Sunday, November 25, 2012

Alert Always: Israel's Iron Dome survives trial-by-fire - A view from Singapore

[Please note: This post will be updated in the second quarter of 2013.]

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To defence professional tasked with defending Singapore, Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system may seem just the thing needed to keep our homeland from being cratered by artillery fire.

Iron Dome is not fool-proof - no defence system in the world ever is - but the anti-missile missile system survived its first major trial-by-fire this month by whittling down the effectiveness of rocket fire from Gaza.

Deployed for real ops where the lives of their citizens were at stake, Iron Dome had its mettle tested at an intensity unmatched by any operational test and evaluation. This weapon system is worth reading about.

Results of the battle underscored the potential that active defences like Iron Dome, which give the defender the unprecedented ability to use guided missiles to destroy incoming artillery projectiles, have for strengthening defences for urban areas.

Active defence joins passive defences
The Israeli's new active defences were complemented by a decades-long programme aimed at building passive defences such as hardened household shelters in Israeli homes. Alongside investments in hardening infrastructure, Israel also invested in a public warning system (PWS) to alert civilians of impending trouble.

While Israeli border towns and inland cities have been in the impact zone of rocket fire on previous occasions, augmenting passive defences with active defence gave Israeli defence planners a new game plan. Early accounts indicate that Iron Dome is a game-changer.

Israel's active defence against rocket attacks gave its population a reassuring capability to deal with persistent and indiscriminate attacks from unguided munitions aimed at area targets (i.e. border towns and cities).

Indeed, if Youtube clips of Iron Dome intercepts are anything to go by, Israelis rejoiced in seeing Iron Dome missile batteries reach out and touch incoming Qassam rockets. The Qassams still exacted a price in blood. But without Iron Dome, the death toll and corresponding fear factor could have been far higher than the five deaths Israel suffered this month over eight days of the rocket war.

Threat from unguided rockets
Rockets fired from Gaza appeared to be launched with little or no central coordination by the rocket squads. Fired from spot-welded ramps propped up and pointed north, each launcher was difficult to detect particularly when deployed from the urban sprawl of Gaza or fruit orchards. The false alarm rate from decoys also appeared to be high.

The Palestinians also did not have eyes on the impact zone to correct the aimpoint for follow-on barrages. Apart from a lucky strike, the unguided rockets had little hope of hitting high-value point targets such as Israeli military installations. That said, Israeli defence officials had to contend with reassuring thousands of civilians at the receiving end of unguided rocket fire at area targets (like a sprawling town or city) that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was doing its utmost to protect civilians.

In this war, the Iron Dome enjoyed a high profile in traditional media sources and also social media. For a country paranoid about national security, it was interesting to note that IDF military security authorities adopted an unsually lax wartime stance against home video footage of Iron Dome batteries in action. It was almost like the IDF wanted maximum awareness that fire unleashed by Palestinian rocketeers was futile.

Against Qassam rockets fired singly or ripple fired in weak volleys, Iron Dome appeared to have little problem swatting down the aerial intruders in Israeli airspace. Iron Dome was smart enough to calculate where rockets might land. Rockets destined to make holes in open areas were left unmolested. If one believes the IDF, this explains why a small number of rockets fired against Israel were marked for destruction.

Threat from multiple rocket launchers
It would be a different story if Iron Dome was pitted against a conventional army trained, organised, equipped and supported to fight and survive a high intensity hot war scenario.

In such a case, an Iron Dome fire unit could find itself overwhelmed by the sheer weight of fire from hostile multiple rocket launchers (up to 40 tubes in the case of the Russian BM-21 system) if the opponent's rocket artillery batteries coordinated their bombardments - which they are likely to do.

This explains why the IDF never intended Iron Dome to fight as a standalone system. On paper, each 20-round Iron Dome missile launcher is outgunned by most conventional MRLs armed with tubes for medium calibre rockets of around 122mm.

It also emphasizes why Israel has invested in passive defence like hardening critical infratructure and defence facilities to withstand the first strike and a counter-battery capability to destroy the launchers. Such infrastructure does not pop up overnight. It takes decades to develop and refine under an operational master plan designed to reduce the vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

In practice, MRLs can be addressed in many ways. The package could be sent via artillery, attack helicopters, orbiting warplanes or UCAVs. This in turn assumes the defender has a concept of operations (CONOPS), training and tools on hand to translate paper plans into action.

Radars scan the battlespace to detect incoming tube and rocket artillery, automatically computing their point of origin to unmask the launch site. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide persistent awareness, keeping potential launch sites under visual surveillance.

With the first salvo, the MRL's launch signature will be unmistakeable. Weapons to kill them can come not only from counter-battery fire which will take minutes because of the time of flight of artillery projectiles. UCAVs hovering above will pin them down with missiles within seconds of launch and slow down their escape for the counter-battery fire (delivered by tube or rocket artillery) to arrive.

Even with all the hardened structures and underground facilities built where the sun doesn't shine, mission critical infrastructure like radars and communications aerials must remain exposed during operations. One could retract a radar, but this is akin to taking the system offline and has the same (albeit temporary) effect of having that emitter taken out by a rocket strike.

So even if one has passive defences and a CONOPs for dealing with MRLs, what about the threat from low-cost Qassam-type rockets? Cheap rockets are not accurate enough to be used to take out high-value assets. Though the probability of a disabling hit is low, it cannot be discounted and active defences like Iron Dome or massed low-level AA guns (like the Dover Barrage versus German V1 flying bombs) will still be needed.

Every system deployed by itself had its drawbacks. But when orchestrated to play as one, it sounds a death knell for war mongers.

The Summer 2006 war took 33 days to reach ceasefire. The November 2012 Gaza war saw guns fall silent after eight days of violence.

While the Israeli army emerged from the November 2012 war as a benchwarmer, some 75,000 IDF reservists were mobilised and primed for a land operation in Gaza. If rocketeers continued to rain their deadly hail on Israeli civilians, public pressure for the IDF to do something about it would have been tremendous.

If not for Iron Dome's ability to blunt rocket attacks, the IDF may have had little option but to push into Gaza. Looking at the urban density of Gaza city, in which Palestinian defenders will fight from prepared positions with a homeground advantage, this urban op would not have been a walk in the park for the IDF.  

Strategic leverage
Iron Dome's contribution to the IDF war effort was thus more than the tactical, zonal defence action of taking down incoming rockets. The active defence gave Israel time and space to weigh other diplomatic and military options as they now had the muscle to dilute the effectiveness of rocket fire with anti-missile missiles instead of going after the launch sites with air strikes, artillery bombardments or a land incursion.

In MRL versus active defences, it is a race for each side to complete the kill chain before the other can react.

As technology matures, it may become technically and operationally feasible to detect, designate and destroy airborne projectiles before the MRL can displace and move to another location using contemporary shoot-and-scoot artillery doctrine. This knowledge that launch means certain destruction must weigh heavily on the minds of MRL forces and rein in bellicose talk from being translated into military action.

For this to work, defending forces must ensure that its sensors and shooters can work well and work fast, under pressure and under fire.

The number, accuracy, lethality and battle readiness of shooters must also prove overwhelmingly superior to the aggressor because the aggresor wields the initative by being able to chose the time, place and method of attack.

In this regard, defence technology can give the defender a force multiplier effect by being able to achieve a higher weight of fire with less manpower. For example, a fully automated truck-mounted tube artillery system manned by two gunners could replace towed 155mm heavy artillery howitzers, with the manpower intensive function of arming and loading shells and laying the guns done by an automated loader slaved to a computerised gunfire control system.(This presupposes that the automated loading system must be reliable as a mechanical breakdown will render the truck-mounted gun useless.)

In the event that rounds impact the target area, passive defences would complement active and could reduce the destructiveness of hostile action. In simple words, casualties would be reduced.

This in turn requires that the defender has in place a far-sighted, nationwide building programme that promotes the introduction of household and communal shelters as newer real estate replaces the old. It must also be tied to a PWS that warns the population of impending trouble.

With the Gaza war in November 2012, we have seen an active missile defence called Iron Dome deployed for action in an intensity unprecedented in previous industrial-age warfare. It is a precursor of things to come.

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Anonymous said...

I think it might be worth waiting for the propaganda dusk to settle before we can tell how effective iron dome is. Remember the first gulf war, when the Patriot missile systems were touted as being accurate but later turns out not to be as accurate as initilally reported?

Who knows iron dome might not be as effective as claimed.

Now if we assume that iron dome is applicable to the Singapore context, I think, it might be a mistaken assumption.

Firstly compared to Isreal, Singapore is more compact. So rainining any dumb missile into a compact land mass and hitting anything is not too difficult. In particular vulnerable parts like Jurong.

Secondly, note that iron dome may have hit the missile in flight but the fragment still got through and in Singapore context it will still form a projectile that could strike at any part of the compact land mass.

Lastly, even if Iron Dome play a psychological role in reassuraing the Isrealis, the same could not be said about Singapore. Israelis are less dependent on MNCs than Singapore. At the first sign of a something serious conflict face by the Isrealis, there is very little chance any MNCs wouldn't pull out. Basically, if that went on at a pace like that faced by the Isrealis, precautionary measures like shutting down airports and shippings would have made it unviable to operate in Singapore for MNCs. Even if iron dome managed to shoot down missiles, the constant running to shelters or calling up reservists would make anyone thing twice about investing.

Anonymous said...

that's why the SAF has been training for first and quick strike capabilities for years now. T end the battle in less than 72hours.

Anonymous said...

aiyah Iron Papa-dome is use to protect places like the istana lah, Oxley rise lah, bukit timah 6th ave lah, and not forgetting Bishan, got RI/RGS/RJC mah... not forgetting marina bay sands hor... RWS can pang sey because we can only afford 4 batteries niah, LOL.
ps: they also don't want to target RWS lah becuase will affect genting shares mah David, you are safe.

Anonymous said...

War is a useless waste of lives, Singapore cannot withstand a barrage of artillery fire due to its density. My hope is that asean can turn into a EU like economic zone, when everyone is codependant on each other economically. There will be no use for army.

Anonymous said...

The Israelis have had first strike capabilities for years. Has the managed to end the rockets attacked?

So what chance is there for SAF to end any battle, like the one the Israelis faced, in 72 hours?

Scholarly hunkydory said...

Iron dome is for leverage in a quasi war situation where escalation needs calculation and restrain may be more appropriate.

If the Israelis wanted to shut down the missiles, believe me they can rain down fire on a cheaper basis than Qassams with the use of 155 artillery.

But that would not make good PR. So to avoid the need for ground offensive/even more intensive air strikes/artillery barrage, iron dome does part of the deal in rendering Hamas's missile tactic less effective for the price they have to pay with counter artillery fire from the IDF.

Remember, Israle has to play to world public opinion because of the unique situation it is in with the occupied Palestinian territories.

If singapore faced rockets, I doubt there would be such restrain.

In this case, iron dome will mainly be for defense of critical infrastructure. It will not be possible to take on all incoming fire (at present anyway)

OTOH, better something than nothing.


AhTiongMetalwwerk said...

Singapore Iron Dome liat bo kiu leh. Why wear hat so heavy?

Iron Palm better.

Anonymous said...

At least one source is claiming Singapore wanted and funded (probably partially) R&D costs for Iron Dome, before US stepped in with more $$ recently:

The said...

/// War is a useless waste of lives,
November 26, 2012 4:10 PM ///


War does not determine who is right.
War determines who is left.....

yaw said...

The Iron Dome is pretty impressive. But, really, Israel's problem is its belligerent ultra-conservative government. The real story here is that all the technology in the world can't help you if you don't conduct your diplomacy with sensitivity and grace.

Anonymous said...

Iron Dome is an anti rocket system with low range - point defence. Surely, we will not be replacing the venerable 45 km range I-hawks with Iron Dome? Candidates ought to be Patriots, Aster 30 SAMP/T and David's Sling.

This is not to say Iron Dome is not needed or there is existential necessity to reveal its presence.

Anonymous said...

1. Iron Dome cannot protect all civilian areas in Singapore from military grade rockets. MRL batteries fire hundreds. Each will land in a populated area. Iron Dome will run out of interceptors.

2. Iron Dome will therefore protect military, industrial and national leadership targets.

3. The best defence is to destroy the launchers.

MrTanFromKatongPark said...

Kueh Lapis :

2)Iron Dome
4)PATRIOT with Green Pine Radar.