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US Army receives 1st of 2 Iron Dome batteries, but future unclear

Israel’s Rafael contractor pushing hard to sell more units to American military, which has expressed concerns about integrating the air defense system into its existing equipment

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Ministry and Rafael defense contractor test an upgraded version of the Iron Dome missile defense system in January 2020. (Defense Ministry)
Defense Ministry and Rafael defense contractor test an upgraded version of the Iron Dome missile defense system in January 2020. (Defense Ministry)

The United States received its first of two Iron Dome batteries from Israel on Wednesday just over a year after signing a purchase agreement, the Defense Ministry said.

“These batteries will be employed in the defense of US troops against a variety of ballistic and aerial threats,” the ministry said in a statement.

The US and Israel signed an agreement for the purchase of the two batteries — each of which include a launcher and missiles made by Rafael Advanced Systems Ltd., a radar array made by the ELTA defense contractor, and a command-and-control center developed by the mPrest firm — last August, with initial plans to buy both two more units and to consider deeper integration of the Israeli air defense system.

In March, however, the US Army indicated it was scrapping — or at least freezing — its purchase of the two additional batteries and the further incorporation of the Iron Dome into its aerial defenses.

However a Rafael spokesperson said the company was actively negotiating additional sales to the American military and believed the concerns raised in March were no longer relevant.

The spokesman noted that in August Rafael announced that it was partnering with the American defense contractor Raytheon to open an Iron Dome production line in the United States — a sign that further US deals were in the offing.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who recently returned from a trip to Washington, hailed the sale as proof of close cooperation between the US and Israel.

“Last week I visited the United States and met with senior officials in the US Department of Defense and in the military. Among other things, we discussed procurement and information sharing in the field of technology. The completion of this agreement serves as further proof that the defense alliance [between the US and Israel], is based on common values and interests, which are stronger than ever,” Gantz said in a statement.

From left, Rafael defense contractor CEO Yoav Har-Even, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Defense Ministry, Economy and Industry Minister Amir Peretz, Director-General Amir Eshel, and one of the main designers of the Iron Dome, Dani Gold, hold a ceremony in front of an Iron Dome battery that was delievered to the United States on September 30, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

To mark the sale, Gantz, along with Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel; one of the main designers of the Iron Dome, Dani Gold; other top defense officials and Economy and Industry Minister Amir Peretz held a ceremony in front of the battery on Wednesday.

The Iron Dome system, which was first developed in Israel but was expanded significantly with US funding, has been in operational use for nearly a decade in Israel, principally against rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, but also along the Syrian border. It represents the lowest tier of the country’s multi-leveled air defense array, joined by the mid-range David’s Sling, and the long-range Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 missile systems.

An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome defense missile system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on November 12, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“In the coming year, the Iron Dome system will complete ten years of operational activity, with over 2,400 interceptions. This activity has saved hundreds of lives. It is a great privilege for the State of Israel to deliver the first out of two Iron Dome batteries to the US Army, for the protection of American troops,” Moshe Patel, head of the Defense Ministry’s Israel Missile Defense Organization.

“The very fact that we are handing over the first battery, a year after the agreement was signed, is an achievement in itself, alongside production for the benefit of the State of Israel, we have met the requirements of the US military,” he added.

The Defense Ministry said the “second battery will be delivered in the near future within the framework of the agreement.”

Though Israeli officials hailed the speed with which the country supplied the batteries to the US, the head of the US Army Futures Command, Gen. Mike Murray, cited the amount of time it took to receive the Iron Dome as a reason to call off plans to purchase additional units, alongside the apparent refusal of Israel to turn over the system’s underlying computer code.

Gen. Mike Murray, Commanding General of US Army Futures Command, at a conference in Washington, DC, October 10, 2018. (John Martinez/US Army Futures Command)

“It took us longer to acquire those [first] two batteries than we would have liked,” Murray told the House Armed Service tactical air and land forces subcommittee in March. “We believe we cannot integrate them into our air defense system based on some interoperability challenges, some cyber challenges and some other challenges.”

After earmarking over $1 billion for projects related to the Israeli air defense system, US Army officials repeatedly requested Iron Dome “source code,” the proprietary information detailing how the system works, according to sources. Israel supplied engineering information but ultimately declined to provide the source code the US Army said it needed to integrate Iron Dome components with its systems.

In March, the US Army said it was adjusting its Iron Dome plans in light of this issue, not shortcomings identified in a physical technical assessment.

“So what we’ve ended up having was two standalone batteries that will be very capable but they cannot be integrated into our air defense system,” Murray told Congress in March.

The Rafael spokesman over the weekend said the company was in ongoing discussions with the US about the issue, including the release of the source code.

“We have handed over the various information required in the contract, and have made the necessary adaptations to suit their needs,” he said.

The head of Rafael’s Air and Missile Defense Division, Pini Yungman, also appeared to comment on the matter on Wednesday, saying the Iron Dome’s capabilities would not change.

“The Iron Dome system which will serve the US military is tailored according to US requirements. This being said, its performance capabilities as seen in Israel will remain the same,” he said.

Jason Sherman contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: The article was updated to include additional information about the Rafael defense contractor’s prospects at further US sales of the Iron Dome system.

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