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Could Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system hold up in a war with Hezbollah?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to start this hour in the Middle East, where tensions are high on Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Israeli forces have been trading fire with the Iranian-backed militia group Hezbollah. And in a speech on Wednesday, Hezbollah's leader warned that if war erupts, no place in Israel would be safe from its missiles and drones.

Now, keeping those weapons from landing in Israel is the job of a sophisticated air defense system called Iron Dome. It has intercepted thousands of missiles over the years, and it's been critical to protecting Israel's cities in this latest war with Hamas. But some experts warn that Hezbollah's arsenal could push the system past its limits. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more. And just to note, you will hear explosions in this reporting.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Iron Dome is so well-known in Israel that even kids have heard about it. This missile defense system has its own cartoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Tili, non-English language spoken).

BRUMFIEL: The star is a cheerful little interceptor missile named Tili. Run to your shelters, kids, he says, as he flies to shoot down incoming rockets. And don't worry if you hear a loud bang or see smoke in the sky. That's just me doing my job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Tili, non-English language spoken).

BRUMFIEL: For more than a decade, Israelis have looked to Iron Dome to protect them from incoming rockets and missiles. Tom Karako is an expert in missile defense at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says Iron Dome is actually a network of high-powered radars, targeting computers and interceptor missiles stationed at locations all over Israel.

TOM KARAKO: These launchers are positioned around the country in different places so that when they pick up a launch, when their radar picks up some incoming rockets, say, it can respond very quickly.

BRUMFIEL: Iron Dome's manufacturer brags that the system has a more than 90% success rate, but it was strained in the opening hours of the Hamas attack on Israel that took place on October 7.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKETS FIRING)

BRUMFIEL: Hamas fired thousands of rockets towards big cities like Tel Aviv. Iron Dome launched its interceptors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKETS FIRING)

BRUMFIEL: It shot down many of the rockets, but others got through. Iain Boyd is an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder. He says Hamas has shown the first way to beat Iron Dome - with brute force.

IAIN BOYD: If one side throws enough weapons - and they don't have to be very sophisticated, but if they throw enough stuff at Iron Dome, then it will be overwhelmed.

BRUMFIEL: Along Israel's border with Lebanon, the militia group Hezbollah has been probing a second strategy - stealth. Zvika Haimovich is the retired general who oversaw Israel's air defenses. He says Hezbollah has gotten good at sneaking through holes in the Iron Dome.

ZVIKA HAIMOVICH: To be honest, I think that Hezbollah recognize our gaps.

BRUMFIEL: The militia group recently published video from an unmanned aerial vehicle that managed to slip into northern Israel and fly over a facility owned by Rafael, the company that makes Iron Dome. These kinds of drones fly low and slow and are hard to see on radar. Haimovich says, for now, Hezbollah has been probing near the border. But the organization also has sophisticated long-range missiles it could use to strike deep into Israel.

HAIMOVICH: Hezbollah can cover more than 75% of the Israeli land and people.

BRUMFIEL: Iron Dome would likely fare better against those missiles because they fly high and are easier to intercept. But a new conflict in Lebanon would challenge Iron Dome in a third way because Israel does not have an infinite number of interceptor missiles in its stockpile. Haimovich says that since October 7, Israel has fended off attacks from every direction, and it's been expending missiles faster than they can be manufactured.

HAIMOVICH: After eight months of thousands of interceptions, it's a big challenge.

BRUMFIEL: Hezbollah would likely try to exploit all of these weaknesses as part of its tactics. Missile defense expert Tom Karako says that if a war begins, it's inevitable that Iron Dome won't be able to protect Israel's big cities the way it has in the past.

KARAKO: Look, there's not enough Iron Domes in the world to contend with the reported 100,000 or so rockets that Hezbollah may have.

BRUMFIEL: And, he says, the reality is there is no magic shield that can protect citizens forever.

KARAKO: Air defense buys time, buys decision-makers time to end the conflict by other means.

BRUMFIEL: Whether those leaders will make good decisions, he says, is another question.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.