelling, rockets, and ballistic missile attacks. Palestinian terror Katyusha rocket and mortar fire from Lebanon was one of the factors that led to Israel’s invasion of its northern neighbor in 1982; Hezbollah continued using rocket and artillery fire during the 1990s to attack Israel’s north. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired approximately  4000 rockets at Israel, killing 44 civilians, and forcing 250,000 citizens to relocate from their homes. The Hezbollah rocket and missile fire, aimed at Israel’s civilian infrastructure, forced over a million Israelis to seek underground shelter.

Between 2000 and 2009, Hamas launched more than 4000 rockets and fired more than 4000 mortar shells at Israel’s south from the Gaza Strip. Approximately one million Israelis live within immediate Hamas rocket and artillery range. 

The need to develop an advanced air defense system was initially developed in the 1990s, and in 2007 Israel’s Defense Minister finally authorized the development of the Iron Dome project to serve as the country’s primary defense against short-range rocket threats.

How Does the Iron Dome Work – A Detailed Breakdown of the Iron Dome

Iron Dome systems provide protective cover to large parts of the country, primarily around heavily-populated areas, and have the capability to detect any short-range rocket, missile, or artillery launches. The Iron Dome is, however, not a simple detect-fire-intercept single-unit system.

Iron Dome consists of three integral components: a Battle Management Control System (BMC), a hive of highly-advanced radars, and missile launchers. All three components work in unison to detect, predict trajectories, and defeat incoming threats.  A single Iron Dome battery can defend approximately 58 square miles (150 square kilometers) of territory. Each component of the Iron Dome is mobile, which means that the IDF can move batteries around and protect any part of the country when and if necessary.

In technical terms, the Iron Dome was designed to detect and destroy short-range rockets and 155mm artillery shells with a range of up to 43 miles (about 70 kilometers). It can respond to multiple threats simultaneously.  

Iron Dome relies on accurate data provided by its arrays that detect incoming projectiles and forward that information to the launching system, which it uses to guide their interceptor missiles. Unlike many other air defense systems used around the world, Iron Dome operates in all climate conditions.  Bad weather can impact the accuracy of the air defense systems, but the Iron Dome almost completely nullifies that impact.

Israel’s air defense locking on to an Iranian projectile, April 14, 2024. Image courtesy of IDF.

Cloudy skies can affect visual target acquisition capabilities, while humidity affects the refractive index and degrades the effectiveness of the arrays. illumination, precipitation, wind, high and low temperatures, and thunderstorms can all play a role in system accuracy. In Ukraine, for example, Russia has used bad weather to its tactical advantage, but that is not a factor when it comes to the Iron Dome. Iron Dome does not require good visibility to function. Weather cannot stop it.

Information on the number of incoming missiles, rockets, and projectiles that Iron Dome can stop simultaneously is classified. It’s safe to say, though, especially given the Star Wars-like light shows seen live on TV during Hamas rocket launches, that the numbers are impressive. Uzi Rubin, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, explained that each launcher of the Iron Dome can fire all 20 of its interceptors within ten seconds. 

The Radars and the Battle Management Control Systems

ELM-2084 Multimission Radar. Image courtesy of Israel Aerospace Industries.

The Battle Management Control Systems is the first component of the Iron Dome to get to work once a projectile, missile, or rocket has been detected.

According to published information,  the Iron Dome radars have a detection radius of approximately 62 miles (100 kilometers). It’s possible that the effective range is even greater.

Once the radars detect an incoming projectile, it becomes a target, and the radar sends target information to its assigned Battle Management Control System, which calculates the impact point of the target. The Iron Dome does not intercept every missile it detects! Instead, it calculates the incoming threat’s point of impact, and if it determines that the incoming ordnance will not pose a threat to population centers, property, or anything else of value, the system simply lets the missile land and explode in what the Israelis classify as unprotected areas. A  single Battle Management Control System is assigned to protected areas. The same can’t be said for missile launchers, though, as there are often three or four batteries covering a small area–all dependent on the frequency and likeliness of an area encountering a threat. 

Missile Launchers and Tamir Interceptor Missiles

The Iron Dome utilizes Tamir interceptor missiles (Tamir is an acronym for Til Meyaret, which means “interceptor missile” in Hebrew) to destroy incoming aerial threats. They are launched from the missile firing unit. 

Each missile launcher is equipped with 20 Tamir missiles, and barring any misfires, it can fire its entire load within 10 seconds. The missiles are then guided by the BMC System toward the oncoming threat.

The estimated cost for a  single Tamir missile is between $100,000 and $150,000: the defense of Israel during the 50-day conflict in 2014 when 3360 rockets were launched at the country cost between $336 and $504 million. The Hamas rocket and missile blitz only killed two people, while thousands could have perished if it were not for the Iron Dome system. There is no price attached to saving a human life. 

How Effective Is the Iron Dome?

According to defense consultants and military experts in Israel and around the world, the Iron Dome is incredibly effective. It is undoubtedly one of the most effective air defense systems in the world. Steven Zaloga, a noted international defense expert, stated that the Iron Dome destroys 90% of its targets.

The Iron Dome is not entirely impenetrable – no system is. In 2019, Iron Dome missed a Hamas-launched J-80 Qassam rocket that destroyed a house in southern Israel. Hamas claimed that the reason the rocket penetrated Israel’s defenses was because of its nonlinear path, which the Iron Dome could not intercept.

A swarm of incoming missiles can overwhelm an Iron Dome defensive setup, especially when the number of launched threats and point of impact outnumber the Tamir interceptor missiles in a protected area.  If, for example, there are 60 interceptor missiles in a protected area, and 70 rockets are launched, 10 are likely to land, though the BMC’s computer and impact detection/prediction systems will prioritize those heading toward populated areas.

Anti-interceptor jammers have also had reported some success against the Iron Dome. This became apparent during the 2021 Israel-Gaza crisis, when Hamas developed a jamming system that Israel destroyed to ensure that it would not interfere in the effectiveness of its air defenses. 

The Iron Dome, however, is only one layer in Israel’s multi-platform defensive capabilities!

Israel’s Defensive Capabilities

Israel’s missile defense system consists of four layers: Iron Dome protects against short-range missiles; David’s Sling protects against mid-to-long-range missiles; and, Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems protect the country from ballistic missiles.

The Iron Dome paved the way for David’s Sling, which only became operational in 2017. The Arrow family of defense systems has been active since the 1990s.  Air and anti-missile defense systems are but one element of Israel’s military capabilities. The Israel Defense Forces–its armor, land, air, naval, and intelligence components–is the most powerful military in the Middle East. 

Iran’s Defensive Capabilities

Iran does not have defensive systems that can match the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome. Iran’s Air Defense Force controls the Islamic Republic’s military radar network, and it’s equipped with more than two dozen air defense missile systems, as well as artillery--based air defense and mechanized systems. Iran’s air defense system is layered, consisting of at least forty long-range, medium-range, and short-range systems, as well as ten radar systems. 

The indigenously-produced Bavar-373 long-range mobile surface-to-air missile system–similar to the Russian-made S-300–is the country’s most advanced.  It has a radar range of 280 miles (450 kilometers), can track 60 targets and engage six simultaneously, intercepting them at a range of up to 300 kilometers. However, the system was never field-tested, aside from military exercises. Its effectiveness has not been proven, and it must be noted that it did not intercept the Israeli strike against Isfahan on April 19. 

On April 19th, three drones were detected headed for Isfahan province in Iran and Iran’s air defense systems didn’t manage to stop the attack, despite Iranian officials claiming that the drones were neutralized. Somewhat ironically, the intended target of the attack was a radar that served as part of Iran’s air defense system. Satellite imagery confirms that the radar was damaged, and that several S-300 air defense systems which were stationed immediately next to the radar have been moved. 

Israel’s officials have not commented on the attacks, and it is yet unknown who launched the drones, but it’s highly suspected that Israel was behind the attack as the drones were launched after Israel’s threat of retaliation following Iran’s attack on Israel on April 13th.

What Lies Ahead?

The escalating ballistic missile conflict between Israel and Iran has created global uncertainty reminiscent of the Cold War. 

It is impossible to accurately predict how events will play out and if a major incident will spark a larger regional conflict–perhaps one spreading beyond the Middle East. In such times of international chaos, it is always prudent to stay prepared: both with survival equipment and a get-out plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Iron Dome?
Which Countries Have the Iron Dome?
How Does the Iron Dome Work?
Does Iran Have the Iron Dome?