2008, the first test of rocket interception system Iron Dome, and the tension is sky high. Yossi Druker of Rafael, the man who led the ambitious project, sits together with the control team and representatives of the Ministry of Defense and the Air Force who have already taken their places in the command and control room. The battery, with the Tamir interceptor missile in it already armed, was deployed ahead of time. The trajectory and flying time have been set, the countdown begins, and Druker stops breathing. He always stops breathing before tests. At the end of the countdown, someone presses a button meant to launch the Tamir for the first time, leaving a long white trail behind it. But nothing happens. "With things like this, nothing ever goes smoothly. Murphy works overtime. We pressed the button and nothing emerged from the launcher. We tried again; still nothing. Even then, I didn't stop believing in the system for a moment. I gathered my people together, and said to them 'Guys, we tried to switch on a light, and it didn't go on. We'll go home, and check what needs checking'," Druker recalls.
The battery was loaded onto a trailer, and was hauled all the way from the test range at Shedema in the Negev to one of Rafael's laboratories, and was examined in detail. "Murphy didn't stop playing us tricks. It turned out that a very simple cable wasn't attached to the right place, a matter of a plug and socket preventing the launch. A very small thing, not complicated at all. It was harder to bring the whole system from Shedema to the center. After two weeks, we returned with the system to the same place, pressed the button, and the missile flew beautifully," he relates.
After that test, an Iron Dome battery and its interceptor missiles made their way south many times. The tests became more frequent, and each successful test brought the people from Rafael closer to their great goal: to provide, for the first time anywhere in the world, a crushing response to the threat of short-range rockets, that had for years left people in Israel's southern and northern border regions helpless. In early April 2011, the Rafael team wrote a chapter in military history and won international glory when a first operational battery deployed by Air Defense Command near Ashkelon intercepted in flight a Grad rocket meant to hit a residential area in the southern coastal city.
The first operational interception by the system the development of which he had masterminded caught Druker at a working meeting in Florida, the purpose of which was to examine the feasibility of exporting Iron Dome to the US. "The time was 10 pm, the meeting had only just begun, and I received on my mobile phone an SMS with first details of the successful interception. At that point, the meeting ended. It was a great celebration. What was clear to us from the beginning became clear to everyone, that this thing really works."
A few days before Operation Pillar of Cloud, Druker was sitting in his offices at Rafael in the center of Israel, calm and relaxed. Choosing his words carefully. Not long before, Rafael's air-to-air directorate, which he heads, had completed substantial software upgrades to the interceptor system, promising the capability of exploding in the air a wider variety of rockets and missiles, and at longer range. The upgrades also provided an answer to the Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 heavy rockets that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had deployed in silos, aimed at Israel's Dan region. "Advanced systems like Iron Dome are software-rich, and we are striving to improve their features all the time. Once we manage to carry out these improvements in the software, installing them in the system is simple. For the sake of illustration, it's like switching from Windows 7 to Windows 8. Small improvements are being made to these systems all the time as we go along, and now and then big improvements. In this case, it's a big improvement," says Druker.
The fifth Iron Dome battery, upgraded and capable of dealing with the latest threats from Gaza, was deployed last Saturday, at the height of the fighting of the fourth day of Operation Pillar of Cloud, to protect Tel Aviv and neighboring cities in the Dan region. Within hours, it intercepted the first rocket in the skies of Tel Aviv. Druker is sparing of details about this capability. "After the upgrade, the system is able to hit rockets at longer range and with greater accuracy, and it can provide a response to a wider variety of armaments," he says.
This is the world's first combat system capable of providing 90% protection against rockets. The technological challenge faced by Druker's team and Mafat (the Ministry of Defense R&D department) was like hitting a marble in the air with another marble, at high altitude and inconceivable speeds. Add to that the fact that the system was made operational in record time; developed, tested and commissioned within four years.
One can only guess how Operation Pillar of Cloud and all the previous bouts of fighting in the past eighteen months in the south would have looked if not for Iron Dome. "I have no idea how many human lives have been saved in all these rounds of fighting," says Druker. "If in every round there was extensive rocket fire at cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva, you can only assume that much loss of life and destruction property was prevented. But of course it goes beyond that: thanks to a high capacity to intercept rockets, the IDF and the politicians are more able to refrain from harsher responses to the fire from Gaza, in a ground operation, for example. There are several aspects to this: first of all, avoiding IDF casualties in a ground operation, and also a financial aspect, since a day of ground combat costs about NIS 1 billion. So Iron Dome has certainly made a substantial contribution."
Druker was born in Poland 62 years ago, came to Israel in 1957, and today lives in a rural settlement in the Jezreel Valley. He is married, and father to two daughters, both lawyers, and a son who is studying engineering. "I hope that one day he will work with us here at Rafael," he says. He has worked at the state-owned defense company since 1977, when he completed his engineering studies at the University of Ben Gurion in the Negev.
In the past, he headed the Python air-to-air missile project at Rafael, and since then has led the development of a series of advanced missile systems. "Thanks to the capability and know-how in missiles accumulated over years at Rafael, we managed to build a system like this in such a short time, and that was why we were sure we would succeed."
Even after Iron Dome demonstrated amazing interception capability and saved many lives, there were those who opened their calculators, looked with suspicion at the cost of every interception, and claimed that Israel would go bankrupt in the face of salvoes of rockets from Gaza or Lebanon, since an interceptor missile like Tamir costs about $50,000, while an improvised Kassam rocket costs, maybe, $200. "This is demagoguery. Iron Dome is far cheaper than the things it protects," Druker fires back against these claims, and explains, "In practice, compared with other systems proposed in the past for dealing with the threat, Iron Dome is ten times cheaper. But most importantly, it is substantially cheaper than the damage that the rockets directed against Israel cause. If we save one day of combat through these interceptions, that's a saving of a great deal of money. We are meeting cost targets, and they are not high."
What about the argument that the system is not capable of protecting Sderot because of its proximity to Gaza and the system's inability to provide a solution for short ranges?
"Iron Dome provides a solution when it is deployed everywhere. The State of Israel has only a small number of batteries. If the system were deployed in Sderot, it would be able protect the city with the same success as it protects any other city."
Would Iron Dome have been able to provide a solution to the thousands of rockets fired at Israel in the Second Lebanon war?
"Yes. Of the 4,000 rockets fired at us, most fell on open ground, and only 1,000 on inhabited areas. The system would have been able to deal with all these rockets."
The Ministry of Defense has set a procurement target of 13 interception systems. Is that enough to deal with the rocket threat from the north and the south?
"In my view we need a bit more."
The Ministry of Defense has for months been trying to promote sales of this sophisticated interception system. Rafael exhibits it at international arms shows, and armed forces from around the world have shown interest. The problem is that there is no country really exposed to the threat of rocket salvoes on its interior as Israel is. Rafael and the Ministry of Defense's main sales effort is directed at South Korea, which is threatened by its northern neighbor.
If Iron Dome is sold to an overseas customer, will it be possible to reduce unit costs to the extent that the Ministry of Defense will be able to procure more batteries and interceptors?
"The possibility of reducing costs through higher production exists, but by small amounts, 5-10%, no more than that."
According to Druker, production of the entire system, comprising the batteries and interceptors, Elta's radar, and mPrest's command and control system, is in the hands of less than 100 people. Most of the work is carried out at a Rafael facility in the north, while the radar is produced at Elta in Ashdod, a stone's throw from where the battery protecting the city and the surrounding area is deployed. The connection between Druker and Air Defense Command is close. Throughout the round of fighting in the south, especially in the past few days, they have been chewing dust in the field, beside the batteries, reviewing launches and interceptions in real time, fine-tuning the system, all in order to improve its performance. While one eye is on Gaza, Druker's other eye is on other fronts, and his attention is directed towards Rafael's next system, Magic Wand, being developed in collaboration with US company Raytheon. This system will provide defense against heavy rockets and mid-range ballistic missiles.
Like a gardener who loves the flowerbeds he has grown and cultivated, Druker loves his missiles. He describes the Stunner, the interceptor missile at the center of the Magic Wand system, as "a beauty". "It really is a beauty. It's a handsome looking missile, and it's good." In the seconds before the Stunner is released into the air for the first time, homing in on the target missile to intercept it, Druker will stop breathing. He'll breathe normally again when he hears the "boom".
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on November 22, 2012
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012