Wednesday morning's successful test of the David’s Sling missile interceptor is good news for Israel’s missile defense program. Barring unexpected delays, the system, which is also known as Magic Wand and which has been in development since 2006, is expected to be operational within two years.
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David's Sling will provide protection against medium-range rockets, complementing Arrow 2 and Iron Dome. The latter two systems, which intercept short-range rockets and long-range missiles, respectively, are already operation.
All three systems would not exist but for the generosity of the United States, a point we would do well to remember at this time of public confrontation between Jerusalem and Washington over the best way to handle both the Iranian nuclear threat and the peace process with the Palestinians.
The United States plays a major role in the funding, development and manufacture of David's Sling. Arrow 3, which is in the development stages, is also a joint project, while Arrow 2 and Iron Dome were developed by Israel with significant financial assistance from the United States.
Notwithstanding the defense establishment’s periodic warnings during disputes over the size of the budget, the treasury continues to underwrite the program. The army already has six Iron Dome batteries and plans to acquire at least 10 in all.
This does not, of course, promise total protection against rockets and missiles. Ballistics experts once spoke of “Astrodome defense" as a futuristic solution, the concept borrowed from the Houston stadium by that name with a retractable roof.
For Israel, no such solution for steep-trajectory weapons is viable. No matter how many missile-interceptor batteries of whatever range Israel may have (and in any event, cost considerations will keep the number fairly low), the country will never be hermetically protected against them.
In the event of another conflict with Hezbollah, which possesses tens of thousands of projectile weapons, protection will be partial at best. The defense establishment will have to decide where to spread its thin resources and which areas will have priority in the deployment of anti-ballistic defenses: population centers, strategic civilian installations (such as the Hadera power plant) or military air bases (so that airborne attacks craft continue).
But more modest goals can presumably be met.
The best example of this is the situation vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip. According to Israel Defense Forces figures, in the eight days of combat between Israel and Hamas in Operation Pillar of Defense a year ago, four Iron Dome batteries intercepted around 85 percent of the rockets fired into populated areas in Israel. The relatively low number of casualties - six Israelis died as a result of rocket fire - gave the political leadership the breathing space necessary to avoid a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, which would have resulted in high casualties. The Palestinian attempts to foil Iron Dome, mainly by firing barrages of rockets, were largely unsuccessful. From the military perspective the operation was a relative success for Israel, a factor that has contributed to the calm on the Gaza border since.
The takeaway is that the interception systems have proved very good at protecting the home front in limited operations. That won't keep Hamas from continuing to search for ways around them. On display in recent military parades in Gaza were homemade rockets with a range of 75 kilometer and mobile launchers that can fire 36 rockets at a time. Even in the event of a new conflict the Palestinians will keep using rockets, their main tool for threatening Israel’s civilian population. Their answer to Iron Dome will take the form of massive numbers of rockets, fired simultaneously in large numbers from mobile launchers, from launchers operated by remote control and from launchers located in concrete-reinforced underground bunkers. Nevertheless, given the recent successes of its various interception systems, in both tests and actual combat, Israel is still ahead in this race, for now.