* Israel was hoping to sell successful rocket system abroad
* But system uniquely tailored for Israel's own threat
* And client list limited to countries with diplomatic ties
* Buyers like U.S. want system to hit low-range mortars
By Dan Williams
CARMIEL, Israel, Oct 6 Normally, an advanced new
weapon system with a battle-proven success rate of 90 percent
would have global defence procurement agencies on the phone in
minutes. But Israel's Iron Dome rocket interceptor is yet to
prove a hit with buyers abroad.
In terms of operational achievement, tested on the Gaza,
Lebanese and Egyptian Sinai fronts, Iron Dome is unrivalled in
the arms market. However its uniqueness - developed for a
particular threat in a particular place - also limits its appeal
to countries dealing with more conventional military
And Israel further curbs its potential client pool by not
selling to countries with which it has no diplomatic ties -
ruling out Gulf Arabs who, given their standoff with Iran, are
looking into missile defence.
"It is arguable that Iron Dome is tailored to deal with the
specific Israeli challenge of combating short-range rocket and
missile threats by non-state actors," said Avnish Patel of the
Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), who runs the British
think-tank's annual ballistic missile defence conference.
So far the system - its effectiveness against Palestinian
rocket fire demonstrated beyond doubt since 2011 - has been
bought by just one foreign country. Its identity is being kept
secret by both sides.
Iron Dome's manufacturer, state-owned Rafael Advanced
Defence Systems Ltd., would have been content to keep it on home
turf and avoid the risk of classified technology leaks, said
Yosi Druker, vice president of the company.
But with exports a critical prop for Israel's embattled
defence budget - the country sells abroad about 80 percent of
the weaponry it develops, earning $6.5 billion a year - finding
foreign customers for Iron Dome was seen as a natural next step.
"Rafael invested a great many millions of shekels in
developing this system," Druker, a senior member of the Iron
Dome project, told Reuters. "It could not afford to have done
this without selling abroad."
MORTARS, NOT ROCKETS
Iron Dome was rushed through development after northern
Israel was heavily shelled by Hezbollah guerillas in the 2006
The Israelis were banking on its export prospects from early
on, says one person who was present when the system aced its
first live trial, in 2009, and told Reuters that two officers
from a foreign country that regularly buys Israeli defence
products were among observers at the desert test range.
Another country closely involved with the project, the
United States, provided a substantial outlay to enable Israel to
deploy the system - more than $1 billion - but declined to buy
it for its own forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Among the Pentagon's misgivings was the $100,000 price of
Iron Dome radar-guided interceptor missiles and their perceived
unsuitability for insurgents' low-trajectory mortars, said Riki
Ellison, president of the U.S. Missile Defence Advocacy
"The Iron Dome does not do mortar protection that close, and
the cost of engagement is not applicable," said Ellison.
Israelis are also mindful of the mortar threat, having lost
15 soldiers and civilians to such salvoes in the July-August
Gaza war, while rockets from Gaza killed two people. Rafael is
now developing Iron Beam, a system that would use lasers to
incinerate mortar shells mid-air.
Yet Druker insists Iron Dome's anti-mortar capabilities are
sound, but were underused in the recent war was because it was
often deployed far from Gaza's border. The price of its
interceptor missiles could be cut by eventual mass-production
and joint manufacturing deals with U.S. firm Raytheon Co.
But the roughly $50 million price tag for an Iron Dome
battery - radar, command room and two missile launchers - is
unlikely to drop significantly.
"From the outset, we built this with an extreme view of
design-to-cost. There wasn't one screw that we incorporated
without first checking if there was a cheaper version
available," Druker said.
Also on the roster of countries to which Israel will not
offer Iron Dome are those whose military build-up is watched
warily by Washington, Druker said - a likely allusion to China
But Rafael does acknowledge promoting Iron Dome to South
Korea and India. The former is menaced by North Korea and the
latter is Israel's biggest defence client - a relationship
expected to flourish under India's new Prime Minister Narendra
Modi, who is especially friendly toward the Jewish state.
Neither Asian power has yet suggested it will buy.
"South Korea would need to spend heavily to buy numerous
systems to deter the far more expansive threat of a state actor
such as North Korea," said RUSI's Patel, explaining Seoul's
Meanwhile India is unlikely to want Iron Dome for its
population centres, which are not threatened by rockets, says
Jeremy Binnie, Middle East Editor for Jane's Defence Weekly. But
it might be interested in localised protection for strategic
sites, he adds.
"You have got that massive (Jamnagar) refinery on the west
coast of India. I know the Israelis have already done a lot of
security measures around that. It's massive. It's possible India
might be interested in getting a few (Iron Dome) batteries to
defend targets such as these," Binnie said.
In a nod to a coastal defence role, Druker said Iron Dome
"can defeat anything fired from the sea and which might endanger
Despite initial concerns about technology leaks, Rafael says
Israeli national security would not be impaired if this were to
happen. The Israeli military is using the fourth-generation
model of Iron Dome, leaving Rafael the option of selling only
earlier versions abroad and protecting those deployed at home.
"Any interceptor missile that falls in Gaza might
potentially find its way to the best Iranian labs. You live with
it," Druker said.
(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi; Editing
by Sophie Walker)