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Behind the Iron Dome: Key engineer tells how Israeli defense system saved lives

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An Israeli Iron Dome interceptor shoots skyward toward an incoming rocket. (AP)

If there was one clear winner in the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, it was the Iron Dome -- the Jewish state's complex defense system that plucks rockets out of the sky before they can threaten civilian targets.

As daily rocket attacks from Gaza leapt from a handful to hundreds earlier this month, the vaunted system was deployed to near universal praise, intercepting an estimated 400 potentially deadly missiles. In an exclusive interview with FoxNews.com, "Ari," an Iron Dome engineer whose real name is being withheld, described what it is like to be part of the team of cutting edge technology developers, and the challenges faced by the team at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which worked with two other Israeli companies, Elta, and mPrest Systems on the program.

"The lives beings saved were not only those of Israeli citizens and soldiers, but of the Palestinians in Gaza who would have tended to suffer the most had there been an incursion.”

- "Ari," Israeli engineer

“I’m an engineer and not a politician, but I can tell you there were a tremendous amount of lives saved," Ari said of the Iron Dome, a system for detecting launches, determining the rockets' trajectory and intercepting those that pose a threat with counter-missiles fired from strategically-located batteries.

The defense system, under development since 2007, had never been deployed until the latest round of hostilities broke out just after the U.S. elections. Israeli Defense Forces used airstrikes to take out several of Hamas' launch sites, many of which were stationed next to hospitals and schools. For several tense days, there were indications the Israeli army could go into Gaza with tanks. According to Ari, by neutralizing the impact of rocket attacks, the Iron Dome may have prevented a deadlier confrontation in the Palestinian territory and helped pave the way for a ceasefire.

"The [political] situation, had there been more casualties and more damage done, would have been greatly different," he said. "The lives beings saved were not only those of Israeli citizens and soldiers, but of the Palestinians in Gaza who would have tended to suffer the most had there been an incursion.”

In the past, rockets from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza had never reached Tel Aviv. But after it became clear that more advanced Iranian technology had reached Gaza there was a furious rush to ensure the metropolis would be protected. It wasn't a sure thing that the Iron Dome would work, he said. There were kinks to be worked out even after it was deployed.

“It should take about two weeks to put up a battery” Ari recalled. “I spoke to people on the Thursday morning who were told they had to make a battery in Tel Aviv, and when I spoke to them on Sunday they told me they had finished on the Saturday afternoon. They didn’t go to sleep for 48 hours...a group of about 10 people managed to do it all in just two days.”

Images of Iron Dome’s interceptors taking out incoming missiles over the skies of Tel Aviv and in the south of the country were beamed around the world and demonstrated clearly just how effective the system was in negating incoming enemy missiles.

“Iron Dome is an active defense system, which means that for each rocket that is fired at us we send up an interceptor to shoot down that rocket," Ari said. "It sounds quite simple, but in order to do that we first need to be able to identify that there is a threat – you need radar for that - then you need to determine the trajectory of the threat, which direction it’s going to go, and if it’s going to hit a place we need to defend? If it’s going to fall in open fields we’re certainly not going to waste an interceptor on it”. Each interceptor costs in the region of $50,000.

“If we do need to intercept, we have to determine the best way to do it and we always want to be sure that we blow up the warhead. All of these things fit together in a system of radar, fire controls, launchers, and interceptors, and all have to talk to each other and talk to a central command. This has to be very finely tuned.”

Back in 2007 when the revolutionary ‘Star Wars-like’ concept was commissioned, many people in Israel and around the world scoffed. Indeed, a team of U.S. military experts returned from a visit to Israel and reportedly stated, “This is something that cannot be done”.

Israel’s Defense Minister at the time was Amir Peretz of the left-wing Labor party, a man whose tenure in the key job was perceived as anything but a success. He was best known - and mercilessly ridiculed in the Israeli media - for viewing a military exercise through his binoculars without removing the lens covers. But the success of the Iron Dome has gone a long way toward vindicating Peretz.

New technology runs the constant risk of becoming obsolete, Ari said the Iron Dome team, and more recently Raytheon, a U.S.-based defense contractor, are well aware that staying ahead of the game in missile technology is crucial for their systems to continue to prove effective.

“Iron Dome has been modified numerous times since it became operational in 2011," he said. "To make it better it is simply a case of modifying software; that’s what is so great about this system. There’s a tremendous amount of potential that we haven’t even begun to use.”

The "Magic Wand," or alternatively "David’s Sling," is the next stage of Israel’s defense program and is claimed to be capable of intercepting missiles that might come from Syria or anywhere else within a 125-mile radius. The third stage will be the combined Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems that will have the capacity to shoot down longer range missiles from countries such as Iran.

Iron Dome success hasn’t gone unnoticed by various governments around the world with speculation that countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and even Turkey are seriously interested in obtaining the system. Its ongoing development seems set to provide some peace of mind for Israeli citizens and may one day even be the trump card in persuading all those in the conflict to sit down and try to reach a negotiated solution.

"Iron Dome was not created to fight yesterday or today’s war. Iron Dome was created to fight tomorrow’s wars," Ari said. "We always try to stay eight or nine steps ahead of the enemy.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.com and can be followed on Twitter @paulalster