From Dr Hamid Hussain.
19 November 2023
Conversations about Israeli missile defense, its role in bigger picture of conflict & US assistance in this field resulted in this summary for those interested in the subject.
Protective Umbrella – Israel’s Missile Defense System
“The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them.”
Israel has a multi-layered missile defense system to counter rockets, artillery, missiles, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Israel‘s national missile defense program is called Homa (Hebrew for Fortress Wall). Homa is a layered, active defense system. The bottom layer is Iron Dome that intercepts short-range surface-to-surface rockets, middle layer is David’s Sling that intercepts short to medium and medium to long range surface-to-surface missiles and upper layer is Arrow-2 (upper-atmospheric) that intercepts medium to long range missiles and Arrow-3 (exo-atmospheric) that intercepts long-range missiles. Israel also has 4-6 Patriot batteries (known in Israel by Hebrew name Yahalom meaning diamond), Israel’s Missile Defense Organization (IMDO), established in 1991 is responsible for the development, management and improvement of Israel’s active defense systems including radars, command and control systems, network connectivity, launchers, and interceptors.
Peace treaties with neighboring Egypt and Jordan improved Israel’s defense. Initial threat perception consisted of medium and long-range missiles from hostile states especially Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In 1998, the first Arrow-2 system was transferred to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to counter this threat. In 2000s, use of small range rockets by Hezbollah and Hamas created a new challenge as long-range Arrow-2 system was not effective against these small projectiles. After the 2006, Israel-Hezbollah war, research, and development to counter this new challenge resulted in development of Iron Dome system with intercept range of 2.5 to 43 miles. Iron Dome became operational in March 2011 and within few days intercepted a Grad rocket fired from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Iron Dome system has three components. The Multi Mission Radar (MMR) detects the rocket’s routes and sends the information to the command-and-control center that analyzes the trajectory of rockets and their estimated landing area. If the landing area of the rocket is uninhabited, no action is taken. If the landing area is a military structure or civilian inhabited area, then command and control unit send the order to launcher to fire interceptor missile that explodes close to the rocket to disintegrate it and avoid damage from large debris. Currently, Israel has ten Iron Dome batteries deployed throughout the country, and each battery is designed to defend a sixty square mile populated area. Each battery has three to four launchers loaded with up to 20 Tamir interceptors per launcher for a total of 60-80 interceptors per battery. Each Iron Dome battery costs about $100 million and the cost of each Tamir interceptor missile is $40’000.
Hezbollah and Hamas improved their rocket inventory by launching larger and more accurate rockets towards Israeli cities. This challenge resulted in development of the David’s Sling system that started in 2006 and became operational in 2017. It is the middle tier in Israel’s missile defenses designed to intercept ballistic and cruise missiles at ranges of 40 to 300 km.
The David’s Sling consists of an ELM-2084 fire control radar for detection, identification and tracking of airborne threats. It has a maximum range of 474 kilometers. The Golden Almond, command and control center provides threat assessment, planning and control for interception. The interceptor system consists of six vertical missile firing units and each unit can hold 6-12 Stunner interceptor missiles. Stunner has no warhead and hits the target rocket or missile directly. Stunner has an onboard data link that ensures continuous communication after leaving the launcher that can be used for midcourse guidance. Israel has two operational David Sling batteries. A David’s Sling battery costs $250 million and the cost of each Stunner missile is $1 million.
David Sling was first used in 2018, when radar picked up two Syrian SS-21Tockhka short range ballistic missile launched by the Assad regime against rebels. The trajectory showed that it was heading towards Israeli territory. Two Stunner missiles were launched for interception but when a change in the incoming missiles’ trajectory was noticed, a self-destruct signal was sent to the Stunner interceptors. One Stunner exploded over the Golan Heights but the other landed intact in Syrian territory. There were reports suggesting that Syria gave that missile to Russia. Tochka missiles fell within Syrian territory.
The Arrow-2 system is designed for identification and tracking of long-range ballistic missiles and intercepts targets at the edge of the atmosphere. It consists of Green Pine radar system, Citron Tree control center, Hazelnut Tree launch control center and a launcher that can hold six interceptor missiles. It was transferred to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in 1998 and in 2002, two batteries of Arrow-2 became operational. Each battery is estimated to cost around $170 million, and each interceptor missile costs about $1.5 million.
In March 2017, first known use of the Arrow-2 was reported, when it successfully intercepted a Syrian surface-to-air missile that had been fired on an Israeli jet returning to Israel from an operation inside Syria. On 31 October 2023, for the first time it intercepted a ballistic missile that was launched from Yemen.
Arrow-3 serves as the top layer of Israel’s air defense array. It is designed to intercept longer range, higher altitude (exo-atmospheric), and more precise ballistic missiles. It intercepts rockets in outer space. Each Arrow 3 interceptor missile costs about $2 million. On 09 November 2023, Israel confirmed the first operational use of its Arrow-3 system when it intercepted a missile near Eilat launched from Yemen.
United States and Isarel have long standing history of close military cooperation. According to Congressional Research Service (CRS) 2023 report, Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance since World War II. In the last three decades, this relationship has been put on a solid long-term basis by signing ten-year agreements. The first 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) (FY1999 – FY2008), signed under the Clinton Administration provided Israel $21.3 billion in military aid. Second MOU (FY2009 – FY2018) signed by the Bush Administration provided $30 billion military aid and third 10-year MOU (FY2019 – FY2028) under the Obama administration pledged $38 billion in military aid ($33 billion in Foreign Military Financing grants plus $5 billion in missile defense appropriations).
There is special emphasis on missile defense where IMDO closely collaborates with the United States Missile Defense Agency (MDA) with US government providing funding for research, development, manufacture, deployment, and improvement of all Israeli missile defense platforms. The United States has provided $1.7 billion to Israel for Iron Dome batteries, interceptors, co-production costs, and general maintenance. Since 2006, the United States has contributed over $2.1 billion to the development of David’s Sling and total U.S. financial contribution for all Arrow systems is over $4 billion. Since 2001, Israel and the United States have conducted a joint biennial ballistic missile defense exercise, called Juniper Cobra, to integrate their weapons, radars, and other systems.
After 07 October 2023 devastating attack of Hamas on Israeli border communities, Biden administration promised $2 billion additional military aid but within three weeks this amount ballooned to $14 billion. The administration’s funding request for additional military aid would support Iron Dome by adding more than one hundred new launchers and nearly 14,000 Tamir interceptors (Washington has already shipped its entire inventory of 312 Tamir missiles to Israel). This got bogged down in the deeply divided political environment despite bipartisan support for Israel. President Biden proposed a $105 billion national security package that included $61 billion for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson rejected it, and instead Republican controlled House passed a standalone Israel aid bill that would be paid by cutting funding for Internal Revenue Service. This is expected to fail in the Democrat controlled Senate.
Despite political bickering in the Congress, Israel is receiving the weapons. Bloomberg News reported that the Pentagon is delivering on Israeli requests by delivering laser-guided Hellfire missiles for its Apache gunships, bunker-buster munitions, 155 mm artillery shells, 30 mm Apache canon ammunition, 120 mm mortars, night-vision devices, and new army vehicles. Administration is also asking to replenish America’s stockpile of interceptors, artillery shells, and other munitions stored in Israel. Since the start of Israeli military operation in Gaza, large amount of these stores has been transferred to IDF. This is a special arrangement under War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel (WRSAI) program where U.S. stores war material in Israel and current value of this store is $4 billion. In 1989, the George H.W. Bush Administration altered the terms by allowing Israel access to it in emergency situations. It is a great advantage to Isarel as normally any additional military aid request must go through Congress and even emergency request requires 60-day congressional notification and even after approval will need time to deliver to Israel. This little noticed alteration bypasses all these hurdles and Israelis can simply pick up material stored in their country. In addition to current use of stockpile, in recent years, Isarel has used it twice. In 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel replenished precision-guided munitions and in 2014, in Israeli military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it replenished 120-mm tank rounds and 40-mm illumination rounds fired from grenade launchers from these American stores.
In contrast to advertisement of military aid to Ukraine, Biden administration is keeping weapons deliveries to Israel secret. This is due to large scale destruction of residential buildings in Gaza, death of over 10’000 and internal displacement of over one million Palestinians. This devastation triggered large domestic and international protests calling for a ceasefire. Many administration officials are privately cautioning about diplomatic, political and security costs to United States by completely aligning with Israel. Hundreds of employees and staffers of Congress, State Department and over two dozen aid agencies including United States Aid Agency are expressing their opposition to current policy publicly as well as through dissent channels.
In a 2001 paper, United States Air Force Officer Major Guermantes E. Lailari highlighted future challenges for Israeli missile defense system. He argued that the very success of this system will inevitably drive adversaries to find new ways to overcome it. Some of these counter measures included launching large number of missiles to overwhelm the missile defense system, deception–developing technical means to deceive missile defenses or interfere with electronic signals and completely bypassing air defense by using asymmetric warfare technique using trucks, terrorists, or even small boats to attack Israeli targets (this is what exactly happened in October 2023 attack). He concluded that “for every attempt to counter one technique, the other side is developing another counter. This is the cycle of warfare”.
Israel – Hamas and Isarel – Hezbollah conflicts of 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2018, 2019 and 2021 highlighted changing rocket threat matrix. The numbers, distance and lethality of rockets markedly improved over the years. In 2006, Israel-Hezbollah conflict about 4000 rockets were fired in the six weeks conflict. In 2014 Israeli-Hamas conflict, 4000 rockets were fired in fifty days. In 2021 conflict, over 4000 rockets were fired from Gaza in fourteen days. According to data provided by IDF, in the current crisis, 3000 rockets were fired in the first four hours of the conflict and in four weeks (07 October – 09 November), 9500 rockets were fired. About 2000 rockets were intercepted by Israeli missile defense array mainly by Iron Dome. With Tamir interceptor missile price tag of $40’000 per piece, in four weeks, Israel spent $8 billion only on this line item.
Seth Frantzman’s perceptive analysis of 2021 Israel-Hamas conflict highlighted the operational limit, and he concluded that Iron Dome batteries and interceptors were not endless. He was of the view that ‘Israel’s Iron Dome has kept the country out of most major ground wars in the last decade. Now it may have reached a strategic peak, which means Israel’s top brass need a new game plan’.
The real value of the Iron Dome system was to keep Israel out of ground invasion of Gaza or Lebanon for loss of considerable number of Israeli lives would compel government to launch a ground offensive to physically remove rocket threat emanating from Gaza and Lebanon. The time provided by this platform was meant to be used by political leadership to find a political solution to the problem. Instead, the maintenance of status quo where every 2-3 years, rocket launch from Gaza or Lebanon resulting in minor damage and a handful of Israeli casualties was considered good enough and could be sold to Israeli public with little political fallout. There was no need for spending the precious political capital on the treacherous peace process for which there were few Israeli customers to start with.
In October 2023, status quo was upended, and Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza after the death of over 1200 Israelis in the most devastating but low-tech offensive attack that penetrated the high-tech defense environment. The status quo maintained by Israel from the position of strength has been seriously challenged by Hamas from a position of weakness and brought the Palestinian question back to international stage. The military platform is a tool of national defense and not a solution to a political problem. Israel is still in the state of shock and trauma and in the immediate response phase of revenge. Once the dust settles of current violent cycle, it will be again at the crossroad where Israeli society needs to address its basic problem with Palestinian question.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
- For details of Israeli missile defense program by Israeli Ministry of Defense, see,
- Major Guermantes E. Lailari, HOMA: Israel’s National Missile Defense Strategy (Abridged Version) by Air Command and Staff College, Air University.
- Missile Defense Project, “David’s Sling (Israel),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 14, 2016, last modified July 13, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/defsys/davids-sling/.
- For complete 2023 Congressional Research Report on military assistance to Israel, see,
- Administration’s request for military aid to Isarel,
- Seth Frantzman’s 2021 analysis,
- Bloomberg News on US weapons transfer to Isarel
- For Israeli Defense Force information about rocket attacks and interception during current crisis, see,
18 November 2023