The Israel Missile Defense Organization, a division within the Directorate of Defense Research and Development in Israel’s Ministry of Defense, was established in 1991 in the wake of the Gulf War and the Scud missile threat to Israel. Now, the IMDO is now celebrating 30 years of work.
The office coordinates closely with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, a partnership that predates both organizations.
As an example of that partnership, the Arrow system was declared operational in 2000, followed by Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 and the development of David’s Sling and Iron Dome, which was initiated in 2007.
IMDO and MDA are now working on Arrow-4. A variant of David’s Sling Stunner interceptor called SkyCeptor is now produced jointly by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Raytheon and the companies also produce Iron Dome in the US. Israel delivered two batteries of Iron Dome to the U.S. Army in the last year.
The agency’s current head is a retired colonel who studied at Israel’s Technion University and served in the Israeli Air Force before retiring and working at Elbit Systems prior to leading the IMDO in 2016.
Defense News’ Seth J. Frantzman spoke with Moshe Patel, the head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization.
Is Israel the most well defended airspace in the world?
I think that Israel’s government took in the past the decision to protect against missiles, rockets, UAVs, cruise missiles, etc; [it is the same] way we are taking decisions right now about the war with COVID; it is to have whatever is needed to make sure that the life of Israeli population is more secured. There were, in the past, lots of people with ideas who said we put too much budget for defense, but when you count the lives that were saved with 2,400 operational interceptions by Iron Dome and even more … the lives saved and saving wounded … to give our leaders breathing space before retaliation and make the calculations [necessary], it because of the missile defense.
You can understand the benefits. As a program manager I would be happy if I had more budget. Without U.S. support we wouldn’t be at this stage, with the budget and lessons learned. Without putting emphasis on the right culture to develop and produce [these systems] we wouldn’t be where we are. We want to bring benefits to the U.S., and lesson’s learned. Whatever we face here, I am sharing with my partners in the Missile Defense Agency. We feel we need to do so for the community to learn and improve itself. I think leaders in Israel, of course after Gulf War in 1991, and Lebanon War in 2006, made it easier to improve those programs, and then we received a lot of support.
U.S. support is not just financial – it includes joint training, information sharing, exchanging lessons learned. It is an unparalleled and critical partnership with the MDA, with the U.S. military and with the U.S. government. We are extremely grateful for this relationship.
Does the U.S. Army have what it needs to properly evaluate Iron Dome for its enduring indirect fire protection capability?
Yes, we made sure all the data for this evaluation will be in possession of U.S. Army. Again, it was a lot of classified data that was delivered to let them have this ability.
When and how did the U.S. and Israeli governments resolve the source code-sharing problems for Iron Dome?
As you know the Iron Dome is one of our important systems and strategic systems, even though it is lower tier, so the source code is top secret classification and so what we are doing is what are the right measures under our agreement? How we can resolve this request? They are working on ideas. I can say that there are some examples of source code in other programs when something like that has happened, it was solved. There are ways. It’s not just IP and rights, it’s how we secure this sensitive data. With our agreements on Arrow 2 and David’s Sling source code ... you need [a] wider umbrella. In the other programs there are parts above the program and there are vehicles that enable this sensitive data to be shared.
This is moving in the right direction and we are not worried because of the extraordinary relationship between the U.S. and Israel on every level.
The U.S. defense budget is expected to be flat, essentially a funding cut. Are you concerned about that impacting any of the joint IMDO-MDA programs?
No. It is stable. No concerns. The effect of both our governments approved [budgets] way ahead to 2030 makes me very comfortable that I can plan for a long term activity. Your contracts are more efficient when you plan for long term. In the past the mechanism was a “plus-up” [budget] we had. A certain budget and there were plus-up for Israeli programs, and we were thankful for U.S. Congressional and the U.S. [support], but you can’t plan for long term management; now it is part of the [memorandum of understanding] and it is stable so we can plan ahead.
Has there been any collaboration or plans to work with Arab countries on programs?
What I can say is that this matter is above my level and suggest to refer that to higher levels. We are a program management office, while that [question] is policy and strategic. Reference to policy would be under higher levels.
Can you discuss UAVs and other threats? A few years ago we rarely heard about missiles capable of stopping UAV threats, and now we often hear UAVs mentioned. Adversaries such as Iran have a wide range of UAVs for instance?
We need to make sure that we are ready for statistical threats we face today and the ability of enemies to put more and more navigation systems and make the [threats] more accurate and maneuvering and we will see more and more of those capabilities. We need to be ready with our systems for this trend and also to be ready for a nuclear Iran and have the ability of Arrow-3 to extend the abilities of it. Also we need to be ready for short range rockets that can be dealt with by directed energy systems. That is how we look at the future. And of course as long as UAVs and cruise missiles become more sophisticated, we need to be ready for that. That is how we look at the threats in the future. So if I summarize this, it is quantity and precision and WMD and also more unmanned and cruise missile technology [threats] we need to be ready for.
What about hypothetical threats, such as we’ve seen in recent years such as adversaries combining UAVs and cruise missiles against targets or achieving air superiority using UAVs; such as the attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and recent conflicts?
We were not surprised. We started to develop our capabilities earlier and I can say that Iron Dome and David’s Sling were more relevant to those threats. We saw the threat coming. Of course all what we [have been] investing in detection systems is supposed to help us and [in future] years as we can disclose the capabilities, we will share it. We are extending those capabilities. If something happened in 2019, we had been ready earlier. It takes time to develop, you need to imagine and predict what will be the threat four to five years from the start, so we built them for this, [and] even more sophisticated [threats].
So what’s next? What do you see as the next challenges?
Since we have the MOU with the U.S., we know for sure we have $500 million a year, we need to build the way ahead. We are planning to continue to improve the interceptors and detection systems; to improve interoperability and survivability of the systems. I can’t refer to specifics of that, like cyber etc. The Ministry of Defense is investing in directed energy and this is an example to show that technologies are being developed in other parts of DDR and D and when it is fully grown then it will be adapted in my organization. The ground laser effectors will be part of Iron Dome, so it can decide to use a laser or fire an interceptor. This is the way ahead. Most planning is approved by both governments. [Regarding] Arrow 4 you will hear new initiatives. You will see improvements in all our interceptors and detection systems and command and control and communication, moving to new technology and directed energy and investing a lot on survivability.
Seth Frantzman has been covering conflict in the Middle East since 2010 as a researcher, analyst and correspondent for different publications. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.