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Israel stages major air defense drill, proving it can shoot down cruise missiles

Declaring a world first, Defense Ministry pits all three tiers of its system against various threats, demonstrating a ‘capability that currently only Israel has’

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

An interceptor missile is fired at a target simulating an incoming threat in December 2020. (Defense Ministry)
An interceptor missile is fired at a target simulating an incoming threat in December 2020. (Defense Ministry)

The Defense Ministry completed a major, unprecedented air defense exercise this month, which tested the abilities of the country’s three tiers of missile defense systems against a variety of aerial threats, officials said Tuesday.

In the drill, which the ministry deemed a glowing success, the various air defense detection systems and batteries were required to communicate with one another and intercept several types of targets, including rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles and — critically — cruise missiles simultaneously.

The exercise, made up of a series of trials, was focused primarily on testing the capabilities of a new version of the medium-range David’s Sling air defense system, which is currently under development, as well as new capabilities of the Iron Dome.

“The success of this series of tests represents an important milestone in the operational capability of the State of Israel in its self-defense against existing and future threats in the region,” the Defense Ministry said.

An interceptor missile is fired at a target simulating an incoming threat in December 2020. (Defense Ministry)

David’s Sling, which represents the middle tier of Israel’s air defense array, was pitted against ballistic missiles, which follow a fixed and predetermined trajectory, as well as the more difficult-to-hit cruise missiles, which effectively function as small, fast, unmanned airplanes, capable of changing direction and thus better able to avoid air defenses.

“The results of the tests will allow the development engineers to continue to improve the capabilities of the [David’s Sling] system,” the Defense Ministry said.

Iron Dome was also tasked with shooting down cruise missiles, as well as UAVs and “a variety of threats,” the ministry said.

This represents a significant development in the capabilities of the Iron Dome, which was initially developed to intercept simple rockets. Over the years, it has been improved to also shoot down mortar shells as well as drones and, now, cruise missiles.

Both systems performed well in the test, shooting down all incoming threats, according to Pini Yungman, the head of the Rafael defense contractor’s Missile Defense Directorate, which was responsible for performing the trials.

The Defense Ministry refused to comment on the number of targets that were shot down in the drill.

In addition to the Iron Dome and David’s Sling, the exercise also tested the long-range radar arrays of the Arrow air defense system. The tests were held with launchers both on land and at sea, the Defense Ministry said.

“When all of the multi-tiered defense systems work together, they are able to handle a number of threats at the same time, with different types of threats at the same time, and provide better protection to citizens of the State of Israel,” Yungman said.

An interceptor missile intercepts a target simulating an incoming threat in December 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Moshe Patel, the head of the ministry’s Israeli Missile Defense Organization (IMDO), told reporters that an air defense exercise of this scope had never before been performed. Though other air defense tests have simulated the ability of various systems to communicate with one another and others have tested the ability of systems to shoot down incoming targets, simulating missiles and aircraft, it was the first exercise on this scale to test both at the same time, he said.

“This was a test that was hitherto unknown in the world,” Yungman agreed.

“This has led to a capability that currently only Israel has,” he added, describing the test as a “phenomenal success.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, second from right, along with other senior defense officials watch an air defense exercise in December 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz hailed the test, saying Israel’s air defense systems provided protection from a variety of threats.

“I praise the successful test, which for the first time tested integrated, multi-tiered interceptions of the State of Israel’s defense systems. This is one of the most advanced networks in the world, which gives the State of Israel defense against threats from near and far,” he said.

The exercises themselves were conducted by the Rafael defense contractor, which manufactures the Iron Dome and David’s Sling, along with the Israeli Air Force, under the direction of the IMDO. The US Missile Defense Agency, which has cooperated with Israel in the development of these air defense systems, also participated in the exercise.

Asked about proposals to sell Israeli air defense systems to the countries in the Gulf that have recently normalized ties with Israel, Patel said the idea was being discussed, but would require a number of approvals from the government before any sales would go forward.

A David’s Sling interceptor missile is fired from a ship at a target simulating an incoming threat in December 2020. (Defense Ministry)

The Israeli Air Force maintains a multi-tiered missile defense system, which is meant to protect the country from aerial threats.

The lowest layer of Israel’s multi-tiered missile defense system is the Iron Dome. The middle tier of the missile defense array is the David’s Sling system, which is designed to shoot down medium-range projectiles. The farthest range are the Arrow, which is designed to intercept large ballistic missiles, and the American-made Patriot system, which is used to shoot down aircraft.

However, even with the full complement of missile defense systems, defense officials warn that they will not offer a hermetic seal in the case of all-out war and some rockets will inevitably slip past the defenses.

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