Since an escalation in fighting between Gaza and Israel last week, there have been more than 100 casualties on Gaza's side of the border. On Israel's there have been three. That low death count in Israel, despite many rockets fired into its territory, is thanks largely to the Israeli "Iron Dome" air defense system. For more on how that system works, Robert Siegel speaks with Barbara Opall-Rome, Israel bureau chief for Defense News.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In terms of military hardware, the Israel/Hamas exchanges have been noteworthy for two reasons. First, Hamas now has longer range rockets that threaten not just Israeli towns and cities next door to Gaza, but as far as way as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well. Second, the Israelis now have a system that shoots and destroys most of those rockets in mid-flight. It was developed by the Israeli government-owned defense company, Raphael, which has a promotional video for the system online.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: With a wave of (unintelligible), Raphael has developed the first of its kind counter-rocket artillery mortar C-ram system with pinpoint accuracy interceptors against asymmetric threats. Iron Dome.
SIEGEL: Iron Dome is described as a game-changer by observers of this conflict. Barbara Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News and joins us now from Herzliya in Israel. And do we know how effective the Iron Dome system is?
BARBARA OPALL-ROME: Well, right now, we can only rely on official Israel statistics and they are reporting, the Israeli authorities, very high 80 percent effective rates. Nearly 90 percent according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
SIEGEL: How does it work?
OPALL-ROME: Well, Robert, think of trying to find a bullet in flight located in time to track it and hit it with another bullet and doing this all in 15 seconds in the most extreme cases. Sometimes they have the luxury of up to a minute.
SIEGEL: So they detect these rockets in flight with radar. A signal is sent to these interceptors and the interceptors, I gather, both manage to find rockets that are in danger of striking an area, but also they don't bother with ones that are not in danger of striking.
OPALL-ROME: Exactly. And that is the beauty and the added value of this capability. Because the radar is so tightly integrated into a battle management, a command and control system, basically a trailer with a few computer consoles inside. And those two elements are connected to the launcher and the algorithms allow them to figure out which threats are indeed likely to land on populated areas and cause injury or damage.
SIEGEL: This is a system that was championed by a former Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz, a Labor Party politician, who left office no hero. Is he now considered vindicated?
OPALL-ROME: Absolutely. You know, there was a very interesting editorial comic in one of the leading Israeli dailies today that talks about Ehud Barak looking over his shoulder and there's a picture of Amir Peretz as the hero of this ongoing pillar of defense campaign. So, yes, it was Amir Peretz, an outsider, a civilian, not a retired general who did not buy into the mind think, the group think of the military generals who wanted more offensive capabilities.
They did not want to invest in a defensive system against what they deemed as a nuisance threat.
SIEGEL: Where does U.S. military aid enter the picture here or where did dollars enter the picture in terms of the Iron Dome?
OPALL-ROME: In the past two years, first of all, in the end of 2010, I believe, Congress appropriated $205 million. The Iron Dome was already fully developed and Israel had already started what they call long lead production, very small amount of production. And in May, another 70 million was sent over to Israel and this was for the purposes of beefing up the inventories. Right now, they just deployed their fifth battery and two hours after it was deployed on Saturday, it succeeded intercepting a rocket destined for the greater Tel Aviv area.
SIEGEL: Barbara Opall-Rome, thank you very much for talking with us about Iron Dome.
OPALL-ROME: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Barbara Opall-Rome is the Israel bureau chief for Defense News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.