IDF tests Patriot missiles in nighttime air defense exercise
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IDF tests Patriot missiles in nighttime air defense exercise

Air force pits US surface-to-air missile system against drones, 'various aerial threats' in skies over central Israel

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Israeli Air Force conducted a test of its Patriot air defense systems on Tuesday evening, launching multiple interceptor missiles into the skies over central Israel, the army revealed the following day.

Ahead of the exercise, the military released a statement warning residents there would be several launches and that they could expect to hear explosions, but would not elaborate on which systems would be used.

On Wednesday, the military specified that the system tested was the Patriot surface-to-air missile, an American platform that has been in use by the IAF since the first Gulf War.

In a statement, the army said the Patriot system was pitted against “various aerial threats” during the exercise.

A Patriot missile. (Israel Air Force)
A Patriot missile. (Israel Air Force)

That included testing the system to ensure it could shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles.

A video from the exercise that was released by the IDF shows the drone hovering in the clouds before it erupts into a ball of fire as the Patriot missile slams into it.

The Patriot has come up against drones in the field on multiple occasions. In April, the system successfully shot down a UAV. However, the interceptor has not always stood up to the challenge.

In July 2016, the Air Force fired two Patriot missiles at drones that breached Israeli air space near the Syrian border. (Originally feared to be a Hezbollah drone, it was later said to have been a Russian UAV that entered Israeli territory accidentally.)

In addition to testing the system against drones, Tuesday night’s exercise was designed to more generally assess the capabilities of the IDF’s Aerial Defense Command, according to officers who took part in it.

A captain from the Aerial Defense Command said it was intended to “improve our proficiency and capabilities in combat so we can be better and stronger,” in the video released by the army.

The army stressed that the exercise was not connected to any specific threats, but was instead planned in advance as part of the yearly training calendar.

A Tamir missile fired from an Iron Dome missile defense battery during a trial in the United States in April 2016. (Rafael Advanced Defense Systems)
A Tamir missile fired from an Iron Dome missile defense battery during a trial in the United States in April 2016. (Rafael Advanced Defense Systems)

With hundreds of thousands of rockets and missiles pointed at Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, Israel maintains one of the world’s most advanced multi-tiered air defense system, designed to intercept incoming short-, medium- and long-range missiles.

The lowest layer of Israel’s system is the Iron Dome, capable of shooting down short-range rockets, small unmanned aerial vehicles and some mortar shells like those that have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip or from southern Lebanon.

The David's Sling missile defense-system seen at the Hatzor Air Base, Israel. Sunday, April 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
The David’s Sling missile defense-system seen at the Hatzor Air Base, Israel. Sunday, April 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The middle tier is the David’s Sling, also known as the Magic Wand, which was declared operational in April. It is designed to shoot down incoming missiles with ranges of 40-300 kilometers (25-190 miles), meaning it could be used against Hamas’s longer-range rockets, but would more likely be deployed against missiles fired by Hezbollah or Syria, such as the Iranian Fateh 110 or its Syrian equivalent, the M600.

At the top, in addition to the Patriot system, are the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3, which are intended to engage long-range ballistic missiles. The Arrow was put in use for the first time on March 17, when it downed an incoming Syrian anti-aircraft missile.

But even with the full complement of missile defense systems, defense officials warn that it is not a hermetic seal and some rockets will inevitably slip past.

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