By Amir MizrochWar has once again erupted between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces, with the Gaza-based militant group launching hundreds of rockets and missiles at Israeli towns. But many of these projectiles never make it to their targets, thanks to the new Iron Dome missile defense system that’s arguably become this conflict’s most important technological difference-maker. This article, first published in April, tracks the story of Iron Dome’s most prolific “gunner.” While his record for shooting down missiles and rockets has by now undoubtedly fallen, the tale still gives insight into the battle now gripping Israel and Gaza.
KFAR GVIROL, Israel — 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 playing Warcraft 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.