Why Does Israel Need Three Different Missile Defense Systems?

As David’s Sling moves one step closer to being deployed alongside the Arrow and Iron Dome systems, Haaretz offers a field guide to Israeli missile defense.

The 'Magic Wand' system, also known as "David's Sling," is designed to intercept mid-range missiles.
Courtesy

On Wednesday the Defense Ministry announced that the David’s Sling missile defense system passed a third round of tests and could be deployed as early as next year. But while Iron Dome became a household name, and not only in Israel, largely due to its performance in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, David’s Sling, also known as Magic Wand, has not yet attained that level of familiarity. We humbly offer a short field to the three components (and four names) of Israel’s anti-ballistic defense program.

What’s the difference between David’s Sling and Iron Dome, and what happened to the famous Arrow?

The three systems are designed to be complementary, each one providing defense against rockets and missiles of different sizes and with different ranges. The Arrow system’s job is to take out long-range missiles, such as Scud missiles from Syria or Shihab missiles from Iran. Iron Dome intercepts short-range rockets such as Qassams and Katyushas. David’s Sling is designed to intercept medium-range ballistic weapons, especially highly accurate missiles and large rockets such as Hezbollah’s M-600.

The head of the Arrow project in the Defense Ministry, Col. Aviram Hasson, just recently said improvements based on lessons learned from the Syrian civil war have been introduced into that system. Iron Dome, meanwhile, has proved successful at intercepting rockets beyond its expected reach, such as the Iranian-made Fajr 5 and the R-160, while improvements to the Arrow have enabled it to intercept mid-range missiles.

With so many anti-missile systems, is Israel completely protected from rockets and missiles?

Not exactly. On Tuesday the Home Front Command said that in a future conflict with Israel, Hezbollah could be expected to fire more than 1,000 rockets a day into Israel. Agency officials stress that it is Israel’s political leadership that decides on deployment of the Iron Dome batteries, but a senior officer in the agency has already said that in a state of emergency the army would deploy the system in a manner that guarantees the uninterrupted operation of the state, “because that is the way to shorten the war and limit the affect on the gross domestic product.”

In addition, defense officials stress constantly that these systems are not 100-percent foolproof. Iron Dome achieved 89.6 percent accuracy in Operation Protective Edge, according to the Defense Ministry. But Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel has explicitly cautioned that it is impossible to provide absolute protection to the entire country, saying Iron Dome was sure to disappoint eventually.

When will we see these systems operating?

Iron Dome shot down its first rocket in 2011. The first Arrow was delivered to the IAF in 1998. David’s Sling is expected to be operational in 2016. Arrow 3 is still being tested.

What about intercepting drones?

The IAF operates Patriot batteries, which among other things are designed to protect against drones, as they did once over Ashdod and another time near Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. David’s Sling is designed to intercept drones and cruise missiles.

How much does each intercept cost?

According to previously published estimates, the cost of one interceptor missile is around $50,000 for Iron Dome, $700,000 to $1 million for David’s Sling and about $2.7 million for Arrow 2. At around $2.2 million each, the interceptor missiles for Arrow 3 are slightly cheaper. The United States, by the way, funds part of the projects.