While many of the boys in Idan Yahya’s high school class were buffing up and preparing themselves for selection into elite combat units, this gawky teenager was spending “a lot of time” playing Warcraft — the real-time strategy computer game where opposing players command virtual armies in a battle to dominate the fictional world of Azeroth.Four years later, the high school jocks who sweated it out in pre-military academies so they could make the cut into the Israel Defense Force’s Special Operations units are now crawling through the sand dunes on the outskirts of the Gaza Strip and watching while Idan knocks rockets out of the sky hundreds of meters above their heads. Idan Yahya, 22, an Iron Dome “gunner” in the Active Air Defense Wing 167, currently holds the record for the number of rockets intercepted: eight.People in the army describe him variously as a geek and an ace. But the geek who grew up playingWarcraft is now a highly prized soldier on the cutting edge of real war craft. He’s the Israeli army’s top rocket interceptor.The Iron Dome is a mobile anti-rocket interception system that Israel moves around the country to shoot down the rockets fired at its civilian population centers by armed groups in Gaza and southern Lebanon. Its radar picks up launches and fires interceptor missiles at them if they’re calculated to be heading towards populated centers. The system has become increasingly important as Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups amass surface-to-surface missiles to hit the Israeli home front with, thus bypassing the Israel Defense Force’s overwhelming advantage of concentrated firepower and fighter aircraft. Should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear installations, the expected rocket reprisals from the armed groups on its borders will keep Iron Dome very, very busy.As the war between Israelis and Arabs enters its sixth decade (or its 500th depending on who you ask), it is increasingly becoming a hi-tech rocket war. The IDF’s Director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in February said there were 200,000 rockets aimed at Israel from the south, north and east. And in this increasingly technological battlefield of rockets, anti-rocket interceptors, radars, control rooms,drones and drone hacking, it is soldiers like Idan Yahya (and whoever his counterparts on the Arab side are) who are making the most impact.Computer geek, keyboard combatant, soldier, call him what you will, Idan and others like him man the controls of the latest rock star in advanced military technology. “There are a lot of flashing blips, signs, symbols, colors and pictures on the screen. You look at your tactical map; see where the threat is coming from. You have to make sure you’re locked onto the right target. There’s a lot of information and there is very little time. It definitely reminds me of Warcraft and other online strategy games,” Idan says.Based on information from the Iron Dome’s radar about the incoming rocket’s current and projected trajectory, the processors at the BMC (Better Management Command) calculate its Ground Impact Point whether it’s going to fall into an open field or an apartment building – and based on that decides whether to shoot it down or leave it alone. The incoming missile is not a static object that’s being fired at, so the interceptor missile is constantly provided with updated trajectory information.The young soldier has at his console a machine of vast computing power and aerial TNT. Each Iron Dome battery is manned by a crew of 100 soldiers, including perimeter guards, working in shifts, and the entire system is connected to the larger Israeli multi-tiered air defense order of battle. The unit is a mobile battlefield installation that meshes radar information from a mini multi-mission and fire control radar, powerful networks and processors, launchers, GPS-guided rockets, and human operators pushing the buttons and making the decisions. It is the first system of its kind that is designed specifically to detect the launch and trajectory of short-range rockets, and intercept them in flight if they’re deemed to be headed for a populated area.
Read the whole thing.The Iron Dome’s ‘brain’ then, and what makes it such a successful system is its powerful ‘trajectory prediction mechanism,’ which assesses where along the trajectory the intercept point is going to be. “When I shoot one down, I feel happy, satisfied. I try disconnect from my feelings when I’m at the controls though,” Idan says.