Cyprus might be acquiring Israel’s Iron Dome to counter Turkish drones

Possible Turkish response could be unjustified as the system “cannot threaten aircraft or drones outside the island’s airspace”

The Republic of Cyprus has reportedly signed an agreement with Israel to procure that country’s well-known Iron Dome air defense missile system. Nicosia is most likely acquiring the missiles to counter Turkey’s proliferating armed drone fleet. 

The agreement was first reported by the Cypriot version of Greece’s Kathimerini daily on Aug. 19. That report noted that the head of the Cypriot National Guard, Lt. Gen. Dimokritos Zervaki, took a look at the system during a visit to Israel in March. More recently, on Aug. 11, Cypriot Defense Minister Charalambos Petrides met with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz to discuss the growing defense cooperation between their two countries. 

Cyprus has been shopping around for new air defenses for some time. 

In January, the Cypriot press reported that the country’s defense ministry had assessed a variety of anti-aircraft missiles and was awaiting a final decision on which one to purchase. Nicosia is seeking new systems to establish an “anti-aircraft screen over the entire island… capable of countering any threat inside Cyprus airspace.”

In the fall of 2021, it was also reported that Cyprus and Israel were already in advanced negotiations on an Iron Dome sale. 

Cyprus already possesses Russian-built short-range Tor and medium-range Buk surface-to-air missile systems and French-built short-range Mistrals. It ordered additional Mistral and Exocet anti-ship missiles from France in February 2020. As part of that $262 million deal, France is helping Cyprus upgrade its existing air defenses. 

Even a few Iron Dome batteries, equipped with advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, would significantly enhance Cyprus’s limited air defenses. 

But why did Cyprus choose the Iron Dome of all systems? 

As repeatedly shown in its repeated wars against Hamas in Gaza, Israel has primarily used the system to shoot down small short-range rockets and artillery shells. However, the Iron Dome can also shoot down drones, as Israel demonstrated during the May 2021 Gaza conflict. 

While each Tamir missile fired by the Iron Dome costs approximately $40,000, the system has been described as a far cheaper and more cost-effective alternative to the U.S. MIM-104 Patriot (which costs about $2-3 million a shot) for “niche missions against unmanned threats.” 

Nicosia likely views Turkish drones in particular as a potential threat to its security. Turkey deployed Bayraktar TB2 drones to Gecitkale airbase in Cyprus’s breakaway north in December 2019. It has since been upgrading that base to host more drones and possibly even fighter jets. 

According to an earlier report from Kathimerini, Greece has already taken steps to counter Turkish drones by acquiring a tailor-made variant of Israel’s Drone Dome system. The Drone Dome has enabled Athens to install a “veritable umbrella against enemy unmanned aerial vehicles” over Greek islands and sensitive sites. Unlike the Iron Dome, the Drone Dome counters enemy drones by jamming their communications and GPS. If that doesn’t work it also has an invisible 10-kilowatt laser to physically knock drones out of the sky from up to two miles away. 

The far greater intercept range of up to 40 miles and the more powerful hard-kill capability of the Iron Dome were likely the main reasons behind Nicosia’s decision to opt for that system rather than the Drone Dome.

It is unclear how Ankara will react to Nicosia fielding the Iron Dome. Turkey is presently repairing its ties with Israel, so it may not protest as strongly against the sale as it would have during previous low points in its relations with the Jewish state. 

The acquisition is also not likely to spark a major crisis like Cyprus’s previous order of S-300 missiles from Russia in the 1990s did. After all, the Iron Dome has a limited range and, therefore, cannot threaten aircraft or drones outside the island’s airspace.

On the other hand, the long-range S-300 air defense missile system Nicosia attempted to procure back then could, theoretically, have threatened Turkish aircraft operating inside Turkish airspace far from Cypriot shores. 

Nicosia wisely settled for something in the middle if it chose the Iron Dome. After all, the short-range system can provide it with the “anti-aircraft screen” it seeks without giving Turkey reasonable cause to protest or claim the acquisition is provocative or, unlike some of Ankara’s own actions in recent years, poses any threat to the security and stability of the wider Eastern Mediterranean region.

*Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about the political and military affairs and history of the Middle East.

Previus and Next Posts