PALMACHIM AIR FORCE BASE, Israel — Israel might be the Middle East’s predominant military power, but recent wars have exposed an Achilles’ heel: the vulnerability of its population centers to missile attacks.
In a 2006 campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and again during an offensive in late 2008 and early 2009 against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, Israeli cities within range were pounded by rockets, testing the resilience of ordinary Israelis and their support for the war efforts.
That experience, reminiscent of Iraqi missile strikes against Israel during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, has spurred the development of missile defense as a critical part of the Israeli arsenal.
To demonstrate Israel’s capabilities, the military took foreign journalists Thursday to the Palmachim air force base, south of Tel Aviv, for a rare look at its latest air defense weapons.
A highlight was the Iron Dome system, which in its first operational deployment last month successfully intercepted rockets fired at southern Israeli cities by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Designed to defend against short-range rockets that can travel up to 45 miles, Iron Dome is the bottom tier of Israel’s multi-layered missile defense system, which also includes the Arrow for long-range ballistic threats and a system under development known as David’s Sling, designed to intercept medium-range rockets and missiles.
During a flare-up of violence across the Gaza border in April, two newly deployed Iron Dome batteries downed eight of nine rockets fired at the southern cities of Ashkelon and Beersheba, the Israeli army reported.
The system, developed rapidly in four years, had a 100 percent interception rate when it was test-fired, according to a Defense Ministry spokesman, who added that it could be considered “a game changer” in Israel’s confrontation with Gaza militants.
Air defense officers said that in the recent confrontation, battery operators had about 15 seconds to a minute to react to incoming rockets, depending on the distance of the launch site, and that the Iron Dome interceptors had proved highly accurate in hitting their targets.
“We’re very satisfied with the operational results in the field,” said Brig. Gen. Doron Gavish, the air defense commander. He added that it was “the first time in history” that a short-range interception system anywhere had successfully downed incoming rockets.
Udi Shani, the director general of the Defense Ministry, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week that five countries have expressed an interest in Iron Dome, spurred by its success on the Gaza front, but he did not elaborate. He said that Israel planned to spend $1 billion on developing and producing 10 to 15 batteries in the coming years.
In April, the U.S. Congress approved $205 million in special funding for Iron Dome to finance an additional four batteries. Israel plans to deploy some batteries near its border with Lebanon to meet the threat of Hezbollah rockets.
But Israeli critics have cautioned that a full deployment of the system may prove too costly, as well as inadequate to protect large metropolitan areas. They have also described the system’s reaction time as too slow at very short ranges, including distances of less than 2.5 miles near the Gaza border.
Gavish said active missile defense was only part of a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the rocket threat, with other elements including deterrence, attacking the sources of fire, early warning to civilians and passive defense, such as bomb shelters.
Shani cautioned that despite Iron Dome’s early successes, it could not provide blanket protection. “This is not a system that can ensure the interception of every rocket in every situation,” he told Haaretz.
Still, he and other Israeli defense officials say, effective missile defense provides breathing room for the government to weigh and pursue military options.
“These batteries, when they are deployed, will limit the number of casualties from rockets and will provide, in case of fighting, decision-making space,” Shani said.