One of the results of the recent Operation Pillar of Defense operation against Gaza rocket-launching terrorists was the enhanced reputation of Israeli hi-tech, thanks to the effectiveness of the Iron Dome missile defense system. People in Israel – and around the world – looked on in awe as Israeli anti-missile missiles plucked attacking rockets out of the sky, effectively vaporizing them before they could fall, whole or in parts, over populated areas.
Israel, of course, has kept mum over the details of the technology that goes into Iron Dome which defends against low-altitude short-range missiles that are fired from Gaza and Lebanon, as well as its other missile defense systems, including David’s Sling and the Arrow (defense systems against medium- and long-range missile threats, respectively).
But a rapt audience at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center this week got to hear some of the details of how Iron Dome was able to repel some 90 percent of the terrorist rockets fired at Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense that it was activated against, directly from one of the people most responsible for the design, development, execution, and implementation of Iron Dome. And while Natan Barak, CEO of mPrest Systems, could not reveal any of the system’s “top secrets,” he presented some interesting details about Iron Dome, the heart of which was developed by his company, and some hints of what future Iron Dome upgrades will look like.
The presentation took place during the quarterly get-together of the Israeli Semiconductor Club, with the event hosted by Shlomo Gradman, Chairman of the Club.
mPrest started life as in 1996 as mPrest Technologies, and was supposed to develop solutions for wireless technology. That company was a victim of the dot-com boom, and folded in 2002; at that point Barak, along with his partners Eli Arlazoroff, Reuven Gamzon and Alexander Arlievsky (all of whom are still at the company), and reformed it the following year as mPrest Systems, and began developing what would eventually become the command and control brain of Iron Dome. After trying to raise money to advance development, Barak and his partners decided in 2010 they would be better off selling out to Rafael (Israel Military Industries), which owns 50% of mPrest’s shares. “It offered a shortcut for us to further develop and sell our innovations, and a partner to rely on for support as we improved and developed further technology,” said Barak.
The choice of Rafael turned out to be a fortuitous one, as it placed mPrest at the heart of Israel’s defense industry. And just in time, said Barak. “The defense establishment was in a bit of a panic after the thousands of rockets that hit the country after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. It was decided that a reliable missile defense system was needed to meet the missile threat, which everyone knew would be repeated in time.” Already after the war, mPrest began working on applying its systems to rocket defense, and the system was declared ready for “prime time” in April 2011.
A full Iron Dome system consists of mPrest’s Battle Management & Weapon Control (BMC) system – and specifically its C4I Rocket Interception product – where personnel monitor and troubleshoot the automated missile response system; a detection and radar tracking system, built by Israel Aircraft Industries; and, of course, the Tamir interceptor missile itself, built by Rafael (Tamir is a Hebrew acronym for “anti-missile missile”). The system is designed to counter short-range rockets and 155 mm artillery shells with a range of up to 70 kilometers, and can be operated in all weather conditions, any time of day or night, said Barak.
For security reasons, Barak couldn’t give too much away about the mechanics of Iron Dome, but its general mode of operation is known: The system detects a launch as a missile makes its way to an area that is within the protection umbrella of an Iron Dome installation. The “incoming” is detected by the highly sophisticated radar system, and the information on the missile’s trajectory, direction, and location are transferred to the command and control system, which then decides what to do.
In order to save money (Barak did not say how much the Tamir anti-missiles cost, but hinted that they were more expensive than the $50,000 figure that has appeared in the media), the command system issues an order to fire a Tamir only if a key target, such as a residential or industrial area, or a sensitive installation, appears to be at risk. Once fired, the Tamir locks in on the incoming rocket, and knocks it out of the sky at the maximum height possible, destroying it with methods that ensure that a minimum of debris will survive to fall to the ground.
The videos of Iron Dome in action can be misleading, said Barak; it’s not as easy as it looks. “Our opponents are constantly coming up with new deployments and more powerful rockets, and are conducting more sophisticated attacks,” Barak said. In one of several video clips Barak presented, a Palestinian garbage truck is seen roaming the streets of Gaza City, occasionally raising its cargo bay to fire rockets. Other videos show an array of dozens of rockets being fired at the same time by Hamas terrorists, and on several occasions during Pillar of Defense, terrorists fired multiple arrays of these rockets, said Barak, in an apparent effort to overwhelm the Iron Dome command and control system.
That’s why, Barak said, mPrest came up with “hundreds of scenarios in which Iron Dome would be pitted against rockets fired by terrorists.” Those scenarios included a seemingly endless combination of numbers of rockets and arrays used by the terrorists, with the best – from a defensive and economic viewpoint – strategy for Iron Dome to use to ensure that the incoming attack did as little damage as possible.
Other challenges included finding the right altitude to fire the Tamir missiles in order to “grab” an incoming Kassam or Fajr missile fired from Gaza at the optimum point in the sky – before its arc started descending closer to the ground. “We also have to take into account ‘noise’ from planes in the sky, and make sure we stay out of their flight paths,” said Barak.
But the biggest challenge, he said, was the instant response time needed to shoot down an incomong rocket. “Although we in Tel Aviv were of course concerned during Pillar of Defense when Hamas directed its firepower at us, the truth is that the problem is not here, but in places like Sderot, where within 15 seconds residents have to take cover. It’s an almost impossible task,” Barak said, “and as a result we have had to make Iron Dome as flexible as possible, enabling commanders in the field to make adjustments to the response capabilities of the system as quickly as the terrorists change their strategy.”
mPrest’s command and control system, he said, is the only one in the world that is “truly generic, as opposed to other systems that have to be programmed specifically and reprogrammed to meet changing needs. With Iron Dome, we have taken the programming power away from the programmer and put it into the hands of the field crew, where it should be in order to mount a proper defense.” Once set up, though, the system is completely automatic, said Barak. “Even in instances of multiple attacks in an area within an Iron Dome defense perimeter, “the system will target only the rockets that are set to fall in an area that will cause damage or injury, and it will ignore the rest.”
Besides making things easier for the IDF, the flexibility and generic nature of the command and control system will make it easier to sell abroad, which the company has already begun doing. The system is perfect for defense systems, including of course, air, shore, and perimeter monitoring, But it’s also for civilian uses as well; mPrest’s innovations are a major part of the system used by vehicle tracking system Ituran, for example.
The IDF learned a lot about Iron Dome’s capabilities and limitations during Pillar of Defense, and so did mPrest, which is busy integrating those lessons for the next generation of Iron Dome. In fact, the war gave that next generation a major push forward, said Barak. “In one of the attacks on the Tel Aviv area, observers noticed that two Iron Dome Tamirs were fired, leading many to think that Hamas had staged a multi-rocket attack on Israel’s business center. “There was only one rocket in that attack,” Barak clarified. “The reason we fired two was because we pressed a test system for the next Iron Dome generation into service, and there were some questions about accuracy, deployment, etc.. We basically had a weekend to do weeks worth of work to get that battery ready, and fortunately we, and the system, were successful.”
Meanwhile, mPrest is hard at work improving Command and Control, the C4i Rocket Interceptor, and the other components of Iron Dome. “The defense establishment has no doubt that Iron Dome, and the other defense missile systems we are helping out with, including David’s Sling and the Arrow, are going to be crucial to the country’s defenses in the coming years,” said Barak. “We’re ready, although I really hope that our services won’t be needed.”