Initial fear was that Syrian missiles were headed for Israel

2 Syrian missiles with half-ton warheads trigger Israel’s anti-missile system

Fate of one David’s Sling interceptor rocket unclear, second self-destructs over Golan, army finds, after false alarm sparked by fighting in Syria

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

A smoke trail of a David's Sling interceptor missile is seen in northern Israel after the interceptor was fired toward a Syrian SS-21 missile, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A smoke trail of a David's Sling interceptor missile is seen in northern Israel after the interceptor was fired toward a Syrian SS-21 missile, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The targets of the first known operational launch of the David’s Sling air defense system on Monday were a pair of Syrian surface-to-surface missiles carrying approximately a half ton of explosives, according to the military’s initial investigation.

Israeli authorities said they initially feared the missiles were headed for Israel. But ultimately the two Syrian SS-21 short-range ballistic missiles — which were fired as part of the country’s internal fighting and not deliberately aimed at Israel — did not clear the border and landed one kilometer inside Syria.

The two David’s Sling interceptor missiles were launched as a precautionary measure when the system calculated that the Syrian projectiles might be on track to strike northern Israel.

After a period of time, however, the air defense battery’s computers determined that the Syrian missiles were going to fall short and did not pose a danger to Israel. At that point, one of the interceptor missiles was ordered to self-destruct, doing so over northern Israel, in the southern Golan Heights.

An Israeli man watches the smoke trail of a David’s Sling interceptor missile in the northern Israeli city of Safed after the interceptor was fired toward a Syrian SS-21 missile, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The army’s initial investigation has yet to determine what happened to the second interceptor — if it successfully intercepted one of the Syrian missiles, if it landed intact inside Syria, or if it successfully self-destructed over Syria.

There were concerns in the military that if the David’s Sling interceptor missile landed intact in Syria, it could be taken by the Syrian military and used to gather intelligence about the air defense system’s capabilities. However, this was not seen as a likely scenario.

The military’s air defense systems that detect and track incoming missiles and rockets are less accurate immediately after a projectile is launched, as they have less information on its trajectory. As the missile or rocket flies, the systems can better predict where it is likely to land.

As a “better safe than sorry” measure, the military occasionally launches interceptor missiles even when the exact target of the incoming projectile is unclear. This appears to have been the case on Monday morning.

The Soviet-era SS-21 ballistic missile, also known as the Tochka, which was launched in Syria on Monday, has an operational range of approximately 100 kilometers and can carry approximately 500 kilograms of explosives. It has long been in the arsenal of the Syrian Armed Forces and has seen extensive use throughout the country’s civil war.

A Soviet-made SS-21 short-range ballistic missile is displayed during a military parade in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2015. (Kalabaha1969/WikiMedia/CC0 1.0 Universal)

Monday’s incident, which ultimately turned out to have been a false alarm, was the first known operational use of the David’s Sling system, which was declared operational last year.

The Syrian surface-to-surface missiles triggered sirens throughout northern Israel on Monday morning, sending thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters.

The sirens were first heard in the northern city of Safed and in the Galilee region at 10:05 a.m., according to the Israel Defense Forces. Three minutes later, additional alarms sounded in communities on the Golan Heights, including the city of Katzrin. Sirens blared again throughout the Galilee and Golan regions at approximately 10:20 a.m., the military said.

“The alarms that were heard in northern Israel were the result of launches that were carried out as part of the internal fighting in Syria,” the army said.

The David’s Sling makes up the middle tier of Israel’s multi-layered anti-missile defense network.

The lowest tier is the Iron Dome system, capable of intercepting short-range rockets, small unmanned aerial vehicles and mortar shells like those that have been fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip or from southern Lebanon. At the top are the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems, which are intended to engage long-range ballistic missiles.

David’s Sling is aimed at filling the gap between these systems, against missiles like the Iranian Fateh 110 and its Syrian equivalent, the M600, both of which have seen extensive use in the Syrian civil war and are known to be in the Hezbollah terrorist group’s arsenal.

A test of the David’s Sling missile defense system (Defense Ministry)

In recent weeks, sirens in northern Israel have been triggered by the military shooting down unmanned aerial vehicles entering Israeli airspace from Syria.

On July 13, the Israeli military used an anti-aircraft Patriot missile to shoot down a Syrian army drone that was flying over the demilitarized zone separating Israel from Syria.

Two days earlier, a Syrian military unmanned aerial vehicle penetrated some 10 kilometers (six miles) into Israeli territory before it too was shot down by a Patriot missile. The IDF said it had allowed the drone to fly so deeply into Israeli territory as it was not immediately clear if it belonged to the Russian military.

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