New round of arms race begins as Israel forces Hezbollah and, to some extent, Hamas and Gaza groups to try to beat its latest advance.
The operational deployment of David’s Sling on Sunday fills the gap in Israel’s missile defense system. The David’s Sling Weapon System (also known as Magic Wand) was designed to intercept medium-range missiles, as a complement to the Arrow system, which handles long-range missiles, and Iron Dome, which deals with short-range rockets. It also marks the completion of a missile interception system whose development began back in the early 1990s.
Though the seeds of the idea first sprouted in the mid-1980s (not coincidentally, at a time when the United States was developing a system to intercept Soviet ballistic missiles), the events that spurred its implementation took place closer to home. The Scud missiles that Iraq fired into Israel during the 1991 Gulf War spurred the development of the Arrow. The threat of rockets launched by Hezbollah, which became a reality during the Second Lebanon War of 2006, quashed the defense establishment’s opposition to what became Iron Dome.
A threat that should have been prevented: Hezbollah fighters stand on their armed vehicle with multiple rocket launchers.Mohammad Zaatari / AP
All three systems were developed thanks to the impressive technological capabilities of the local defense industry, and Israel has become a world leader in missile interception. But it wouldn’t have happened without American assistance and generous funding from the American taxpayer.
The announcement of David’s Sling deployment sends a clear message to other countries in the region, first and foremost Iran. Israel is declaring that it is prepared to deal with any type of missile threat, and will no longer need to stretch the Arrow and Iron Dome systems to their operational limits in order to intercept medium-range missiles.
This forces the enemy camp — Iran, Hezbollah and, to some extent, Hamas and Islamic Jihad (both of which receive assistance from Iran in producing homemade rockets in the Gaza Strip, though they’re currently having trouble smuggling in completed Iranian missiles) — to embark on a new round of the technological arms race in an effort to circumvent Israel’s latest advance. And senior defense officials say David’s Sling isn’t just an answer to medium-range missiles; it could also potentially intercept cruise missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as drones.
The announcement about David’s Sling follows on the heels of a demonstration of the Arrow’s capabilities. Last month, an Arrow battery intercepted a Syrian anti-aircraft missile that penetrated Israeli airspace in the Jordan Valley. This is the first operational interception by the Arrow that Israel has acknowledged.
Yet Israel’s solution to the missile threat still isn’t anywhere near perfect, and most likely never will be. The problem is first and foremost economic: The enormous price tag on the interceptor missiles (up to $100,000 for Iron Dome and $3 million for the Arrow) means these systems can’t be used without regard to cost.
The calculation is simple. Hezbollah has around 100,000 rockets and missiles, while Hamas has several thousand more. Thus in wartime, the enemy will try to inundate Israel’s interception systems. That will also force the defense establishment to switch to a risk management policy to ensure that it doesn’t run out of interceptor missiles.
In the Gaza Strip, the problem is limited. Israeli intelligence assessments published over the years say that Palestinian terrorist organizations have very few medium-range missiles, and most of those are homemade, since Egypt has greatly restricted the smuggling of Iranian arms into Gaza in recent years. This is a quantity Iron Dome will have no problem handling, as proven by its interceptions of the rockets fired at the Tel Aviv area during the 2014 Gaza war.
One of Hamas’ responses to this problem, as reported recently, has been to manufacture heavy missiles with a range of just a few kilometers, which could be fired at communities and troop concentrations near the Gaza border. The Islamist organization’s hope is that Iron Dome would have trouble intercepting missiles at such short range.
But the bigger challenge is on the northern front, where Hezbollah has a massive arsenal of missiles of all ranges, apparently including precision rockets with GPS navigation. Though Israel’s technological achievements enable it to successfully intercept missiles at any range, the question is how it will deal with masses of such missiles — hundreds of rockets of varying ranges that would be launched on every single day of any future war.
The answer, at least in part, lies in offense, and that is what the army has been training for in recent years. But that won’t be enough.
That is why cabinet ministers and senior officers have been saying publicly in recent months that Israel might attack Lebanon’s strategic infrastructure if another war in the north breaks out. This is an attempt to create deterrence against Hezbollah by making it clear to both the Shi’ite militia and the Lebanese government that any serious damage done to Haifa or Tel Aviv will result in far more serious damage to Beirut.