Dr. Ari Sacher likes to show off a wedding portrait of his nephew holding his brand new bride standing atop a platform with the ancient port city of Jaffa in the background. The beaming couple appear blissfully calm, but a small, jagged streak of light punctures the starry nighttime Israeli sky.
“That’s an Iron Dome interceptor taking down a rocket capable of leveling this building and probably two others around it,” Sacher, primary engineer for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, told more than 400 Jewish National Fund supporters Oct. 11 at Pikesville’s Temple Oheb Shalom. “We shot that bad boy down!
“I showed this picture on Capitol Hill and said, ‘Thank you for helping us with Iron Dome, it’s given Israel a sense of security,’” he said. “One senator got up and said, ‘Look at that couple under attack – you call that security?’ I said, ‘Look, we’re getting married, we’re sending our kids to school. Yes, we don’t have security yet, but this gives us a sense of security.’”
A rocket scientist with more than two decades of missile design and development experience, Sacher spoke at JNF’s annual “Breakfast for Israel in Baltimore” about the origins and capabilities of Iron Dome. His talk was decidedly humorous, informal and optimistic rather than technical or foreboding.
Fifteen years ago, Sacher said, Israel’s three most pressing existential challenges were a water shortage, a lack of energy resources, and “our friends and neighbors” raining missiles down on high-density population areas.
“They realized they didn’t need to invade Israel, they could just shoot rockets at us,” said Sacher, a Toronto native who lives in the northern Israeli community of Moreshet with his wife and eight children. “We had no protection at all, we just ran into bomb shelters. The year of 2006 was a horrific year – in and out of shelters. I had to send my wife and kids to live with my sister-in-law in the south. My sister-in-law!”
Today, all of those existential threats have been “addressed and quashed,” Sachar said. He said Israel now has adequate water storage capabilities; discovered natural offshore gas reserves under the Dead Sea; and is generally well-protected from rocket attacks by the Iron Dome system.
After Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, Sacher said the nation’s leaders held a high-level meeting to discuss myriad ways to prevent rocket attacks, particularly from Gaza.
“There are many ways to skin a cat,” he said. “People wanted to use a laser because lasers are cool! The problem is, they don’t really work in the rain. If we could convince our adversaries to withhold attacks when it rains, we’d have it made. Our peacemakers are still working on that one.”
Sacher said the Israeli defense community leadership also considered a system called the Vulcan-Phalanx – mainly because of its “cool name” – which fires 75 rounds per second of depleted uranium.
“The uranium knives fly in the air, and the incoming is torn to shreds – but only 25 percent of the time,” he said. “Also, what goes up must come down.”
That left the Iron Dome concept, which had never really been previously tested or utilized. “But someone bit the bullet and took a risk and built the system,” Sacher said. “We have the luxury of knowing where the rockets are coming from – Gaza, and probably not Tel Aviv. So we have to pick it up on our radar and start tracking it.
“We calculated where [the interceptors] needed to go and what we needed to defend,” he said. “Why shoot [a rocket] down if it falls on [an unpopulated] desert area … or on my mother-in-law’s house?”
After the audience’s laughter subsided, Sacher said of his mother-in-law, “Has she heard this talk? Yes, but only when I gave it in Hebrew. Fortunately, she doesn’t speak Hebrew.”
The Iron Dome’s interceptors have “special sauce” that enable them to detect incoming rocket warheads at hyper-sonic speeds and detonate them, he said. “I can’t say what that special sauce is, but it’s special sauce,” he said.
So far, Iron Dome interceptors have a success rate of 92 percent, with 1,800 incoming rocket “kills,” Sacher said.
“Fifteen years ago, this would all be science fiction,” he said. “The fact that we’re doing it and don’t really even think about it anymore is astounding.”
Initially, the United States was not interested in joining Israel in its research, development and testing of the Iron Dome system, saying it was “too risky,” Sacher said.
But after Iron Dome eliminated eight out of nine rockets shot from Gaza in the direction of the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod, the U.S. opted to get involved in and help fund the project. He said that six of the nine Iron Dome rocket defense batteries are funded by the U.S., and the program had received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and among the past three presidential administrations.
“And it’s all thanks to people like you,” he told the audience.
While the Iron Dome project comes with a hefty $1.5 billion price tag, Sacher said it is money well spent. “One day, I am hopeful that we won’t need the Iron Dome anymore and people won’t be trying to kill us just because we happen to be Jewish people living in the State of Israel,” he said.
During the question-and-answer period, Sacher was asked by an audience member what the Iron Dome project might look like in the future.
“Iron Dome still has unused capabilities,” he said. “It can be modified at sea to protect oil and gas rigs against rockets [surfacing] at sea level. There’s a lot of uses for Iron Dome in the future.
“Don’t worry, we’re thinking,” Sacher joked. “We’re Israelis, for crying out loud!”