A senior Azerbaijani government official announced Dec. 18 that Azerbaijan had reached a deal with Israel to buy the Iron Dome air-defense system. How useful the system will be in Azerbaijan's standoff with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region is uncertain, however. Notably, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Moscow's arms sales, was in Azerbaijan just before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Dec. 13. Azerbaijan would have wanted to be forthcoming with Russia about what kind of system it was buying from Israel and, more importantly, whether it would challenge the military balance Moscow works to maintain between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The motivation behind the purchase is unclear. Armenia had recently acquired Iskander ballistic missiles, greatly increasing its military capabilities, but the Iron Dome batteries would be useless against the high-flying Iskanders. Azerbaijan already possesses S-300 and Barack-8 systems that are effective against Iskander missiles. Moreover, it is unclear how many Iron Dome batteries Azerbaijan bought — the smaller the number, the less effective the dome defense would be. Israel, for instance, owns 10 Iron Dome batteries, which can cost up to $50 million each, with rockets estimated to cost $100,000 each. It was assumed that financial limitations would prevent Azerbaijan from buying many batteries. But considering reports that recent arms deals between Israel and Azerbaijan have totaled $5 billion, Azerbaijan could have bought several batteries.
Even when fortified with sufficient numbers of batteries, the Iron Dome has its weaknesses. Its batteries would have a hard time withstanding fire from large or long-range missiles. The Iron Dome system is designed primarily to deter threats from smaller artillery rockets and mortar rounds, though it can be overwhelmed by large numbers of those, as well. Though fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh is not expected to reach the levels it did during a flare-up of violence earlier this year, it could certainly intensify. That said, rocket artillery and mortar fire are frequently used along the border of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, and the Iron Dome could help protect towns and bases near the contact line.