LE BOURGET — Israel's "Iron Dome" is heading to the seas, the maker of the rocket-blocking defense system says.
State-owned defense contractor Rafael wants to leverage the system's much-vaunted success in protecting Israeli civilians in this summer's Gaza war, hoping to draw navies as buyers for a new maritime version seen as especially useful in protecting national economic resources at sea like oil and gas platforms.
At this week's Euronaval conference near Paris, Rafael unveiled "C-Dome," which endeavors to help combat vessels counteract any threats from the air, including missiles, helicopters and tiny unmanned drone aircraft, which could increasingly become tools of combat and reconnaissance at sea just as they have on land in recent years.
Large naval vessels generally have radar-based interception systems to counter incoming threats. But Rafael executives say C-Dome offers innovations. It can fire up to a missile per second, cover a 360-degree range while piggybacking on a vessel's own radar systems with heat-tracking missiles that zero in on multiple incoming threats at a time.
"C-dome offers something that is not out there (in the market) yet ... A small footprint and the capability to engage multiple targets and saturation threats. And it's based on the only system in the world that has more than 1,000 intercepts," said program director Ari Sacher. "We can protect the ship from every direction at the same time. Most systems out there can't do that."
Iron Dome was a game-changer in this summer's war, ensuring a decisive technological edge for Israel that all but eliminated civilian casualties from Palestinian rocket fire. The IDF says that Iron Dome shot down 735 rockets in this summer's Gaza war, for more than an 85 percent success rate of those targeted.
The land-based system quickly recognizes the trajectory of incoming rockets and whether they are headed for population centers. Those are shot down, while others are allowed to fall in empty fields to spare the hefty cost of firing the sophisticated interceptors. Rafael officials insist Iron Dome intercepted more than 1,200 projectiles during the war.
C-Dome builds on that experience, shapes it for maritime needs and to defend smaller zones like ships or sea-borne installations.
At Rafael's display area at the Euronaval exhibit hall in suburban Le Bourget, where high-tech whirligigs like mine-sweepers or virtual-reality training suits for aircraft carrier crews were on show, sat a gray, square metallic box about the size of a large coffee table with a black-tipped missile in one of four launch holes. Missiles would be housed underneath a ship's deck.
The small size makes C-Dome suitable for smaller vessels, such as corvettes and similar — many of which currently rely on less sophisticated intercept systems, Sacher said. C-Dome defends both the ships that carry it and other vessels or oil and gas platforms in its vicinity, he said.
"This is opening a whole new market," Sacher said.
The closest competitors, he said, would be MBDA's short-range air defense system VL Mica and the Rolling Airframe Missile system of Raytheon. MBDA says its system provides 360-degree coverage against all existing airborne threats, and Raytheon says the RAM system can be used on ships of all sizes and is now deployed on 165 ships in seven fleets — including corvettes.
John Eagles, a Raytheon spokesman, said RAM has demonstrated in tests an intercept rate of more than 90 percent, and is capable of countering threats against oil platforms. He said he was not immediately aware of any cases when RAM had been used in combat; Rafael's Sacher played up how C-Dome was based on a system with a "proven track record."
C-Dome uses the same Tamir rockets as used in Iron Dome, Sacher said, estimating their "commonality at more than 99.5 percent". At sea, it can intercept "anything above the water," including guided weapons, he said. In contrast, Palestinian rockets from Gaza were relatively crude, unguided weapons.
One analyst said it was important not to overplay its capacities on the seas just yet.
"I don't think you would want to overcook this as 'Iron Dome for naval vessels'," said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor at IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. But he acknowledged that protecting oil platforms with on-board intercept systems — if confirmed — would appear to be an important advance.
The new system is more about protecting maritime economic interests than blocking Palestinian projectiles.
"The most strategic sites for the future right now will be gas platforms and oil platforms," said reserve Israeli Navy Capt. "Meir," a Rafael business development director for naval warfare systems, waving his hand over the C-Dome static display as a video behind him showed colorful animated images of fired missiles exploding on impact with torpedoes, missiles and drones.
"You have to secure them from missiles; Missiles that will be from terror organizations, from mother boats, from enemy countries, from drones — or any other aerial threat," said Meir, who declined to give his surname for security reasons.
For security and competitiveness reasons, he and other Rafael executives declined to say how many missiles the system could carry, but it would depend on customers' requests. Rafael executives also declined to say when the system was activated or whether the navy of Israel — which has developed a number of large natural gas fields off its Mediterranean coast — was using it.