Military Gear

Behind the Iron Dome: How Israel Stops Missiles


An Israeli missile is launched from the Iron Dome defense missile
system in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod in response to a rocket launched from the nearby Palestinian Gaza Strip on Nov. 18, 2012

Photograph by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

An Israeli missile is launched from the Iron Dome defense missile system in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod in response to a rocket launched from the nearby Palestinian Gaza Strip on Nov. 18, 2012

The success of Israel’s Iron Dome in shooting down missiles fired from Gaza has a lot to do with a company you’ve probably never heard of: MPrest Systems. Led by a retired Israeli naval captain named Natan Barak, MPrest makes the smarts of Iron Dome. According to the company’s website, its computer technology performs “air awareness picture building, target classification, calculating interception programs, and controlling launch and interception processes.”

The system has stopped roughly 90 percent of incoming missiles, not counting the hundreds that it let through deliberately because it was clear they would land in unoccupied areas, according to a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Iron Dome has undoubtedly saved the lives of Israeli citizens. It has probably saved the lives of people in Gaza, as well, because without the shield in place there would have been an outcry from the Israeli public for a ground invasion of Gaza to root out the missile launchers. That would have caused many more deaths on both sides.

“All of us are very proud,” Barak said by telephone from the company’s headquarters in Petah Tikvah, a city east of Tel Aviv. “It seems like kind of science fiction.” The system has “more capabilities that they haven’t seen yet,” he added. “I prefer not to get into the detail of the performance. We want to have some surprises.”

The Iron Dome program, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, is headed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, an Israeli government-owned company that is the general contractor and makes the Tamir interceptor missiles. The radar is from Elta Systems, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries. MPrest, the third partner, makes the command-and-control system and is half-owned by Rafael, while Barak owns a quarter of the company.

Typical command-and-control software for military gear is highly customized and hard to modify. The key to MPrest’s success, Barak says, is that the command-and-control software is simple and modular, so customers can quickly adapt it without reprogramming. The Israeli army was able to recalibrate Iron Dome batteries almost immediately, without a software rewrite, when Hamas fighters began to fire longer-range missiles.

Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows and .NET architecture make up the base layer of the system. On top of that goes MPrest software that can “manage tens of thousands of objects, each changing several times per second,” the company says on its website. The “objects” are the building blocks of the software, consisting of either code or data or a mixture, which can communicate with one another as the program is running.

Barak calls the software “generic,” in a positive sense, meaning it’s reusable for various purposes. The same basic technology is being used for civilian purposes, including for a vehicle fleet management system in Israel, Brazil, and Argentina, he says.

In the Israeli navy, Barak was the commander of C4I—an acronym for command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence. Until the early 1990s, 10 incompatible systems were communicating simple messages at a “lowest common denominator” level, producing fragmented information to the military leadership. He led an effort to knit the systems together to form a complete picture of the battlefield.

Barak took over MPrest Systems at the end of 2003, immediately upon retiring from the navy. He teamed up with three men who had served under him, joining their existing company and changing its direction from wireless communications to command and control. The company now has 120 employees and is growing each year by “double digits,” Barak says. “We have very good profits. A lot more than the average in our business.”

Business could get even better after Iron Dome’s success in the Gaza conflict. Singapore has already fielded a system, according to Aviation Week. And South Korea has shown interest in the system, Alon Ben-David, an independent defense analyst, told Bloomberg.

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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