Hypersonic weapons might sound like science fiction: a missile with tremendous speed, able to maneuver at a height that air defense systems cannot handle. However, many at Israel's defense companies see hypersonic weapons as a tangible threat to Israel.
Russia, China and Iran claim that they possess hypersonic missiles. Six months ago, Tehran presented the Fattah hypersonic missile in a ceremonial press conference. In the Ukraine-Russia war, Moscow claims to have attacked with Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles. Ukraine is believed to have intercepted some of these missiles, and therefore in Israel the assessment is that they are not really hypersonic. Israel also estimates that China and Iran do not currently have hypersonic weapons.
Nevertheless, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which manufactures missile defense systems Iron Dome and David's Sling, has for many years been looking at hypersonic missiles and how to defend against them. Last June, the government-owned defense technology company unveiled Sky Sonic, the world's first hypersonic missile interception system, which is under development. However, the Ministry of Defense has not yet decided to invest in the system. The Ministry of Defense apparently does not see hypersonic missiles as a tangible threat, unlike the ballistic missiles launched at Israel by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Rafael seeks partners
Sources familiar with the matter have told "Globes" that Rafael has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in developing Sky Sonic over the years while the company's annual development budget amounts to about NIS 5 billion. Rafael EVP general manager Air & Missile Defense Systems Division Brig. Gen. (res.) Pini Yungman told "Globes," "Several years ago, we decided at Rafael to deal with the need for a response to hypersonic missiles, even before the world and the Ministry of Defense woke up. We decided to invest from our R&D funds to develop an interceptor capable of handling this threat. The best minds at Rafael found solutions. We then reached the work stage, and we began to develop Sky Sonic."
It is estimated that the cost of the Sky Sonic interceptor will be significantly lower than that of Arrow 2 interceptors, which cost about $1.5 million each. The cost of the Sky Sonic interceptor will likely be similar to the $700,000 that a David's Sling interceptor costs.
Because of the lack of funding from the Ministry of Defense, Rafael is currently seeking international partners for the project to help cover the required investment. In such instances, partners for Israeli defense companies usually come from the US. This is why, in addition to presenting the project to the Ministry of Defense Israel Missile Defense Organization (IMDO), which is responsible for weapons R&D, Rafael has also presented the project to the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The company hopes to find Israeli or US government sponsorship that will allow development.
What is a hypersonic missile?
A hypersonic missile combines the speed of a ballistic missile, which has high speeds but cannot maneuver with the capabilities of a cruise missile, which is slower but can maneuver.
As a rule, anything that travels faster than sound (about 1,100 kilometers per hour or 330 meters per second) is supersonic. Hamas and Hezbollah's rockets, for example, have a range of some 300 kilometers at 1,500 meters per second - Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. But this is supersonic and not hypersonic, which begins at speeds above Mach 5.
It is important to point out that Israel already has an answer to rockets that reach 2,000-2,500 meters per second. It is also capable of intercepting ballistic missiles launched from Yemen, for example, that leave the atmosphere and reach an altitude of about 300-400 kilometers. These missiles even accelerate to a speed of about 5,000-6,000 meters per second, and have been successfully intercepted by the Arrow 3 system.
A hypersonic missile is not a ballistic missile, but it takes off like one. A hypersonic missile also does not reach ballistic height, but flies at an altitude of 30 to 70 kilometers, at an extremely high speed of 15-20,000 meters per second.
Besides the sheer speed, it will probably be difficult for interception systems to deal with hypersonic missiles because of the path they take, which resembles a stone skimming on water. This makes it difficult to predict where the threat will arrive, and where the missile will dive to strike. According to estimates in Israel, those Russian, Chinese and Iranian claimed missiles have hypersonic elements, but not the full range of features.
Rafael's main competition in hypersonic interception could come from Tokyo. At the end of a meeting in August between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US President Joe Biden, the two agreed that they would jointly develop a hypersonic interceptor. Japan is interested in such an interceptor because three countries in its region are developing hypersonic missiles: Russia, China and North Korea.
Sky Sonic remains a work in progress. At this stage, Rafael is developing the interceptor missile that will be capable of dealing with the threat at its specific height and speed. "We are rushing forward to develop it fully. There is a work plan and a series of trials. We are still only investing from R&D budgets, and not through an order or request from the Ministry of Defense," Yungman explains. "The hypersonic threat is close to being tangible. The enemy is constantly challenging us, even Hamas. The hypersonic threat will not come into existence in another 50 years, it is not science fiction. It has been on the drawing board for many years, and we are striving to be ready with a solution when it is operational."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 30, 2023.
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