Missile defense - the next layer

David's Sling  picture: Rafael
David's Sling picture: Rafael

David's Sling will take over where Iron Dome leaves off, but is it exportable?

While all eyes are lifted to the mushrooms of smoke that the successful interceptions of the Iron Dome system leave behind, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. is not resting on its laurels, and is charging on to the next big thing. Sometime next year, the company is due to hand over to the Israel Air Force the first battery of the advanced interception system "David's Sling" (also known as "Magic Wand"), which is designed to blow up, in flight, missiles and rockets to which Iron Dome cannot provide a response. The future defense system has already demonstrated impressive capabilities in a series of trials, the fullest and most significant of which took place last November at the Shdema testing range in the Negev. The MMR radar produced by Elta Systems of the Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1) group, the "Golden Almond" command and control system produced by Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT) unit Elisra Group, and the "Stunner" launcher and interceptor missile produced by Rafael with US company Raytheon Missile Systems, were put to a fateful test, and did not disappoint.

Representatives of Rafael, the US Department of Defense, the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (Maf'at) in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and Raytheon engineers were glued to their screens, examining every piece of information. A senior defense establishment source said that the trial ended in 100% success, and the Israeli military overcame every additional obstacle on the way to setting up the first multi-layer defense system of its kind in the world, designed to provide a response to every rocket and missile threatening the Israeli home front.

While Iron Dome provides a solution for Israel to the threat of rockets with ranges of 4.5 to 75 kilometers, David's Sling is meant to be the solution to the threat of mid-range missiles and rockets, that is with ranges of 75-250 kilometers. A substantial proportion of the arsenal that Hezbollah has built up and continues to develop in expectation of a future confrontation with Israel is in this range: Fajr, Zilzal and M-600 rockets and other thick pipes that no-one would want landing on their home.

David's Sling is also designed to intercept ballistic missiles such as the Scud (also believed to be in Hezbollah's possession), Shahab and Sejil missiles held by Iran that will not be intercepted by the Arrow system, which deals with the top layer of threats. David's Sling, which has the task of intercepting threats within the atmosphere, comes into the picture to complete the work and explode in flight the missiles that have evaded Arrow missiles.

Thanks to the impressive maneuverability that the David's Sling Stunner interceptor exhibited in a series of trials, Rafael believes that it is also capable of intercepting cruise missiles of the type held by Iran, and also various kinds of aircraft. In the future, the Stunner could also be used as an air-to-air missile.

On the face of it, David's Sling does exactly what Iron Dome does, only bigger and farther. In fact, it works quite differently. Whereas the Tamir interceptor missile of the Iron Dome system neutralizes the target rocket by means of a proximity fuse that explodes it close to the incoming rocket, which is thereby destroyed, the Stunner carries no explosives, but is a "hit to kill" missile, destroying the target missile by colliding with it, metal to metal. Incidentally, the future Arrow 3 missile is designed to blow up missiles carrying nuclear warheads in space in the same way.

This capability is an impressive technological achievement that will yet win many prizes for its developers. "It's like a rifle bullet hitting precisely, at huge speed and at great height, a bullet fired from another rifle," a defense source close to the David's Sling development program said.

Like Iron Dome, David's Sling will be connected to the MMR (multi-mission radar) system of Elta Systems. This radar tracks the target from the moment it emerges. It identifies a rocket or missile as soon as it is launched, computes its trajectory, and tells the command and control module which cell on the ground it threatens. It then provides the interception crew with the target's location in the sky, and can communicate with the fire control system until interception is complete.

As long as Iron Dome saves human lives and prevents heavy damage to property in the south of Israel and since last week in almost all parts of the country the price of a single interception is discounted, or at least shunted to the margins of public discourse. The cost of a Tamir interceptor missile is estimated at $50,000 (some have even put it at $100,000), while a Grad rocket costs hundreds of dollars or a few thousand. In the case of a Stunner interceptor, the costs are in a completely different neighborhood. According to estimates provided to "Globes" by professional experts in the past, the cost of one David's Sling interceptor is between $700,000 and $1 million. To provide a good response to Hezbollah's missiles and heavy rockets, which could be fired at Israel in large salvoes, Israel will needs several hundred of them. The cost of the Arrow missile, incidentally, is even higher. An Arrow 2 missile was estimated in the past at $2.7 million, and the cost of the Arrow 3, which will be operational within the next few years, is estimated at about $2.2 million. But, as in the case of the cost of an interception by Iron Dome, the extent of the damage that can be caused to life and property by a missile carrying a warhead in the hundreds of kilograms and capable of hitting almost anywhere in the State of Israel, makes the cost worthwhile.

David's Sling, which was developed at a budget or more than one billion shekels, and not without a generous contribution from the US taxpayer, should have been operational a long time ago. At the start of development, Rafael and the Ministry of Defense set 2012 as the year in which the system would be declared operational. Cuts and budget constraints slowed down the development program, and in the course of the debate over the defense budget there were those who in recent months spoke of further postponement. In the past few days, security sources have declared that 2015 is a final deadline for initial deployment of the system, at least for now.

Who else needs it?

Despite Iron Dome's impressive capabilities and the huge interest it has generated all over the world, Rafael has found it difficult to sell it to any other customer besides the IDF. In the past two years, the Ministry of Defense allowed Rafael to conduct negotiations with potential buyers of the system, the militaries of friendly countries seeking to expand their defensive capabilities against threats of rockets and missiles aimed at their civilian populations. Rafael tried to map the target market for such a system, and found itself with a rather short list. Apart from Israel, how many countries are surrounded by enemies armed to the teeth with missiles and rockets that will hit their homes front on the day of battle?

Thoughts of deals with South Korea, the capital of which, Seoul, is threatened by the missiles and rockets of its unpredictable neighbor North Korea, and with India, threatened by Pakistan, did not lead to deals. According to sources familiar with the matter, any such deal is a long way off.

Experts estimate that David's Sling could be a better bet, largely because it is multi-purpose. It is designed in such a way that it can intercept a much wider variety of threats, at short and medium range, and can serve as an anti-aircraft system, and even destroy cruise missiles in flight. The system's versatility could make it the answer to the needs of quite a few armed forces. In recent months it has been reported that Poland, for example, showed great interest in David's Sling as an independent missile defense system. According to foreign press reports, the US defense industry lobby brought about the cancellation of a deal that was in the works between Rafael and the Polish defense ministry worth several billion dollars. "The Americans are paying for the development of David's Sling, hold a veto on sales, and want to facilitate deals for US companies that are trying to sell their own systems," is how a defense source explained the rules of the game that Rafael knows well, and that still leave a bitter taste in the mouths of its senior managers.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 14, 2014

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

David's Sling  picture: Rafael
David's Sling picture: Rafael
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