The Army Wants Israel's Iron Dome Missile System To Swat Down Cruise Missiles

The Pentagon's newly released Missile Defense Review gave special emphasis to the need to defend against low-flying cruise missiles.

AP Photo/Dan Balilty

The U.S. Army wants to buy two batteries worth of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. Though its primary targets are rockets and other artillery rounds, in American service one of its main jobs will be to provide localized defense against incoming cruise missiles, a threat given new attention in the Pentagon's recent Missile Defense Review.

Inside Defense was first to report on the acquisition plan on Jan. 9, 2019, after obtaining a memorandum that the Army’s top procurement official Bruce Jette had sent to members of Congress outlining the details. In total, the service is looking to purchase a dozen launchers, two associated radars, a pair of battle management systems, and 240 individual Tamir interceptors, at a total cost of more than $370 million. The Army wants legislators to agree to shift more than $290 million within its existing budget to buying the acquisition process and the service will ask for the remaining amount, almost $84 million, in its budget request for the 2020 fiscal year.

“We want to have some things in place that provide us some immediate protection,” Jette said in a later statement according to The Times of Israel. “So what that’s going to do is we’re going to look at things that are readily available.”

The latest U.S. National Defense Strategy, which that the Pentagon released in January 2018, specifically highlighted the threat of cruise missiles, especially from potential near-peer adversaries, such as Russia and China. In the annual defense policy bill for the 2019 Fiscal Year, Congress made it a legal requirement for the Army to have two batteries of a system capable of providing an interim cruise missile defense capability operational by 2020.

Joseph Trevithick

An Iron Dome launcher.

The new Missile Defense Review, which the Pentagon released on Jan. 17, 2019, further reinforced this requirement for cruise missile defense and added an entirely new emphasis on countering this particular threat as part of the over-arching U.S. missile defense strategy. The previous review, which President Barack Obama’s Administration released in 2010, did not mention cruise missiles at all.

The Army had first announced it was considering Iron Dome for this interim cruise missile defense requirement in August 2018. Jette's report to Congress said that the Tamir interceptor had a demonstrated capability against cruise missiles, but offered no details about its exact performance in testing either in Israel or the United States. Tamir is extremely fast and nimble, which would make it well suited to the cruise missile defense role.

The service also evaluated the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS), a cooperative development between U.S. defense contractor Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg. The last option was an improved version of the Multi-Mission Launcher (MML) already in the works as part of the Army’s own Indirect Fire Protection Capability, Increment 2 – Intercept, or IFPC Inc 2-I, effort.

Dutch Ministry of Defense

A NASAMS launcher.

Iron Dome was the only system that could meet the Army’s requirements, including availability and cost, according to Jette. The defense system is already in service in Israel, where it has seen extensive real-world use against incoming rockets, artillery rounds, and missiles and boasts an impressive success rate, though some critics contend the official reports may be exaggerated.

Regardless, the system remains in very active use and just on Jan. 20, 2019, Iron Dome batteries shot down an incoming rocket heading toward Israel from Syria. Israel blamed the launch on Iranian and Iranian backed forces in that country and launched a flurry of retaliatory strikes, destroying weapons stockpiles and air defense sites.

Iron Dome’s Tamir interceptor also has a reported unit price of between $100,000 and $150,000. In contrast, the latest missiles for the Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile system, the service’s primary air defense weapon at present, cost around $2 million each – almost as much a single $4 million Iron Dome launcher.

Raytheon

A Patriot missile blasts out of its launcher.

The NASAMS missile, a ground-launched version of the AIM-120 air-to-air missile, has a price tag of around $800,000. The U.S. military also has this system in service to protect the airspace around Washington, D.C.

The Army has become increasingly aware of the glaring gap in lower cost and shorter-range air defense options and has been working to rectify that with Multi-Mission Launcher. So far, the truck-mounted launcher has demonstrated its ability to fire the AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-seeking missile, the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire millimeter-wave radar-guided missile, a small interceptor from Lockheed Martin known as Miniature Hit-to-Kill (MHTK), and Tamir. It remains in development, though.

Despite being a foreign-designed system, the Iron Dome program has received significant U.S. funding and is now readily available in the U.S. market thanks to a partnership between Israeli manufacturer Rafael and Raytheon. The American company now produces 70 percent of the Tamir interceptor in the United States and has the rights to market the entire system to the U.S. government.

“Things that are readily available may meet some of our requirements but not all of our requirements,” Jette, the Army’s top procurement official, noted. “But we may be able to deal with those things that are, I don’t want to call them necessarily shortcomings, they’re [not], because something’s not a shortcoming if you never planned to do it.”

Congress has stipulated that the Army deploy two additional batteries of cruise missile defense systems by 2023, but there does not appear to be a requirement that these be the same weapons necessarily. The service plans to spend $1.6 billion through the 2024 Fiscal Year integrating Iron Dome with its existing sensors, including its AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel air defense radar, and command and control networks, which could result in a hybrid system mixing Tamir interceptors and their launchers with more American-made components.

Canadian Forces

An AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radar.

Providing American Iron Dome systems with improved sensors, and linking the batteries together in such a way that they can leverage additional offboard sensors to help spot targets and engage them, could be especially important. Cruise missiles typically fly nap-of-the-earth flight profiles and use irregular routes to help mask their approach, which has historically made them difficult to spot and shoot down.

On top of that, advanced cruise missile designs increasingly have stealthy features, can change course in flight, sometimes autonomously or semi-autonomously, and fly at ever increasing speeds. All of this allows them to better dodge enemy defenses and otherwise reduce their vulnerability to interceptors. 

Iron Dome may also have demonstrated a capability against cruise missiles in testing, but its main opponent since it became operational in Israel in 2010 has been relatively slow-moving, unguided artillery rockets and mortar rounds. Whether its existing success rate is truly reflective of its ability to engage faster and more advanced threats remains to be seen.

The video below shows a Russian Iskander-K ground-launched land-attack cruise missile system in action during a drill.

Regardless, the Army’s decision to buy Iron Dome in an “interim” capacity could give the system a leg up in the future. As noted, the service’s MML, which it hopes will become a core component of a new set of short-range air defense systems, already works with Tamir.

Buying Iron Dome means the Army will gain the benefits of a premier system for countering rockets, artillery, and mortars, also known as C-RAM, too. As such, any Iron Dome battery positioned to defend friendly forces against cruise missiles will also offer protection against these additional threats and more, including increasingly threatening small drones.

The standard Iron Dome launcher has 20 interceptors ready to go, giving it significant magazine depth against massed targets, as well. Each MML has 15 cells, which could accommodate Tamir, or a mix of Tamir and other missiles, as well. All of this makes Iron Dome and its interceptors a more flexible addition to the Army's overall plans for a new, layered integrated air defense arrangement

The Army is also working with the Marine Corps on the IFPC Inc 2-I program and that service could be very interested in adopting Iron Dome or otherwise integrating the Tamir interceptor with a future launcher. As with the Army, the Marines have found themselves lacking adequate short-range air defenses as threats from traditional aircraft and helicopters, small drones, missiles, and long-range artillery systems have continued to re-emerge.

In the meantime, Congress’ immediate requirement is clear and the Army is pushing ahead to have its first two Iron Dome batteries operational and protecting troops next year.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com