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Did Azerbaijan Buy The Iron Dome?

November 15, 2016

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Last week the Times of Israel reported an alleged sale of an Iron Dome battery to Azerbaijan. Citing a Hebrew news site and unspecified Azeri media as its source without further attribution, the short article from the Times did admit the sale couldn’t be independently confirmed.

For Israel’s famous missile defense system to be purchased by Azerbaijan isn’t too far-fetched, however. The Caspian oil state ruled by President Ilham Aliyev has spent years splurging on arms from regional suppliers, including Israel, a generous merchant of drones, artillery, and missiles to their wealthy patron in Baku.

The quality of Israeli-made weapon systems together with their proliferation among post-Soviet states (Ukraine, Georgia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan are all recent customers) sits well with the Iron Dome’s arrival in Baku, or anywhere near the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan does have a pressing need for better air defenses. Aside from its collection of Russian SAMs buying analogous systems from Turkey isn’t feasible yet. There’s another frightening scenario Azerbaijan’s military could be anticipating that pushed them to embrace the Iron Dome.

Each year on September 21 a military parade is held in the Armenian capital Yerevan to commemorate independence day. This 2016 the usual columns of tanks and APCs were suddenly followed by Russian-made Iskander ballistic missiles. While both Azerbaijan and Armenia posses small stocks of short-range ballistic missiles the latter country has made little effort to downplay the likelihood it could bombard its neighbor’s “oil infrastructure.”

The Iskander is Russia’s most advanced surface-to-surface missile artillery system. With a range extending to 500 kilometers, Iskanders are meant to cripple enemy forces with strikes on airfields, radar sites, depots, and command centers. The circumstances behind Armenia’s acquisition of these missiles are vague but the actual deal for them could have materialized when a $200 million line of credit was accepted from Russia months before renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted.

While Azerbaijan does possess a combination of S-300 and Tor SAM batteries, adding the Iron Dome–at least a single battery of four launchers is rumored–could bolster a layered air defense network. If not to thwart missiles then against artillery rounds and even UAVs near border areas.

The Iron Dome system manufactured by Rafael proved themselves against salvos of Hamas rockets in 2011 and 2014. They became a household name for their high success rate even when this claim spurred a controversy adding to the Iron Dome’s luster.

Each Iron Dome launcher contains 20 Tamir missiles and when deployed the system covers a 70 km radius on paper. The Iron Dome’s technology allows it to track incoming projectiles like Grad rockets and 155mm artillery rounds. What makes it unique is the radar’s ability to calculate trajectories and weather patterns that help it anticipate where a projectile is heading.

The Iron Dome can function as an anti-ballistic missile shield but not on its own. The IDF uses its Iron Domes in combination with other anti-air systems for layered defenses protecting cities, towns, and settlements. There are no international customers of the Iron Dome yet. It might take another military parade or a subsequent leak for Azerbaijan to reveal the Iron Dome’s presence in the Caucasus.

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