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Combat Failure of Israel’s Much Touted David’s Sling Air Defence System Met With Apprehension in Tel Aviv

August 02nd - 2018

Entering service in 2017, the Israeli David’s Sling long range surface to air missile system was designed to complement the capabilities of its short ranged Iron Dome, the Arrow 3 and U.S. built Patriot batteries as part of a multi layered air defence shield. Much like the Iron Dome which entered service in 2011, David’s Sling was designed exclusively with an anti missile role in mind in response to the growing ballistic missile capabilities of the country’s potential adversaries. Jointly developed by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, also responsible for the Iron Dome, alongside the leading U.S. defence manufacturer Raytheon which developed the American MIM-104 Patriot, the system was intended to make Israeli airspace among the most secure in the world against ballistic missile attacks - while leaving the Israeli Air Force to manage threats posed by enemy aircraft. David's Sling is slated to replace the long ranged Patriot system entirely, retaining a similar maximum range of 160-200 kilometres, and new platform is reportedly considerably more sophisticated and better suited to Israel's defence needs while integrating a number of key technologies from the American system.

The David’s Sling system fires two stage interceptors with an active electronically scanned array radar guidance system and supermaneouverability to ensure maximum precision. Despite its much touted capabilities however, the technologies involved in missile interception remain extremely complex and the new air defence system has reportedly left much to be desired during its first combat deployment as a result. On July 23rd 2018 Israel activated the David’s Sling system to intercept Syria ballistic missiles fired at targets near the Golan Heights, which though they were not aimed at Israeli territory were being used to attack militant groups operating from Syrian territory near the Israeli border. With Israel having often cooperated closely with anti government forces in Syria, including a number of Islamist groups, in an attempt to weaken its longstanding adversary in Damascus, the country’s deployment of the David Sling represented both an invaluable opportunity to demonstrate the power of the new weapons system, test its capabilities and intervene to undermine the Syrian war effort. The ballistic missiles launched by Syrian forces were either OTR-21 Tochka missiles of Soviet origin or KN-02 Toksa platforms built by North Korea - both highly similar solid fuelled weapons widely in service in the Syrian military. With the missile design dating back to the late 1970s a successful interception should, based on Israeli claims regarding the capabilities of its defence network, have been a relatively basic task for the David’s Sling.

According to Israeli reports, one of the David’s Sling interceptor missiles self destructed in the air over the Golan Heights while another fell on Syrian territory. The order to self destruct was reportedly given when it was clear that a missile was bound to miss its target and land on Syrian soil - to eliminate chances of Syrian forces recovering an interceptor and studying its technologies. Whether the Syrian military seeks to recover the first missile remains unknown. The failure of David’s Sling to intercept attacks from a relatively basic Syrian short ranged missile has severe implications for Israel's security, and comes in the wake of both the failure of its Patriot missile batteries to intercept an Iranian reconnaissance drone and the capabilities of its shorter ranged Iron Dome missile defence system also being brought to serious question. With both Hezbollah and Iran fielding vast and ever growing arsenals of ballistic missiles, and new North Korean and Russian designs likely to enter Syrian hands sometime in future including the Iskander and a Korean derivative which are considerably more difficult to intercept than the Tochka and Toksa, Israel’s airspace is hardly as secure as many may think. How Tel Aviv will respond to these events, and whether like other longstanding U.S. clients it will look to alternative sources for more reliable air defence technologies, remains to be seen.

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