JERUSALEM — The Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency for the first time demonstrated a multilayered air defense system using the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow weapon systems in a recent series of tests.
“Using this approach, a variety of threats may be identified and intercepted via full coordination and interoperability between the systems,” Moshe Patel, the head of IMDO, said Monday. The organization falls under the purview of the Ministry of Defense, whose minster, Benny Gantz, praised the “development of a multilayered air defense system [that] secures us from threats near and far.”
The Iron Dome system has been used against rockets and other threats for the last decade, and joint development with the U.S. has supported the Arrow and David’s Sling programs. Israel delivered the first of two Iron Dome batteries to the U.S. Army earlier this year.
The Israeli tests, which took place within the last few weeks but were announced Dec. 15, saw the systems deploy against cruise missile, UAV and ballistic missile targets.
While Israel said the results of the tests will enable industry engineers to evaluate and upgrade the capabilities of the system, the wider context is that the announcement comes amid tension with Iran as well as improved relations between Israel and a number of Gulf states, according to experts.
“U.S.-Israel cooperation on multilayered missile defense technologies continues to advance and is a critical factor in ensuring Israel can defend itself from a diverse array of threats posed by Iran and its proxies,” said Dan Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the ability of Israel’s Iron Dome system to hit guided munitions is significant, “particularly as Iran increasingly seeks to arm its terrorist proxies with weapons that [have] evasive qualities. Has Israel developed tech to counter Iran’s lethal precision-guided munitions effort? It certainly seems so.”
The changing geopolitical environment in the region — particularly improved Israeli relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in recent months — is important, according to Udi Evental, a colonel in Israel’s reserve-duty service and a senior fellow with the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the higher-education institution IDC Herzliya.
“The normalization process opens new opportunities both for Israel, Arab states in the Gulf and the U.S.,” Evental said. “Israel might be able to deploy sensors and other means closer to Iran in a way that could offer more and better interception opportunities. ... The U.S. could lead the command and control of such an architecture and integrate into it some American assets as well.”
Dan Feferman, a former strategic planner with the Israel Defense Forces and a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, pointed out that “Iran spent a lot of money developing [its strike] capabilities. So [Israel] is testing [its weapons systems] out, and it is an attempt to show Iran and its proxies that [Israeli] capabilities will soon be neutralized and they might as well not bother trying.”
In addition to challenging the effectiveness of Iran’s regional strategy, the tests also serve as a model for how Israel’s neighbors can enhance their own defenses against Iranian threats, according to Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The tests, he explained, serve as “a source of deepened Israeli-Arab security coordination.” Gulf states could benefit from Israel’s defense capabilities, especially in light of the drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco facility in September 2019. Israel’s MoD said the drill was in the works for a year, indicating that the planning came after the attack in Abqaiq.
Shapiro’s colleague, Yoel Guzansky, added that recent reports noted one Gulf state is interested in buying air defense technology from Israel. He also described the Abqaiq attack as a motivator for the recent tests. “For years, cruise missiles were a problem that had to be addressed: Like drones, they fly at low altitudes.”
Patel indicated that any cooperative program like David’s Sling and Arrow must be approved by the U.S. to market and export to Gulf customers. But Israel has more independence when it comes to Iron Dome, despite Raytheon’s involvement in the system’s U.S.-based manufacturing. Although it’s too early to assume much, he said, “there is a lot of advantage like sharing information and sensors in those countries because we have the same enemies and launchers and more — but it is too early. We begin to build our defense cooperation; this could be considered in the future.”
Israel’s MoD said the tests indicate the systems are capable of simultaneously intercepting threats. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is the prime contractor for the development of the David’s Sling weapon system, in cooperation with the Raytheon. Israel Aerospace Industries’ Elta Systems subsidiary developed the Multi-Mission Radar, and Elbit Systems developed the Golden Almond battle management system, both of which were involved in the tests.
“When the different systems in the multilayered mechanism are combined, they may face a variety of simultaneous threats and defend the citizens of the state of Israel,” said retired Brig. Gen. Pini Yungman, executive vice president and head of Rafael’s Air and Missile Defense Division.
The tests were carried out at sea for safety reasons. The Iron Dome has been integrated with Israel’s Navy in the form of the C-Dome, which is to be deployed with the service’s new Sa’ar 6-class corvettes. Officials said David’s Sling can also be used at sea. During the tests, Iron Dome was used to intercept cruise missiles — a new capability for a system that has historically been deployed against unguided rockets, drones and mortars. Israel has generally used Iron Dome against short-range threats around the Gaza Strip and Golan, while Arrow was used for the first time in 2017 and David’s Sling for the first time in 2018 against threats from Syria.
The Israel Defense Forces also integrated the multitiered system and sensors into a common air picture, tracking threats, sharing data and launching different interceptors with one command-and-control system for the first time. Combining multiple technologies using open architecture and sensors to create a kind of “glass battlefield” digital picture is a technology Rafael has been working on. This is also part of Israel’s multiyear Momentum plan that foresees multilayered air defense as key to success in future wars against local adversaries and what Israel calls “third circle” threats like Iran.
Seth Frantzman has been covering conflict in the Middle East since 2010 as a researcher, analyst and correspondent for different publications. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.