Has Israeli know-how finally come up with an answer to the challenge posed by short-range missiles? Until now, Israel's leadership has been unable to defend against rocket fire from Lebanon or the Gaza Strip. But after four years of development, Israel last week deployed a new missile defense system it calls "Iron Dome." In tests, the system successfully knocked out mock enemy missiles, raising hopes that it can do the same in live combat conditions.
Every missile battery contains three launchers, each with with 20 interceptors. You can see a video about Iron Dome as well as read our coverage to learn more.
Given recent advances in lasers and micro-circuitry - as well as Israel's high-tech prowess - maybe this is the first anti-missile defense system that finally lives up to the advance billing. Unfortunately, the history of missile defense is chockablock with examples of big sells and all-too-often underwhelming performance.
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The world's first ballistic missile, Germany's V-2 Vergeltungswaffe Zwei or Revenge Weapon-2), was fired at England from a launch pad in France - a range of about 200 miles - on September 8, 1944.
Although it was inaccurate and carried a limited
payload, this was a terror weapon that was designed to kill civilians. By the end of the war Germany had fired more than 1,000 into Great Britain.
Less widely known was the German plan to attack the continental U.S. with V-2s. The rockets would have been towed across the Atlantic in special containers by U-boats. The missiles would have been elevated for launch and the U-boat would have pumped fuel into the missiles prior to firing. The Germans lost the war before getting a chance to test out the idea.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, U.S. defense officers began gathering information on Britain's defenses against the V-2. One idea the British had was to use barrage antiaircraft artillery fire against V-2s. The chief of Britain's
Anti-Aircraft Command at the time, General Sir Frederick Pile, estimated it would have
taken approximately 12,000 antiaircraft rounds to knock down a single V-2. The Allies overran the V-2 sites idea before the idea could be tested in practice. Another footnote to history: an army advisory group looking into the question of future defenses against missiles offered up the (then novel) idea of deploying an "energy beam."
Although never deployed, Nike Zeus Project was the the U.S. Army's first try at building an anti ballistic missile system that could intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 1957, the Army initiated the Nike II development
program with Western Electric as the prime
contractor, and Bell Labs and the Douglas
Aircraft Company as subcontractors.
By 1962, the program was ended when it was found that the interceptor could be easily confused in an enemy mixed real nuclear missiles with lightweight decoys made to look like missiles. As John F. Kennedy's science advisor, Dr. Jerome Wiesner, later wrote: "The whole system as conceived really wasn't good enough. It could not respond fast enough. Its radars weren't good enough. Its traffic-handling capacity-that is, the number of missiles it could deal with at one time-was not adequate."
Bob McNamara, who served as Defense Secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, advocated for a new anti-ballistic system - renamed Sentinel - that would include interceptors and radar on submarines and ships. By 1968, however, there was confusion about the program's future. As arms control negotiations with the Russians became likely, Sentinel was mentioned as a bargaining chip for future talks.
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The U.S. military had toyed with several missile interceptor ideas starting with the "Wizard" and "Thumper" projects in 1946, but the work failed to produce a workable test model. By 1957, however, the army did come up with the an interceptor. But inter-service rivalry delayed a plan to develop an integrated defense system against enemy missiles.
The Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957 concentrated the Pentagon's focus and a year later, the development of an anti-ICBM system was given "national priority," according to a position paper from the National Security Council. The Nike anti-ballistic missile got off to a rough start but by the mid-1960s, the interceptors had improved to the point where they held promise as a counter against Soviet warheads.
Starting a four-decade-long run beginning in 1960, the Hawk missile originally was conceived as a defense against enemy aircraft. But its mission morphed as it was upgraded for deployment against incoming missiles. U.S. forces never had occasion to use the Hawk in battle.
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President Richard Nixon, pictured here with his National Security advisor Henry Kissinger, shifted the U.S.'s missile defense strategy away from urban defense. Another renaming - this time it was called the "Safeguard" system - the network would be used to protect the nation's stockpile of silo-based Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. By 1972, an agreement with the Soviets resulted in each side only retaining two fixed missile defense installations with no more than 100 interceptors.
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Ronald Reagan came up with plan for an alternative to the U.S.'s decades-long policy of mutual assured destruction in 1983 when he sketched out an outline for a network of ground and space-based systems that came to be more commonly known as "Star Wars." A day after the speech, Sen. Edward Kennedy slammed it as a brew of "reckless Star Wars schemes." The name stuck.
Over the next several years, plans took shape. However, implementation was held back by the potential expense which would be involved as well as the vulnerability of the system to anti-satellite weaponry. By 1991, the Brilliant Pebbles concept seemed to offer a theoretical workaround: around 4,000-satellite constellations orbiting the Earth would shoot down long-range ballistic missiles by firing off fire high-velocity, watermelon-sized projectiles. The program was canceled in 1994.
In 1983 and 1984, the U.S. began a series of tests - called the Homing Overlay Experiment - to examine the feasibility of intercepting Soviet missiles through nonnuclear "hit-to-kill" means. After three failed attempts, a mock ballistic missile warhead was successfully destroyed outside the Earth's atmosphere.
By the 1990s, the emphasis had shifted to "Theater Missile Defense," made up components such as the Army's Patriot missile and the Theater High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
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By the 2000s, the U.S. had deployed a network of ground-based and sea-based interceptors to defend against intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The accompanying image shows the USS Lake Erie launching a successful intercept of a short-range ballistic missile in 2002. Six years later, the Lake Erie successfully knocked down a dead satellite just prior to burn up.
A joint project of Israel and the United States, the Arrow consists of a phased array radar, a fire control center, and a high-altitude interceptor missile. Unlike THAAD and the Patriot, the Arrow doesn't depend on a hit-to-kill technology; rather, it detonates a payload designed to explode within 50 yards of a target.
Last week Israel began deploying its "Iron Dome" mobile air defense along its side of the Gaza Strip. The system, which is made by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, was designed to counter short-range threats within 25 seconds of an enemy missile launch.
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Although Israel hopes the Iron Dome will provide a measure of defense against rocket attacks launched from Gaza or Lebanon, Israeli officers did their best to lower expectations as the system was put into place. Brig.-Gen. Doron Gavish, commander of the IAF Air Defense Division said it would offer "good but not hermetic" protection. Given the vagaries of Middle East politics, Israel likely won't need to wait long to see how Iron Dome fares in real battle situations.
Close-up view of "Iron Dome." If it works as advertised, it will offer faster interception than any previous missile defense system.