Israel’s Iron Dome system, a relatively new umbrella to stop the Gaza rockets that have been raining down over southern Israel, has achieved a claimed success rate of roughly 90 percent in its most rigorous test yet.
Each battery includes a radar detection system, a command and control center, and mobile launchers that can be repositioned as necessary.
When a rocket is fired from Gaza, the batteries calculate whether it is headed for a populated area or sensitive target; if so, one of the interceptors is quickly dispatched, at a reported cost of $50,000. If the rocket is headed for an open area, however, no action is taken.
The Challenge and the Mission
Lead team of Iron Dome, all Technion grads, discuss the key to its success
By Itzhar Vardi
“The development of Iron Dome transformed our lives; dictating a hectic work week and some weekends. I never got home before 11 pm, and of course I didn’t take a single day off for three whole years. But I don’t regret a single moment,” says H., a graduate of the Technion’s Faculty of Mechanical Engineering (1975), who heads the Iron Dome project at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.
“Here is the project’s core team: G., D., A. and C.; all are Technion graduates. Of course, credit for the systems success is shared by the hundreds of engineers, technicians, and managers who took part in its development; but the people sitting here with me are definitely the key players.”
In 2004, the Israel Ministry of Defense issued a call for proposals for a system to intercept short-range rockets. A team of experts in the Ministry’s R&D Agency (MAFAT) assessed 24 proposals and Rafael’s Iron Dome, capable of operating in all weather conditions, was selected as the most suitable.
The challenge was to develop a system capable of identifying aerial threats – mainly rockets – and eliminating them autonomously. H. explains, “Our system includes a sensor that locates the threat, a command and control center that analyzes the rocket’s trajectory and its damage potential, and an interceptor (missile) that eliminates it. It’s a very complex system. Qassam rockets are comprised of make-shift components, and their trajectories are very ‘wobbly’ rather than smooth.
Imagine a coke bottle flying several times faster than the speed of sound on an irregular course. Intercepting it seems far-fetched.”
“A project’s success always depends on choosing the right people.”
D., chief engineer for Iron Dome “Now if that weren’t enough, we were faced with some grueling constraints: developing a system within a 30-month timeframe. Just to clarify, we spent over 10 years on developing the previous missile. Also, the approved cost for the missile firing unit was a mere eighth of the price compared to the previous system we developed.”
It had been said that Iron Dome is not as efficient as the alternatives. In response, A., a graduate of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering (2000), says, “Maybe we should thank the media. Because when you read a cynical article, you say to yourself, ‘let’s show them’ and you tackle the project, invigorated. We knew that eventually our critics would get our response, which came in April when the first operational deployment destroyed eight out of eight rockets aimed at Ashkelon and Beersheba.”
A., systems engineer for the interceptor and launcher, continues, “One Friday in 2007 I was home, frustrated by the rocket attacks being launched on Sderot; I said to myself, we just have to do something. Early the next week D. took me aside and invited me to join the Iron Dome team. It was like a dream come true.”
“We rapidly developed excellent screening capacities that helped us decide when to let go of an idea and move on. That doesn’t mean along the way there weren’t crises and failures, but we never despaired. We developed a work culture of risk-taking, based on the understanding that failures teach you a lot too.
“Each experiment – whether successful or not – was followed up with a professional and thorough investigation. We learned to create solutions within hours and then repeat the experiment.”
“A project’s success always depends on choosing the right people,” says D., a graduate of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering (1972) and chief engineer for Iron Dome. “The best people in the field came together for this project. Rafael’s decision to prioritize this project and bring on excellent people from other projects undoubtedly had a lot of weight.”
H. adds, “People fought to participate in the project. Clearly this transcends the technological challenge: it is a national mission.”
“We believed we would succeed, yet it was an unprecedented challenge. In retrospect, it was the constraints, which seemed almost insurmountable, that led us to develop creative and successful solutions. The system’s simplicity was also demonstrated through the manufacturing process – the production people told us it was the most straightforward missile they ever made.”
“One of the guidelines for this project was not to be wise guys, not to reinvent the wheel,” says G., a graduate of the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering (1976), who was responsible for the launcher. “That’s why we approached different manufacturers for any available relevant technologies. For example, I talked to the manufacturer of the Patriot Missile System to inquire about purchasing certain parts, but the price was very high so we had to develop the parts ourselves. As a result, the parts are very much simpler and inexpensive.”
“It was an incredible experience. I’ve been working at Rafael for 30 years and I don’t think there was ever such a great team,” says G..
“Clearly this transcends the technological challenge: it is a national mission.”
H., Iron Dome project head C., who holds a master’s in Systems Engineering (2010), adds, “A very large number of hardware and software components must be integrated to put together Iron Dome’s systems (interceptor, launcher, command and control center, and radar). We had to use a novel integration and testing strategy that enabled us to quickly combine sub-systems from the different development teams and test the complete functioning system.
“Time constraints forced us to continue developing the system while we tested it. This resulted in much more work with the corrected versions in the labs compared with any other project. We formulated work practices learned from other projects, but mostly based on our own experience.”
“We couldn’t have done it without Technion graduates.”
H. concludes, “We had to remember that the mission wasn’t a perfect system, but rather a system that works well. Our relationship with the people in the field was unprecedented; this was essential for adapting the system to all the constraints in the field.”
On the Job
Yedidya Ya’ari (l), CEO of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd, said at the Technion Job Fair that he had come to collect the best engineers for his company. “You have an obligation to provide them,” he told Technion President Prof. Peretz Lavie (r), “and we have an obligation to collect!”
On display was a replica of Iron Dome, Rafael’s anti-missile missile. “We couldn’t have done it without Technion graduates,” Ya’ari stated bluntly. “Probably some 80 percent of the entire engineering force at Rafael are Technion graduates – and that’s a fact!”.