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The Excitement Over Israel's Sea-Bound Missile Defense System Is All Wet

The short-range air defense system Iron Dome will be adapted for use by ships — but that will simply make it one of several systems that do what it does.

by Ryan Faith
Oct 31 2014, 7:40pm

Flickr

Normally it's rather difficult to get the news media to lose their shit like a bunch of screeching schoolkids over a story like, "Defense Manufacturer Offers New Product That Makes Incremental Advances on Existing, Widely-Used Technology." But fortunately for Israeli defense manufacturer Rafael, the maker of the Iron Dome short-range air defense system, reporters don't always understand what it is they're reporting on.

This week is the Euronaval trade show in Paris. Like any other trade show, folks from the industry go to show off and check out new products, interact with current and potential customers, and sit in a ton of meetings.

One of those products on display this year is C-Dome, Rafael's navalized version of the Iron Dome system that featured prominently in last summer's little dustup in Gaza. Hamas's trademark weapon, the Hamas Israeli Civilian Killing System (HICKS) — yes, I made that up — is basically any old unguided rocket or mortar that can be hurled into Israel. Israel is none too fond of this and has done things like put up bomb shelters, create systems to tell people to run for cover when rockets are incoming, and the like. Despite these efforts, HICKS was still able to kill the occasional Israeli, so Israel's weapon scientists put their heads together to come up with a better response: Iron Dome.

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Various militaries have been deploying radar-guided surface-to-air missile systems to blow stuff out of the sky since the 1950s. The trick with the kind of unguided rockets and mortars that tend to make up HICKS is that they're ballistic: They go up, and just as soon as they've finished that, they come right back down. In contrast, planes, cruise missiles, and other kinds of flying things you may want to destroy zip along and keep on zipping, giving radar systems time to find, acquire, and track them. The shorter flight time and relatively small size of HICKS projectiles means that it's harder to spot and lock on to them, and that there's far less time to respond before they plummet into someone's living room. Systems designed to counter those kinds of projectiles are collectively known as C-RAM systems, for Counter-Rockets, Artillery, and Mortars.

The media last lost their minds over missiles shooting down other missiles in the 1991 Gulf War, when Patriot surface-to-air missile systems were frequently reported to be intercepting Iraqi SCUD missiles on their way to, among other places, Israel.

But that's clearly been forgotten, as members of the press have been recently spooing at the sheer technical audacity of flying things flying into other flying things and blowing them up. (This is not to knock the brights guys at Rafael; super-fast target acquisition and response is a hard thing to make happen, and it promises to get even faster with their laser-firing version of Iron Dome called Iron Beam.)

But in the meantime, Iron Dome joined the ranks of Xerox, Kleenex, Band-Aid, and other eponymous trademarks that became signifiers for an entire class of items. And now Rafael is making a version for use on ships, which is making the media giddy again because the story has evolved: "Missiles Are Shooting Down Missiles — But on Boats!"

Which is nothing new. Rafael's C-Dome will join the relatively new VL MICA-M made by the European manufacturer MBDA, and the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) manufactured by the US-based Raytheon. All the attention focused on C-Dome must be particularly grating for Raytheon; not only was the RAM first deployed way back in 1992 — it's now on 165 ships in seven fleets — but Raytheon actually manufactures the Tamir missile interceptors fired by Iron Dome.

Yes, there are some differences in the footprints of the systems and how they integrate with existing onboard sensors and do target handoff, but I'm pretty sure that's not what's causing people to get all gooey with excitement.

Even the adaptation of a ground system to a naval platform (or vice versa) isn't unheard of. Another eponymous weapons system, the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS), is a big radar-cued 20mm Gatling gun that unleashes 4,500 rounds per minute, mounted on ships to shoot down incoming missiles and whatnot. The ground-based version of this was deployed to Iraq in 2005 to intercept any incoming projectiles bearing explosives and malicious intent.

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Total ignorance about this stuff really can become problematic. This summer, when the UN was, with fierce urgency, holding very long meetings to show how concerned they were about the Gaza war, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that Israel was committing a war crime because it wasn't giving "the Iron Domes" to Hamas to protect civilians. No doubt her assessment was fueled in large measure by breathless reports in the news.

Of course, the plus side to her ignorance was that if she had any idea how many C-RAM systems there are out there, she might have accused Germany, Italy, the US, and any other manufacturers of C-RAM systems of committing war crimes as well.

So maybe there's a silver lining to stupid coverage after all.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr