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The best defense has always been the game changer

The best defense has always been the game changer

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket near the southern town of Sderot Photo: REUTERS

“Iron Dome” has entered our lingua franca as one of the most well-known anti-missile systems globally. It is not commonly known how advanced Iron Dome actually is to most people. To hit planes out of the sky is no longer difficult for modern anti-aircraft systems, but the technology to shoot down cruise missiles, rockets, ballistic missiles and artillery shells is very unique. While claims of a high success rate by Patriot missiles in shooting down active SCUD missiles 1991 were greatly exaggerated, the new technology to keep an area clear from surface to surface missiles may do more to facilitate the end of a hot conflict than any piece of military technology in the last fifty years.

Israel’s Iron Dome and Arrow Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system are one of the few successful anti-missile systems available to any Western country. While systems like the Patriot were designed to hit ballistic missiles and aircraft out of the sky with a high success rate, the lack of effectiveness in 1991 and recent US media reports of a lack of an effective system to defend against North Korean missiles likely makes Iron Dome and the Arrow program the best defense provided by any Western nation. The need for ABM systems is clear for Israel. Iran has one of the most prolific ballistic missile programs in the world with several types being researched from the current rockets being shot down over Tel Aviv to larger SCUD type indigenous systems that could deliver chemical, biological and nuclear warheads into Israel or against other adversaries. It remains to be seen whether or not Iran will fire a long range missile into Israel during the current conflict, but if that occurs the Arrow 3 missiles may become active alongside the Iron Dome.

Traditionally, Western nations have trailed behind in the development of anti-aircraft systems with the Soviets developing, using and surprising Western air forces with the capabilities of their air defense systems. Being occupied by the Germans in the Second World War gave the Soviet Union a great deal of awareness in the defense of their territories during the Cold War. The history making missile, the SA-2 SAM was the Soviet missile that dictated the development of the Cold War for both sides. A U-2 spy plane flying at great altitudes was unexpectedly hit by a SA-2 in one of the first uses of the missile, embarrassing the US at the time when the pilot Gary Powers was captured by the Soviets. The SA-2 system found its way to the conflict in Vietnam, keeping the powerful US Air Force and Navy on their heels and forcing them to develop new technology and tactics to accomplish their missions. Vietnam’s SAM shield put the fear into every airman who would enter into a foreign territory in future conflicts.

The next major conflict that introduced new missile systems into the air war was the SA-6 missiles used in the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. The SA-6 mobile SAM system was used to protect Egypt’s ground forces while they retook the Sinai region from Israeli forces by shooting down many of Israel’s strike aircraft. The Israeli’s suffered major losses to the new SA-6 missiles at the time, and only when Egypt’s army moved beyond the SA-6s protection zone did Israel regain an advantage in the conflict by using its air force. Learning from the experience with the SA-6, Israel’s conflict with Syria in 1982 lead to new techniques using drones and radar jamming technology developed during the Vietnam War to avoid the SA-6 and other missiles and achieve their goals.

The conflict in 1982 lead to a combined tactical and technological game that involved new radar jamming systems and stealth technology facing off against SAM missile systems. To counter, SAM systems started to use new phased array radars and more reliable and advanced anti airborne artillery missile systems. Traditionally, the SA-2 fixed system was used to hit medium and long range threats. Radar guided artillery like the S-60 AAG, ZSU-57-2 and ZSU-23-4 worked with the SA-2s by covering short range targets with cannon fire when aircraft flew lower in order to avoid the SA-2 radar. The Soviets eventually created the SA-3, developed for closer targets, also being used in a fixed position. The SA-4 was developed as the first mobile system to be used in the 1960s, but was designed to hit long range targets. A fixed long range system, the SA-5 was developed as well and is still used by many armies today. The SA-6 that gave rise to the next generation of missile avoidance techniques and incentives for new technologies was mobile and medium range, and was used to keep cover over a mobile force. The SA-8 was created as a mobile short to medium range missile system that would hit strike aircraft and helicopters to work alongside the SA-6. Many client states of the ex-Soviets were using improved SA-8 style systems like the SA-9 and SA-13 around the time of the first Gulf War. With the threats coming from cruise missiles without advanced capabilities to challenge airborne artillery, there was a need for Russian forces to develop systems that could not only knock out attack planes and helicopters, but also hit cruise missiles and artillery attacking their forces.

Effective Russian systems that are similar to the Arrow, Patriot and Iron Dome were developed first with the SA-10 and SA-12, or S-300 family of missiles. The large S-300 missiles combined with advanced radar systems were designed to hit many long range threats, including cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. The S-400 improved version and S-500 have continued to take on this role, currently only being used by Russian forces. The radar technology on the S-500 is likely the most advanced in the world and it is claimed that it can detect and kill stealth aircraft. For medium and short range threats, the SA-11 BUK-M1 and more advanced SA-17 BUK have taken on the modern role of the SA-6. A system that operates similarly to that of Iron Dome is the SA-15 TOR system. This system is designed for short to medium range threats and likely would support the S-300 missile systems. The SA-15 TOR-M1 is currently the system that is protecting Iran’s most valuable nuclear assets with variants of the French designed Crotale SAM system covering gaps in the SA-15 TOR’s network. While the SA-15 TOR-M1 could likely operate like the Iron Dome to hit GRAD type artillery rockets, the newer Pantsir systems, often mounted on the Tunguska ZSU system or a truck would likely complete with the Iron Dome most effectively and uses two cannons to assist its missile system to defeat targets.

With generations of anti-aircraft systems and the vigilance that no foreign power would be able to enter Russia again, the Soviet Union had developed and still possesses the best air defense systems in the world. While the U.S. and NATO have their own systems, traditionally the Soviets had lead the technological race in developing defense systems while Western powers have worked diligently and successfully in defeating them. Being in a defensive position as well as having dealt with SAM systems, the Israelis have developed a necessity for a system like the Iron Dome, and have worked with the U.S. in developing Iron Dome and Arrow in order to not repeat the failures of the older Patriot systems. There is no doubt that Iron Dome is effective, but in time all systems enter the historical trend of advancement and defeat as each conflict reveals their strengths and weaknesses. Despite this, these systems often alter the nature of a conflict, and can take the urgency away from a full retaliation or heighten the need for a competing technology.



Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration