From sketch to test in record time

At phenomenal speed, a smart threetier rocket defense is being created to protect the citizens of Israel from a multitude of enemy weapons.

David's Sling (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
David's Sling
(photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
THE RECENT birth of our new grandchild led me to contemplate the imminent dangers he and our country will confront in the near and distant future.
Terrorism is always a threat, but not a truly strategic one. The primary existential threat is that of a massive rocket attack by Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, primarily targeting cities and civilians, and ravaging Israel’s economy and infrastructure.
Thanks to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah now have long-range rockets that can reach most of Israel. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israel destroyed 80 percent of Hamas’s rockets during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. But Hamas has restored some of its rocket factories in Gaza and proudly showcased them in a recent video. It now regularly test-fires its rockets into the ocean.
Israeli intelligence sources estimate that Hezbollah would try to sustain a firing rate of 1,000 rockets a day into Israel in a future conflict. The IDF estimates there are 200,000 rockets aimed at Israel from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iran.
According to Jeffrey White, a former senior US intelligence officer, “Hezbollah now has missiles with the range and accuracy to hit airfields, military headquarters and electricity generating plants. An operation of this nature could overwhelm Israel’s anti-rocket system.”
Dana Stuster, writing for the Foreign Policy website, reports that according to US officials, “Syrian forces have managed to smuggle advanced guided missiles to its Lebanese allies… with one new weapon keeping Israeli officials up at night.” These are Russian- made Yakhont missiles, which are accurate, radar-guided, long-range, and, though suited to firing on naval targets, can also hit land targets throughout Israel.
Press reports claim the Israel Air Force has attacked convoys purported to be carrying such missiles from Syria to Lebanon on several occasions. Syrian smugglers circumvented these attacks simply by sneaking the components in to Hezbollah in Lebanon and reassembling them.
Lurking in the background is Iran with its long-range Shahab ballistic missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that in the wake of the March 31 interim agreement between the major powers and Iran on its nuclear program, Russia will now supply Iran with S-300 anti-aircraft defenses, said to be the most advanced in the world, probably by the end of this year.
In an hour-long phone call to Putin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that if Iran believes it is immune to Israeli air attack, its military posture against its neighbors and Israel becomes far more aggressive. The IAF has been training to surmount the S-300 for some time.
THE ROCKET arsenal Israel faces includes Hamas’s M-302 (with a range of 160 km) and M-75 (75 km); Hezbollah’s Fajr-5 (75 km) and Zelzal 2 or M-600 (up to 400 km). Most of Hezbollah’s rockets are fairly primitive 122-mm Katyushas. However, according to The Jerusalem Post, Iran is placing guided warheads on its rockets and smuggling them to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Speaking at the recent Israel Air and Missile Defense Conference in Herzliya, Col. Aviram Hasson, who is in charge of the Defense Ministry’s upper-tier missile defenses, said Iran was converting Zelzal unguided rockets into accurate, guided M-600 projectiles and upgrading their warheads.
Hasson described Iran as a “train engine that is not stopping for a moment. It is manufacturing new and advanced ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters.” Hezbollah, he said, “is getting a lot of accurate weapons from Iran.
It is in a very different place compared to the Second Lebanon War in 2006.”
So, facing all these threats, how can the IDF protect our little grandson and his eight million fellow citizens? The answer – is a clever three-tier rocket defense, some of it literally out of this world.
On April 1, an Israeli Black Sparrow missile, designed to simulate short-range ballistic missiles and launched by an F-15I jet fighter, was successfully intercepted and destroyed by a David’s Sling interceptor – a two-stage missile, with radar and electro- optic targeting and guidance systems in its nose, able to shoot down rockets with ranges of 100 km to 200 km, as well as cruise missiles. It was developed and manufactured jointly by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and the US defense contractor Raytheon.
THE NAME “David’s Sling” comes from the Biblical story (Samuel 17:40-49) in which David, then a young shepherd, launched a stone from his sling at the giant Goliath and killed him. The name was probably chosen because of the high accuracy of David’s sling. The Bible says that the tribe of Benjamin, for instance, had an elite corps of slingers, 700 of them, many of whom were left-handed, who could each “sling a stone at a hair and not miss” (Judges 20:16). To hit and destroy an incoming ballistic missile traveling at 5,000 meters (about three miles) a second is a great deal harder than hitting Goliath’s broad forehead.
David’s Sling, known in Hebrew as “Sharvit Ksamim” (Magic Wand), fills the gap between the Iron Dome system, effective against short-range rockets, and Arrow III, capable of intercepting long-range ballistic missiles, some of which one day could potentially carry nuclear warheads.
The Arrow 3 interception occurs high above the atmosphere – literally out of this world where it cannot hurt civilians.
Israel’s three-tier rocket defense has proved not only highly effective, but moved from idea to operational readiness exceptionally quickly. The reason – small creative teams of hard-working engineers, clever use of existing components, and a strong sense of urgency (“those rockets are aimed at my family”). Rafael Advanced Defense Systems won the contract to develop David’s Sling in 2006. The system was successfully tested in November 2012.
For such a complex system, the time from sketch to test is phenomenally rapid.
And the future is even more promising.
Last year, Rafael announced initial successes with Iron Beam, a laser shield à la Star Wars, which evaporates incoming rockets with a powerful laser beam.
Iron Beam was developed by a team of only 15 Rafael engineers – minuscule compared to the vast budget and manpower of former US president Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated Star Wars project. Laser beams are far less costly than interceptor missiles.
When David’s Sling becomes operational next year, Israel, in close cooperation with the US, will have in place a highly effective missile-defense system against all types of enemy rockets. I doubt there is any other country with fewer than 10 million people that could even dream of developing and implementing such a system, with the possible exception of Sweden, even with American help.
The former director of the US Missile Defense Agency has said, “The United States will be very interested [in Magic Wand] for our own purposes.” This makes Israel one of the few countries able to supply the US with advanced defense technology.
The US has generously funded Israel’s rocket-defense program. In 2014 alone, the Iron Dome system got $351 million, the Arrow system about $120 million in US funds, and David’s Sling was budgeted for $150 million, in addition to $3.1 billion in US military aid.
If there is an Achilles heel to Israel’s three-pronged rocket-defense system, it lies in the operational cost of interceptors.
One Iron Dome interceptor missile costs an estimated $50,000; a David’s Sling interceptor missile $700,000 to $1 million; and an Arrow 2 interceptor $2.7 million, while an Arrow 3 interceptor costs $2.2 million.
On the one hand, the civilian damage and toll of lives each interceptor saves are enormous. On the other, an onslaught of thousands of enemy rockets could quickly exhaust the supply of costly missile interceptors.
This implies that Israel’s three-tier rocket defense will mainly serve to give Israeli air and ground forces a few days to organize and neutralize enemy rocket fire.
Israel has been in the missile business for more than 60 years. It all began in 1953 when, still a very poor country with fewer than two million citizens and struggling to absorb millions of refugee immigrants, Israel established the Israel Aircraft Industries (now Israel Aerospace Industries, IAI). The missile defense began with a rough sketch made by Gen. Amos Horev in the 1950s of a sea-to-sea missile that became the Gabriel, produced by IAI, which in 1973 achieved great success when employed by the Israel Navy’s missile boats.
All three of the current rocket-defense systems faced fierce criticism from naysayers when they were first conceived.
Both sides of the Israel-Arab conflict spend enormous sums on military hardware, resources that in an ideal world could be allocated to far more beneficial civilian needs. Citizens of Gaza need shelter, medicine and food. Instead, vast resources are invested by Hamas in rockets. The futility of it all was best defined by Israeli author Amos Oz, in a recent television interview.
“When they [Hamas] kill us, they benefit,” he explained. “When we kill them, they also benefit, because they gain sympathy.
We cannot win.” It is, as historian Barbara Tuchman once wrote, a true march of folly.
But until both sides find some common ground, Israel has no choice but to employ its best brains and scarce resources to defend itself. I can only pray that one day, the current frustrating lose-lose stalemate will transform itself to a more rational win-win peace deal – one that will benefit both our grandson and his counterparts in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran. 
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at