(July 26, 2018 / JNS) Israel’s newest air-defense system, David’s Sling, made the headlines this week after going into action for the first time on the border with Syria.
Although it appeared not to strike the target—in this case, two short-range missiles fired by the Assad regime against a rebel region near the Israeli border—that should not be seen as a major setback, defense experts have told JNS.
Produced by Israeli defense company Rafael, in partnership with American defense firm Raytheon, the David’s Sling system is designed to shoot down an array of threats. These include heavy rockets, cruise missiles, drones, short-range ballistic missiles and evasive airborne threats that maneuver as they fly.
The system, which has been ready for use since 2017 following years of testing, plugs a hole that was left between the short-range Iron Dome missile-defense system, and the long-range Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems that defend against ballistic missiles in the upper atmosphere and in space.
“David’s Sling was designed from the start to be part of a multi-layered air-defense system, and when bugs are cleaned, it will do what it is supposed to do,” Uzi Rubin, a leading Israeli expert, told JNS. Rubin founded the Arrow defense program in the Israeli Defense Ministry.
The arrival of a multi-layered air-defense system is, in itself, a revolution, said Rubin. Every such defense system has its own role to play, in line with its ranges, he added.
“They decide what to fire according to the type of threat,” he said.
While Iron Dome is more of a local defense system—with batteries of interceptors placed near the area they must defend—longer-range systems like David’s Sling and Arrow can defend the entire country from almost anywhere.
In recent days, an older and well-known air-defense system, the Patriot, also made headlines after it shot down a Syrian fighter jet that intruded into Israeli airspace.
The Patriot and David’s Sling will work together in similar altitudes, dividing up tasks between them. However, as time goes by, the Patriot is likely to focus more on “traditional” anti-aircraft tasks, while David’s Sling takes over the anti-missile missions at the intermediate range.
The Stunner interceptor is even more advanced than its Patriot counterpart and can deal with maneuvering threats better.
David’s Sling fires a highly advanced interceptor missile, called Stunner, which uses a “range of sensors” to lock on and strike threats, explained Rubin. “The point of the whole missile is to put itself in the right place so that the attacking missile hits it,” he added. “It’s a very advanced missile.”
Currently, Rafael and Raytheon are working to integrate the Stunner interception missile with the American Patriot systems, creating a new air-defense package for sale on the international defense market.
‘They are setting new rules of the game’
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ephraim Segoli, a former commander of two Israeli Air Force helicopter squadrons, stressed that there is no such thing as fully hermetical air defense.
“But the fact is that the defense has improved significantly,” said Segoli, who today heads the Airpower Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya.
David’s Sling overlaps with the other two systems: Iron Dome and Arrow, he explained. That overlap certainly improves the defense since a lack of overlap means that threats “can fall in between,” said Segoli.
He echoed Rubin’s assessment about the result of the first use of David’s Sling, saying there was no need to get carried away because it did not succeed the first time.
“This was its first use. Now they will be learning, investigating and making fixes,” he said.
Firing interceptors at sporadic missiles is one thing, but defending the skies during a full-scale war—when the skies would be flooded with incoming threats—is quite another.
Segoli noted that if Hezbollah and Israel ended up in a conflict, Israel would not rely only on its air-defense capabilities.
“There would be a combined offense-defense use of force,” he said. “Intelligence collection would play a big role here. If the day comes when this happens, [Hezbollah’s] weapons would be attacked. We know that the heavier and more sophisticated the projectiles are, the harder they are to hide.
“But the citizens [in Israel] must know: There is no hermetical defense.”
Asked to provide an assessment on recent events on the Syrian-Israeli border, Segoli replied, saying “this entire phase is about checking limitations. Every side is checking the other. They are setting new rules of the game. A new system is taking shape.”
With the Assad regime and its backers completing their takeover of Syria, a volatile stage is under way in which “every side does something, and the other side responds or initiates,” said the former commander.
Israel is making clear that it is unwilling to accept an Iranian military presence anywhere in Syria, and has so far been able to transmit its red lines without being dragged into a major escalation.
“No one knows if this can continue,” said Segoli, “but those who make these decisions are setting the red lines, and if they see that someone has crossed them, they attack.”