NEW DELHI: As Fajr V rockets rained down on Israel from battleground Gaza for a week, many Indian defense planners were keeping a close watch on the performance of Israel’s Iron Dome, which is probably the only deterrent to these homegrown short-range missiles.
Several months ago, the military scientists in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had suggested that India look at a joint development programme with Israeli firms to develop an Indian version of Iron Dome, which is touted as the most effective system against short-range missiles such as Fajr V rockets. The Indian scientists believe Israel’s plight has several parallels to its threat from Pakistan as well as the vulnerability of its cities from terrorists.
The Iron Dome, according to reports, intercepted 87% of the rockets fired at Israel by the Hamas. The system, produced by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and at work since 2011, is believed to have the capability to shoot down rockets and artillery shells with ranges of up to 70 km. The system has been shown to be effective against rockets or shells that might target populated areas.
In the Indian military establishment, the temptation for acquiring this new toy is explained by the fact that India is ringed by hostile neighbours. Pakistani terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) could well acquire similar capability that would threaten large groups of Indian population. Even otherwise, the strategic planners have for long been worried about the deadly effect of short-range rockets fired at Indian cities or from across the border.
Unlike ballistic missiles, against which DRDO claims to have a fairly good anti-ballistic missile shield, there is almost no protection against short-range rockets or artillery fire. DRDO is currently collaborating with Israeli firms to develop medium range surface to air missiles (MRSAMs) and LRSAMs. However, Iron Dome is in a different class all together, Israeli diplomatic sources here argue.
One of the reasons why some Indian defence planners is pushing for it is the possibility of another conflict with Pakistan, where a system like the Iron Dome might be useful to deter even conventional artillery attacks. In addition, Pakistan has developed a tactical nuclear weapon like the Nasr, which is a solid fuelled battlefield range ballistic missile. While Pakistani analysts say this was developed in anticipation of India’s supposed Cold Start doctrine, some Indian sources say the Iron Dome might be an effective deterrent against this new weapon.
On the other hand, acquiring such defensive systems in anticipation of similar attacks might prove to be too much a temptation for groups like LeT. While they haven’t yet developed rockets like the ones the Hamas has been using, the lure of such home-grown weaponry should not be under-estimated, say diplomatic sources.
According to sources, there have been some discussions between DRDO and their Israeli counterparts for a possible joint development of Iron Dome for India. “The Israeli team comes and works in our laboratories. Our team goes and works in their laboratories and industries. There is a learning that is taking place which was not there when we buy things and integrate with existing products… In directed energy weapons — we are focusing on fibre laser, high powered micro-waves, etc. We have also started discussions with Iron Dome for co-development (in India),” Dr W Selvamurthy, Chief Controller looking after international cooperation, told the Economic Times recently.
How it works:
* The system detects launches of rockets and quickly determines their flight path. If it is headed toward populated areas or sensitive targets, it fires an interceptor with a special warhead that strikes the incoming rocket within seconds. Rockets headed toward open areas area allowed to land.
* Currently, five Iron Dome batteries are deployed in Israel. Most are located in the south near Gaza. A fifth battery was deployed outside Tel Aviv on Saturday, two months ahead of schedule. Hours later, it shot down a rocket headed toward Tel Aviv.
*Missiles cost around $40,000 a piece. In 2010, the US provided $200 million to expand development. Additional funding is currently being considered, with $70 million already allocated for this fiscal year.
*The system is part of what Israel calls its “multilayer missile defense”. It is meant to protect against the tens of thousands of short-range rockets possessed by militants in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Israel has also deployed its “ Arrow” missile defense systems for long-range threats from Iran. The military says its new “David’s Sling” system, being developed by Rafael to stop medium-range missiles, will be activated by 2014.