Israel’s Iron Dome has been described as one of the most effective air defence systems on the planet.
It was designed to respond to short-range threats from Gaza and southern Lebanon, and has intercepted thousands of rockets since it became operational in 2011.
Israel’s Ministry of Defence says it is capable of handling multiple threats simultaneously, with a success rate of up to 90 per cent.
But the intensity of the rocket barrage from Hamas militants in its surprise attack on early Saturday morning managed to saturate the system.
And experts say if the Iran-backed Hezbollah gets involved — the militant Shia Muslim group based in Lebanon — then Israel will be facing much larger bombardments with much more sophisticated missiles.
Did the mighty Iron Dome actually fail over the weekend, and will it be able to hold up if the situation in the Middle East continues to escalate?
Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip above the city of Ashkelon. (Reuters: Amir Cohen)
How does the Iron Dome work?
The short-range Iron Dome missile defence system was developed by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, with US backing, to counter threats like rockets, mortars and drones.
The system consists of three main elements: the launcher and its interceptors, a ground-based multi-mission radar, and a control system.
The truck-towed units essentially fire radar-guided missiles to blow up targets in midair.
“It basically intercepts the rockets and missiles with its own rocket interceptors, and uses radar to detect and track them,” Michael Shoebridge, director and founder of Strategic Analysis Australia, a defence and security-focused think tank, said.
Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system was developed to respond to threats from Gaza and southern Lebanon. (ABC News graphic: Jarrod Fankhauser)
Israel has 10 Iron Dome batteries deployed around the country.
They can provide city-sized coverage against rockets with ranges of between 4 and 70 km, according to the Israel Defense Force (IDF).
Each battery is able to defend up to 155 square kilometres and are strategically placed around cities and populated areas.
A battery includes three to four launchers, and each launcher can hold up to 20 interceptors.
Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system fires to intercept a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel in May, 2023. (AP: Ohad Zwigenberg)
“Depending on how many missiles are being fired at you, you need to have overlapping coverage of your Iron Dome batteries,” Mr Shoebridge told the ABC.
“To give you an idea of coverage that you’d need, if you’re defending against 1,000 incoming missiles, you need at least 1,000 missile interceptors.”
Each battery reportedly costs around $US100 million ($157 million), and each interceptor missile around $US50,000.
To conserve interceptors, the radar system quickly determines whether a rocket is on course to hit a populated area: if not, the rocket is ignored and allowed to land harmlessly.
Israel’s Iron Dome system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, as seen from Sderot in southern Israel on October 8.(Reuters: Ronen Zvulun)
While the Iron Dome plays a key role in Israeli air defence, it doesn’t work alone.
It is part of Israel’s multi-tier air defence alongside the David Sling system — also known as Magic Wand — which covers the middle layer, and the Arrow-3, which is designed to intercept ballistic missiles outside the earth’s atmosphere.
Did the Iron Dome fail in surprise Hamas attack?
The IDF claims that the Iron Dome can have an 85-90 per cent success rate in intercepting incoming projectiles.
The system is highly regarded and its success rates over the past decade have gained international attention.
Rafael says it has delivered two Iron Dome batteries to the US Army, and Ukraine has also been seeking a supply in its war with Russia.
But like any air defence system, it has its weaknesses.
These were displayed when it became “overwhelmed” by Hamas’s surprise attack over the weekend, Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defence strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said.
The militant group claimed around 5,000 rockets were launched at Israel in around 20 minutes.
The IDF estimated 2,200 were fired, but did not release figures on how many of those were intercepted.
It said rockets were fired toward southern and central Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
One missile struck a hospital in the Israeli coastal town of Ashkelon, Israeli officials said.
An Israeli military vehicle burns after it was hit by Hamas gunmen who infiltrated southern Israel. (Reuters: Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa)
The attack was intended to deplete the number of missile interceptors in the Israeli systems, Dr Davis said.
“You’ve seen footage of these [Israeli] interceptor missiles blowing up Hamas rockets in mid-air, but it’s got a limited number of these interceptor missiles at any one time,” he told the ABC.
“So one way to defeat it is simply overwhelm it. And that’s a weakness of any air defence system.”
Israelis walk next to a battery of Israel’s Iron Dome defence missile system in Ashkelon, southern Israel.(AP: Maya Alleruzzo)
Iran’s Nournews, affiliated with a top security body, said the attacks “showed that, contrary to its claims of intelligence-security dominance over the resistance, Israel could not predict their operations, and that its Iron Dome was nothing but a dome of straw above a sand castle”.
However, Mr Shoebridge said the attack was not exactly a failure of the Iron Dome system.
“Even the most effective system can struggle when you get a saturation attack,” he said.
“From what I’ve seen, the air defence was still extraordinarily impressive … When I look at the damage and destruction, that’s pretty limited from rockets and missiles.”
Are mass rocket attacks the problem?
While thousands of rockets were still filling the skies on Saturday morning, Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel from land, sea and air.
During the surprise onslaught, they broke down Israeli border barriers and sent hundreds of militants into Israel to carry out brazen attacks that killed hundreds and pushed the region toward conflict.
Mr Shoebridge said the initial missile barrage from Gaza appears to have been used as a distraction “for the new terrorist ground campaign”.
“By focusing them on that, they distracted from the bigger and novel thing they were doing which was the mass terrorist ground attack.”
He said Hamas’s missile capabilities are limited and would not be Israel’s main concern at this stage.
“The new thing that has been so destructive … is the sending of armed Hamas terrorists with automatic weapons into Israel into small towns and villages to kill indiscriminately and abduct people,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“That’s the actual sort of military and terrorist core of this attack.”
Palestinian militants broke through the Israel-Gaza border fence in an audacious assault.(Reuters: Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa)
However, Dr Davis says there’s a possibility for missile strikes in Israel to become “far more serious” if Hezbollah becomes involved.
He said they have a rocket and missile count of up to 150,000, and have the ability to strike across the length and breadth of Israel.
Whereas, Hamas only has a limited capability to strike, for example, up to Tel Aviv.
“The problem Israel is going to face is if Hezbollah get involved — which seems likely — then the Israelis are going to be facing a much larger missile barrage of much more sophisticated missiles,” Dr Davis said.
“If Hezbollah gets involved and Iran gets involved, then it’s a much larger conflict.
He said Israel can bring in additional ballistic missile defence systems, but they are also limited in numbers.
“It really then becomes ‘to what extent can they absorb the damage of the large numbers of missiles?'”