A year and a half after its first naval test, Israel’s Iron Dome system was declared fully operational for use on a gunship off Israel’s coasts Monday, in what the military described as a “significant milestone” in its efforts to counter the threat of ballistic missiles.
The maritime interception system, designed to protect Israel’s gas fields and shipping lanes from short-range missiles, “added another operational layer” to Israel’s multi-tiered air defenses, joining the long-range Arrow 3 system and mid-range David’s Sling, which were each made operational earlier this year, said Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch, the head of the IAF’s Aerial Defense Command.
The so-called “Iron Dome of the Sea” was a multi-year joint collaboration between the Israeli Air Force and the Israeli Navy.
“For the navy, it’s a very high-valued capability because we are trying to defend Israeli land, ships and, of course, our strategic assets,” said Col. Ziv Barak, head of the Weapons Department in the Israeli Navy, referring to Israel’s natural gas extraction platforms.
For now, the Iron Dome has only been installed on one naval ship, the Sa’ar 5-class INS Lahav. But according to Haimovitch, there are plans in the works to put the system on additional existing corvettes.
Earlier this year, the military also announced that two Iron Dome batteries would be put on each of the four Sa’ar 6-class warships that are currently under construction in Germany and are scheduled to be delivered to Israel in 2019.
The soldiers operating the Iron Dome aboard the naval ships are still considered members of the air force despite their maritime deployment. They are part of a new Iron Dome battalion formed in September, Haimovitch told reporters.
The naval Iron Dome system, which was first tested in May 2016, went through its final round of testing on Monday in order for it to be declared operational.
According to the two officers, the system performed well in its final test and significantly improved from last year.
The operators have been specifically trained to use the Iron Dome on board a naval vessel, Haimovitch said.
He added that the Iron Dome system’s Tamir launcher is now fully connected, not only to the ship’s Adir radar system, but to the entire network of Iron Dome land-based batteries, which it had not been, initially.
“We tested this today and it worked excellently,” he said, noting there was a “huge difference” from how it fared in last year’s test.
Those initial tests were “the first step in the process and now we’re at the final step, the final milestone,” Haimovitch said.
In the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, terrorist groups unsuccessfully tried to strike the natural gas platforms. Though those rocket attacks failed, they revealed the need for the navy to increase its protection of those strategic sites, Barak said.
Any damage to the rig or other rigs under development could be hugely damaging to the Israeli economy, since it provides large amounts of the country’s energy needs and is expected to turn Israel into a gas exporter.
Since the system is only installed on the INS Lahav, if the ship has to go back to port for maintenance, the entire system is effectively off-line until the new ships arrive.
“There are a lot of solutions for our problems,” Haimovitch said. “We are sure that we will do our best with the assets we have.”
With the discovery of natural gas fields off Israel’s coast in early 2009, the navy has had to restructure, retrain and re-outfit itself to protect what the government determined to be a strategic national interest.
The Israeli Navy, which up until that point functioned mostly as a coast guard, had to prepare to defend gas fields approximately 100 kilometers off shore.
This summer, the Defense Ministry revealed that it was investing NIS 1.5 billion ($420 million) deal to outfit the Israeli Navy with maritime systems to protect the country’s gas fields and shipping lanes, in addition to the purchase of four Sa’ar-6 warships purchased from Germany.
The NIS 1.5 billion budget will go to additional missile defense batteries, electronic warfare, navigation systems, command and control centers, communication gear and other naval systems, the Defense Ministry said in July.
Raoul Wootliff and AFP contributed to this report.