Israel's air defence experiments with lasers and algorithms to stay a step ahead of its enemies  

No other country in the developed world is shot at as often as Israel - making it a forge of innovation for air defence systems

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 Lt Itai Aizenkraft is 'a man in the loop' - a human operator of Israel's Iron Dome system
 Lt Itai Aizenkraft is 'a man in the loop' - a human operator of Israel's Iron Dome system Credit: Quique Kierszenbaum / Telegraph

The Islamic Jihad rocket streaked out of Gaza and through the night sky towards the greater Tel Aviv area. 

Within seconds it had been detected by Israeli radar and a computer system began furious calculations based on the rocket’s trajectory, speed, and type. 

The computer’s conclusion flashed a moment later across the screen of Itai Aizenkraft, a 21-year-old lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force: the rocket was going to crash into a civilian neighbourhood.  

Lt Aizenkraft gave the order and an Iron Dome battery outside Tel Aviv roared to life, firing an interceptor missile to bring down the incoming rocket. “The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds,” he said afterwards. 

No other country in the developed world is shot at as often as Israel. Around 1,300 rockets were fired from Gaza last year, according to the military, while a handful of missiles came from Syria and southern Lebanon. 

Those grim figures means many nights of wailing sirens and families sleeping in bomb shelters but they have also turned Israel into a forge of innovation for air defence systems - one that is watched being closely by countries around the world. 

Saudi commanders, chastened by their failure to stop an Iranian attack on their oil facilities last September, are looking for insights on how to stop drones and medium-range missiles. US officials look to Israel as they devise plans to defend America in the event of an attempted strike from North Korea. 

Iranian drones and missiles successfully attacked Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil facility in 2019 Credit: VIDEOS OBTAINED BY REUTERS

Later this year, Israel’s military will become the first in the world to demonstrate a laser weapon for bringing down rockets, potentially opening a new chapter in futuristic warfare. The jointly developed US-Israel Arrow-3 missile carried out an interception outside of Earth’s atmosphere last year in the skies above Alaska, a feat requiring such precision it is often described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet”. 

But while Israel is relentlessly innovating so are its opponents. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah, the Iranian-aligned militant group had around 15,000 rockets and was capable of firing around a hundred a day. Today, Hizbollah has an arsenal of more than 130,000 rockets and in a future war is likely to fire thousands of them a day.  

“The big question, the one that worries us, is whether we can stay ahead of our enemies,” Colonel Gil Dolov, the deputy commander of Israel’s Air Defence Array, told the Sunday Telegraph. “Right now, we are in a good position and we are at least one step ahead. We’re trying to keep up the pace but it’s very challenging.”  

Israel’s skies are guarded by four tiers of missile defence systems, the backbone of which is the Iron Dome system. Since it came online in 2011, the Iron Dome has successfully intercepted more than 2,000 incoming rockets and missiles. 

An Iron Dome battery outside the southern Israeli city of Sderot Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Despite Israel’s technological sophistication - and the minuscule amount of time available to stop a rocket from Gaza - none of its missiles systems are fully computerised. A human still takes the decision to fire in all cases. 

“No matter how sophisticated the weapon will be it will not be able to anticipate all the ambiguities of war. That’s why you need to have the man in the loop to detect anomalies and to understand the full sky picture,” said Col Dolov. 

The day may come when the aerial battlefield is simply too complex for human involvement. Hypersonic missiles may travel too fast for a man to decide to intercept them or human brains may not be quick enough to follow swarms of drones. 

But Col Dolov said Israel intended to keep “the man in the loop” for the foreseeable future - partly to avoid the kind of mistakes that led panicked Iranian forces to accidentally shoot down a Ukrainian airliner over Tehran in January.

“That is not something that would happen in Israel,” he said, adding that junior officers need permission from a senior commander before firing against aircraft.

Israel’s batteries of interceptor missiles are coupled with a nationwide siren system to warn civilians of incoming rockets. That system has also evolved dramatically. In 2006, a crude early version divided Israel into ten warning zones, meaning that if a rocket was flying towards Haifa, the entire city could be sent scrambling towards bomb shelters. 

Today, the system has become so precise at calculating the trajectory of a rocket that Israel is divided into 1,500 zones. If a rocket is flying towards Haifa only a specific neighbourhood would be alerted. A mile away, café-goers could continue sipping their cappuccinos, confident the rocket was not heading towards them.     

The decision on whether or not to sound the alert is once again in the hands of a young soldier, who faces a difficult choice. If she waits for a few extra seconds after the rocket is fired, she will have a better sense of exactly where it is going to land and which areas to alert. But the longer she waits, the less time civilians have to get to shelters. 

A soldier won praise in 2018 year as he watched a rocket fly towards Tel Aviv at 3am but kept his nerve and decided not to immediately sound the alarm. In those extra seconds, the computer calculated the rocket was on course to fall harmlessly into the sea. Hundreds of thousands of Tel Avivians slept peacefully through the night, unaware how close the military had come to waking them with blaring sirens. 

A Hamas fighter stands in front of rocket launchers Credit: AP Photo/Adel Hana, File

Much of the Air Defence Array’s time is spent focused on Gaza but the reality is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets pose a tactical threat to Israel, while the sophisticated missiles of Iran that could cause major devastation.

Israeli commanders were impressed with Iran’s precision strikes against Saudi Arabia’s oil fields last year using drones and missile. “It’s a game changer,” said Col Dolov. “We knew they had this capability but it was the first time they used it.”

Iran’s medium-range missiles - like the ones fired at US bases in Iraq in January in retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani - are also becoming increasingly precise. But the colonel said Iranian long-range missiles, which would be needed to strike Israel, remained fairly unsophisticated. 

Israel’s ability to shield most of its civilians from rockets in Gaza has a broader strategic impact because it reduces the pressure on Israel’s government to go to war in response. Even though thousands of rockets have been fired into Israel since 2014 they have caused relatively few casualties, which in turn has limited public pressure for war. 

“The Iron Dome has given Israel’s political and military leadership time and flexibility to decide how to respond to these attacks. It has significantly contained the conflicts in Gaza which could have otherwise escalated to full-on Israeli invasion and re-occupation to stop missile attacks,” said Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel who is now a senior fellow at the INSS think thank. 

Foreign observers sometimes marvel that Israel, a country perpetually locked in conflict with its neighbours, is ranked as one of the happiest in the world. The 2019 World Happiness Report put it at number 13, two places above the UK and six places above the US.

That contentment may be partly down to the Israeli sunshine and plentiful Mediterranean food but Col Dolov argued that the batteries of missile interceptors play a part. 

“It looks like we’re living in a war zone but people are happy and feeling safe because they are counting on the Iron Dome to give them cover and they are counting on the early warnings we will provide,” he said. “People feel secure despite the rockets.”