TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Israel's military says it will put its much-touted Iron Dome air-defense system in storage and deploy it only if Hezbollah or Hamas unleash major rocket bombardments.
On the face of it, that suggests that the weapon built by state-run Rafael Advanced Defense Systems may not be all that it's been made out to be, as some Israeli critics have claimed for some time.
The Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday that "after months of deliberation," the military has decided to store Iron Dome at an air force in central Israel, deploying it "only in cases of extreme rocket fire from the Gaza Strip or southern Lebanon."
Iron Dome had been expected to be certified as having acquired "initial operational capability" later in November. That certification, the sources were quoted as saying, was now likely to be announced in the first quarter of 2011.
The sources were quoted as saying that the deployment problem wasn't technical but because of delays in the "intricate process" of training crews to man the Iron Dome batteries.
Iron Dome was unveiled with much fanfare in July as "a milestone in military technology" after successfully completing a series of test-firings in the Negev Desert.
The system is designed to shoot down rockets and missiles with ranges of between 3 and 46 miles using radar-guided interceptors. Each battery has three launchers and 20 missiles controlled by a multi-mission radar built by Israel Aerospace Industries, flagship of Israel's high-tech defense industry.
It's the lower component of a planned three-tier missile defense shield.
David's Sling, built by Rafael and Raytheon of the United States, will cover medium-range missiles and slower-flying cruise missiles fired from up to 190 miles away. This system, still under development, is sometimes called Magic Wand.
The high-altitude Arrow 2, manufactured by IAI, forms the top layer defense against ballistic missiles like Scuds and Iran's Shehab-3bs. Two batteries have been deployed and third is slated to cover Tel Aviv, Israel's largest population center. An improved version, Arrow-3, is under development with Boeing.
The government has ordered two truck-towed Iron Dome batteries and the Americans have provided $250 million to acquire another nine.
But by all accounts Israel needs as many as 200 air-defense batteries to be properly protected and the military hasn't budgeted for that. That's primarily a financial issue, for which the Israelis are looking to the Americans to help them solve.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak observed in a recent interview that Israel needed "tens of thousands of the short-range interceptors, thousands of the David Sling interceptors and hundreds of the upper-layers (Arrow-2). That's a big package … But in order to fully deploy we need some $7 billion-$8 billion."
However, Iron Dome's efficacy remains untested in combat, with the major concern it won't be able to cope with mass salvos of the short-range Katyusha and Grad rockets possessed by Hezbollah and Hamas.
Nathan Faber, an aeronautics lecturer at Israel's Technion and a former rocket scientist with the military, is one of Iron Dome's severest critics. For several years he has been sounding the alarm about what he sees as the system's weaknesses, "which they're attempting to conceal from the public."
The starkest of these, he maintains, is the system's difficulty into intercepting mortar shells and short-range rockets like Katyushas or Hamas' homemade Qassam rockets.
The military claims Iron Dome will be able to intercept 80 percent of incoming projectiles but critics say that's questionable since the system hasn't been tested against large salvos.
Military planners say that in Israel's next war it faces thousands of missiles and rockets raining on its cities over a sustained period. Hezbollah alone is reputed to have up to 45,000 rockets and missiles, four times the number it had when the 2006 war erupted. It unleashed 4,000 rockets against Israel during the 34-day war.
That triggered the rush to develop an antidote like Iron Dome, which critics say was designed to fight the 2006 war than the next one.
The liberal daily Haaretz observed in July that the Iron Dome tests "were received in certain defense establishment quarters with the distress usually reserved for failures.
"The seeds of failure lie in the success, because there are public expectations that the Israeli Defense Forces fears it cannot meet, either financially or operationally," Haaretz said.