Defense tech firm Rafael reveals first-ever hypersonic interceptor

Sky Sonic system, under development for three years, to be shown off at Paris Air Show, after Iran claimed earlier this month it built a hypersonic missile

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

This handout image released on June 14, 2023, shows a render of the Sky Sonic anti-hypersonic missile. (Rafael)
This handout image released on June 14, 2023, shows a render of the Sky Sonic anti-hypersonic missile. (Rafael)

Israel’s Rafael defense contractor unveiled Wednesday that it has been developing a first-of-its-kind anti-hypersonic missile defense system.

According to the company, the Sky Sonic interceptor missile, which has been in development for around three years, will be shown for the first time at the upcoming Paris Air Show next week.

The announcement comes after Iran earlier this month claimed it had developed a new hypersonic missile. Rafael officials said the company had only recently been given approval by the Defense Ministry to reveal the system.

Rafael said the Sky Sonic missile “represents a major technological leap in hypersonic missile defense.”

“Designed with exceptional maneuverability and high-speed capabilities, it effectively neutralizes hypersonic missiles [which travel at speeds of over five times the speed of sound] with unmatched precision and stealth,” it said.

The company could not provide a timeline as to when the missile will be ready to use but said it would be conducting first test flights in the near future.

This handout image released on June 14, 2023, shows a render of the Sky Sonic anti-hypersonic missile. (Rafael)

Speaking to reporters, former minister Yuval Steinitz, chairman of Rafael, said the company had identified the potential hypersonic missile threat a number of years ago and began a research and development venture.

“We are following the developments and emerging threats in the current security context and are developing the most advanced defense systems,” he said.

Steinitz noted that the company’s David Sling medium-range air defense system — already in use by the Israeli military — can technically deal with hypersonic missiles, but said the new system is designed specifically to counter that threat.

“Project Sky Sonic is an innovative, unique development of its kind for the hypersonic weapon threat,” he said.

Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, could pose serious challenges to missile defense systems because of their speed and maneuverability. Iran described its new missile, the Fattah, as being able to reach Mach 15.

Women look at Fattah missile in a ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Iran is claiming that it has created a hypersonic missile capable of traveling at 15 times the speed of sound. (Hossein Zohrevand/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Most air defense systems operate up to an altitude of 20 kilometers, while anti-ballistic systems intercept targets outside of Earth’s atmosphere, generally above 70 kilometers.

The Sky Sonic system aims to intercept hypersonic threats within the 20-70 kilometer altitude range, where the incoming missile would likely maneuver to avoid being knocked down by traditional air defenses.

Rafael officials said the United States has shown interest in Sky Sonic.

China is believed to be pursuing the weapons, as is the US. Russia claims to already be fielding the weapons and has said it used them on the battlefield in Ukraine. However, speed and maneuverability aren’t a guarantee the missile will successfully strike a target. Ukraine’s air force in May said it shot down a Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missile with a Patriot battery.

Rafael is considered one of Israel’s premier military contractors, helping develop some of the country’s leading weapons systems, including the short-range Iron Dome air defense system and the precision-guided Spike missile.

It is also currently developing a high-powered laser interception system, dubbed Iron Beam, which has been hailed as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against projectile attacks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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