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Giant missile-detecting balloon begins operational use over northern Israel

Defense Ministry hands Sky Dew system over to air force after years of testing; sensors onboard aerostat are meant to identify incoming long-range munitions, drones

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

The military on Tuesday officially received a massive new balloon equipped with an advanced missile and aircraft detection system from the Defense Ministry.

The radar-based system, deployed in the north at an unspecified date, is part of a general effort by the Israeli Air Force to improve the country’s air defenses, particularly in the north, due to the proliferation of Iranian drones and cruise missiles in the region.

The detection system, dubbed “Elevated Sensor,” or “Sky Dew” in Israel, is deployed at high altitudes in order to detect incoming long-range missiles, cruise missiles, and drones, officials said.

Israel already maintains an array of radar systems to detect incoming threats, but the new aerostat is meant to complement and improve existing capabilities by placing the sensors at high altitudes.

During a Tuesday ceremony, the system was formally handed over to the military and began its operational use under a new air force unit, with the same name as the system.

Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin hailed the new system, saying the unit would “enable [air traffic control] to build a more accurate and broader air surveillance picture.”

He added that the system would “make the air force more prepared, and assist it in continuing its mission — maintaining security in the skies of Israel.”

A massive blimp containing an advanced radar system to detect incoming missiles and drones, as seen at a ceremony in northern Israel, March 21, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The ‘Sky Dew’ system was a challenging task that we set for ourselves about a decade ago,” said the director of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, Moshe Patel. As it becomes operational, it is “reality-changing,” he said.

“This aerostat system will cruise at high altitudes and provide an exceptional multi-directional detection capability against advanced threats,” Patel added.

The Sky Dew aerostat, one of the largest of its kind, was developed in a joint venture by Israel’s Missile Defense Organization and the United States’ Missile Defense Agency over the course of several years.

Vice Admiral Jon Hill, the director of the American Missile Defense Agency, said the system was aimed at shoring up Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” a technical term referring to the country’s superiority in the region, which the US is legally required to uphold.

Director of the US Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral Jon A.Hill (R), and chief of the Israeli Air Force, Major General Amikam Norkin at a ceremony in northern Israel, March 21, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military fears that in the coming years that superiority may be tested as Iranian-made and -designed drones and cruise missiles flood the Middle East, representing a greater threat to Israel than the simple rockets that terror groups in the region have possessed until now.

Military officials said earlier this month that Iran’s “UAV terror” is a new and global issue, accusing Tehran of directly attacking both military and civilian targets in the Middle East.

The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed it intercepted at least four Iranian drones heading for Israel or the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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