Not since Saul’s army suffered defeat at the hands of Philistine archers has so much destruction threatened to fall on Israeli heads. According to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), on average there have been more than three rocket attacks every day since 2001, and while that is a bleak statistic in its own right, the numbers for some of the individual bombardments tell an even starker tale.
During Hezbollah’s 2006 campaign in the north, over 4,200 rockets fell between mid-July and mid-August alone, while in July last year, during another of the many subsequent episodes of renewed hostilities, the single-day rate rose to a peak of 197. If recent military estimates are right, however, in future conflicts that number could increase nearly eight-fold.
With as many as 1,500 rockets potentially set to be raining down daily, developing and deploying effective missile defences is understandably something of a national priority.
David’s Sling, also known as ‘Magic Wand’, is the latest such system to emerge, and is designed to bolster Israel’s multi-layered defences against rocket and missile attack and extend the levels of protection available, particularly to the civilian population. A mid-tier weapon intended to intercept medium-range, heavy rockets, cruise missiles and UAVs, it aims to complement the existing Iron Dome’s role against short-range rockets, and the Arrow against ballistic missiles, with what the Ministry of Defence describe as “an emphasis on precise threats.”
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A joint development between Israeli state-owned Rafael and the US defence company Raytheon, David’s Sling employs a two-stage, surface-to-air interceptor missile – referred to as ‘Stunner‘ – with state-of-the-art, nose-mounted radar and electro-optical sensors providing dual targeting and guidance systems.
Fast, at a reported Mach 7.5, highly manoeuvrable, with a range of 300km, an operational ceiling said to be around 50km and the ability to be re-targeted in real time, Stunner maximises the ‘keep-out’ distance, significantly reducing the risk of collateral damage from falling debris.
According to the developers, the key to the missile’s superior performance lies in the combination of advanced steering control, multi-pulse propulsion and a next-generation seeker assembly within its lightweight airframe. It is claimed as flexible, efficient and highly affordable, offering a high probability of single-shot interceptions in all weather conditions, at what is said to be an unprecedentedly low cost per kill.
So far David’s Sling seems to be living up to expectations very well. In April, it passed the third series of tests, carried out by the Israel Missile Defense Organization together with US Missile Defense Agency (USMDA), successfully intercepting what USMDA spokesman Rick Lehne described as “threat representative targets” and destroying them. Although there remains one final definitive test ahead of the system becoming operational, it marks a major milestone for the project and paves the way for David’s Sling to be deployed in 2016.
Nevertheless, it seems politics could play as big a part in the programme’s future as performance.
Politics of funding
After the test, Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon cited David’s Sling as a example of the continued strength of the US-Israeli alliance, a bond undoubtedly reinforced by the prospect of some $317m sought from the US for this and other Israeli missile defence programmes.
That funding was being asked for on top of the $158m already earmarked in the FY 2016 budget – but reports soon emerged that the request had been made directly to Congress itself, bypassing the usual White House and Pentagon channels. It came as relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu cooled in the wake of the Israeli premier’s US speech which censured Obama’s role in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, and it scarcely did much to smooth the ruffled feathers in the Oval Office.
“You know the old saying – ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ – and the US backs Israel’s missile programmes very, very heavily,” says defence commentator Joel Geirdon. “Last year alone, Congress agreed a $120m hike in funding for Iron Dome, up from $235m the year before. Arrow received $119m and David’s Sling got $149.7m.” He says it leaves the US able to exert considerable influence over the programmes and their products.
Some have suggested that this was what lay behind the reports last year that David’s Sling was going to miss out on a $13bn contract to provide a missile defence system for Poland, when suspicions surfaced that a US veto on technology exports was being quietly used.
Both sides have officially downplayed the idea, but the rumours have persisted, driven by the quote circulating at the time attributed to an unnamed Israeli source that “there has been pressure, we cannot sell everything we want to.”
However, Geirdon suggests that it could be Israel’s relationship with Russia, rather than the US, that is at the heart of it.
“Israel kept very quiet over events in Ukraine and that obviously didn’t go down well with the rest of the old Soviet neighbours.” He thinks that US lobbying on behalf of the two American systems in the competition, together with Warsaw’s desire to strengthen ties with Washington, given the tension with Moscow, probably tipped the balance.
The world of missile defence is, however, a tangled one. For some time, Israel has been pursuing a broadly pro-Moscow policy. As Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in January the “maintenance of good relations with Russia is a priority moment for Israel and its principal stance.” There are many factors behind this, and multiple opinions as to their merits, but fundamentally the issue comes down to politics and pragmatism.
Netanyahu’s speech may have stirred political tension between the US and Israel over Iran, but even before then, it was becoming clear that the automatic support of Americans – especially amongst the younger generation – for the State of Israel is increasingly less of a default setting. There are signs that it could ultimately become a defining partisan issue; in a CNN poll taken during the 2014 action in Gaza, 73% of self-identifying Republicans felt Israeli actions were justified, compared with just 45% of self-described Democrats.
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Against that background, as Lieberman said in an interview with ITAR-TASS, “we simply cannot afford neglecting warm relations with such [a] significant international player as Russia.”
Pragmatism towards Russia
The pragmatic reality of the pro-Russian stance, however, turns full circle back to missile defence, and the sale of Russia’s S-300 systems to Iran.
It is one of the most advanced anti-aircraft missile systems in the world, said to be able to track 100 targets and engage twelve of them simultaneously. Russia had originally signed the $800m contract in 2007, but put the deal on ice three years later in line with UN sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme. An Iranian airspace protected by S-300s would be a very unsafe place for the Israeli air force to operate, so while Moscow kept its order book closed, there was a clear case to be made for not rocking the diplomatic boat. In April, however, all that changed when President Putin lifted the ban.
In Israel a growing number of voices are now calling for an end to what they see as an over-supportive policy – and that could see Israel looking more warmly towards the US once again, particularly if that means the rumoured further Rafael/Raytheon collaboration over a Patriot 4 system using the Stunner interceptor becomes reality.
With the Pentagon also reportedly considering the Stunner for future military requirements, and possible future sales to Poland and India in the wind, it could yet all turn out well for David’s Sling, and US-Israeli relations too.