The David's Sling System is Ready to Meet its Goliath

"This interceptor incorporates some unique technologies that are not available anywhere else in the world." An exclusive interview with Brig. Gen. (res.) Pini Yungman, Director of the David's Sling Program at Rafael, about the development process and the system's performance

The David's Sling system in action (Photo: Rafael)

An international, three-pointed, highly important defense transaction is currently being concocted, fairly quietly, between three countries: Israel, the USA and Poland.

The State of Israel has recently deployed the missile defense system designated David's Sling, and the first battalion of battery operators already maintains an operational duty roster. Poland, a country that has been living for the past one hundred years, at least, under a constant fear of Russia, its easterly neighbor, has been protecting itself using the Patriot missile system by Raytheon of the USA.

Raytheon is Rafael's close partner in the development and production of the interceptor of the David's Sling system – Stunner, one of the world's most advanced interceptors in its class. Apparently, this interceptor suits not just the David's Sling system by Rafael, but also Raytheon's Patriot system, and the Stunner may be integrated smartly and intelligently into the Patriot system. The aforementioned transaction focuses on the development of the next generation Patriot system that will utilize a new interceptor – the Stunner missile of the David's Sling system. This is precisely the product Poland would like to purchase.

The Poles are convinced that the Patriot system and the Stunner interceptor will fit in perfectly into Poland's air-defense system. When the development process has been completed, Poland will be the first client of this new product, and the people at Rafael are encouraged by this transaction which, in their opinion, would open major doors around the world for the benefit of both industries, Rafael of Israel and Raytheon of the USA. Raytheon has designated the Patriot system utilizing the Stunner interceptor Sky Interceptor.

So, the David's Sling system scored a dual accomplishment shortly after development had been completed: it has become a part of the defenses of the State of Israel, and an important client is already waiting to purchase a primary element of this system.

IMOD's Defense Research and Development Directorate (DDR&D, also known as MAFAT), one of the parties that had specified the operational need for the David's Sling system and a major client, had used the name Magic Wand initially. When the tender eventually awarded to Rafael had been issued, they used the name David's Sling. Now, when the system has become operational, the industries, IMOD and the IAF – the system operator – all decided to adopt the name David's Sling.

The David's Sling system was officially delivered to the IAF just before the end of last year. The first generation of officers, technicians and operator-troopers was trained using state-of-the-art simulators and with Rafael's assistance. On April 2, 2017, the system was declared to be operational at a festive ceremony held at an IAF base.

The basic concept of the David's Sling system is being integrated as one of the elements of the national multiple-tier missile defense layout. The elements making up this layout are the still nonexistent mortar bomb defense system, the Iron Dome system, the David's Sling system and the various models of the Arrow missile. The operational integration of all of these elements should effectively protect the State of Israel against any threat, near or far, from mortar bombs to ballistic missiles. The Iron Dome system will remain the backbone of this national defense layout in terms of coverage and ranges. The tier above the one handled by the Iron Dome system will be handled by the David's Sling system which would deal with maneuvering targets, high-precision cruise missiles and in the future – the Russian-made Yakhont missiles as well as fighter aircraft. The uppermost tier is addressed by the Arrow missiles – intended to handle the long-range ballistic missile threats.

The "Homa" administration at the Israel Ministry of Defense (IMOD) was in charge of specifying the operational requirements for the system. During the initial stage of the competition, Rafael was awarded the development of the launching system, and subsequently they were awarded the development of the entire system. The development effort had started at Rafael's Missile Division, located in the Segev area of the Upper Galilee. The project started with two engineers, but over the years Project David's Sling had a workforce of some 2,000 employees in Israel and overseas.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Pini Yungman, Director of the David's Sling program and formerly a senior commander with the IDF anti-aircraft and air-defense forces: "It was determined that Rafael would serve as the design authority for the system and as the owner of the system's intellectual property. All of our work had been based on prior knowledge. We relied primarily on knowledge Rafael had gained in the development of air-to-air missiles. The client had presented basic requirements relating to various threats, but from the very first stages we decided to look further ahead, to future threats that might emerge within the atmospheric medium, from surface-to-surface missiles to sizable missiles expected to arrive from the top layers of the atmosphere. This was the policy we had set for ourselves for the development of David's Sling – adhere to the requirements of the client, the Homa administration, but at the same time refer to future capabilities.

"I was working with two engineers and drawing on the technological and military background gained in the positions I had served in and the subjects I had dealt with in the IDF. We started drafting the development processes and said to ourselves: the enemy launches a ballistic missile. We must detect it as soon as possible and at the greatest possible distance and we must determine whether it is actually a threat and where it is heading. Conclusion: we need sensors for the purpose of classifying the threats. We further asked ourselves: what do we want the interceptor to do? The answer was – we want it to intercept all of the various types of threats – and there are many of those. We want the interceptor to be fired by the system in time and follow a correct trajectory to the interception point, and to be able to deal with the entire range of threats. Accordingly, the interceptor had to possess speed and maneuverability. Finally, the primary and most basic demand was that the interceptor should be able to acquire the target and destroy it. It was clear to us that the system's Radar, as well as the sensors, must be agile and fast and that the system should be able to cope with multiple targets simultaneously.

Israeli-American Cooperation

"We specified the system architecture and its elements: sensors, a communication layout, a launching layout, command and control and – naturally – the interceptor. By 2006 we were already able to establish the development organization and specify the various projects and the needs regarding personnel, laboratories, subcontractors and contracts in Israel and overseas. The project consisted of groups – a servo group, a motor group and other groups. Management was strict and tight with the responsibility for it shared by the Homa administration, IMOD's DDR&D and the Americans – the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Raytheon USA were our partners from the outset, and to this day they are responsible for the manufacture of parts of the interceptor, the launcher and the missile canisters."

The project engineers at Rafael have high praise for their cooperation with the Americans: "They served as an effective control element, conducted progress surveys, strictly observed our activities and we had to adapt to working according to American methods. It was a cooperative effort possessing work and management culture characteristics that are different from what we have in Israel. We had to work in two languages, comply with strict US standards, and everything required close cooperation and maximum precision – typical characteristics called for in the development of complex defense weapon and air/space systems."

David's Sling is a worldwide project. In Israel, Rafael is the project leader along with 25 other industries. Overseas, the project leader is US giant Raytheon. In Israel, IAI/ELTA developed the Radar for the David's Sling system, Elisra/Elbit Systems developed the command and control systems and many other industries participated in the project. In the years 2009-2010, laboratories were built for each component and subsystem, along with bunkers and production lines, rooms for hot and cold integration and clean rooms, and specialized testing equipment was developed for the various David's Sling assemblies.

An official document issued by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems describes the David's Sling system as an effective defense solution against long-range artillery rockets (LRAR), short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), cruise missiles (CM) and traditional air defense threats, a system that provides protection for the homeland as well as for forward deployed forces. The system consists of a battle management center, an Interceptor array, a multi-mission Radar for detecting and tracking and weapon control systems (WCS). The architecture of David's Sling is modular and enables integration with other defense system, thereby providing a comprehensive, extended protective envelope. The interceptor system includes four missile firing units, with 12 Stunner interceptors in each unit.

Exclusive Israeli Technology

The interceptor is the heart of the system and the element that destroys the threat – the enemy target. Project leader Pini Yungman: "I would not be exaggerating at all if I said that this interceptor incorporates some unique technologies that are not available anywhere else in the world, as well as the latest assemblies. The Stunner interceptor is regarded as a two-stage, tri-pulse (a three-pulse motor) interceptor and it possesses extremely high maneuverability. The interceptor incorporates a dual (electro-optical and electromagnetic) seeker head. It possesses capabilities that are superior several times over to those of its US competitor, the latest PAC-3 Patriot interceptor."

The people at Rafael also stress the fact that the seeker head of the Stunner interceptor detects and tracks threats under all weather conditions and hits the target very accurately using the aimpoint selection method to actually 'kill' the target. The interceptor actually hits the target to achieve a lethal hard-kill effect. The cost of each interceptor is estimated at about one million US Dollars, and according to the project team at Rafael, it is a reasonable cost compared to the alternatives and considering the performance it offers.

The David's Sling system has undergone an extensive series of five trials before it was declared operational. In November 2012, Stage A of the development process was completed and an interception test was conducted. In November 2013, a second successful trial was conducted in the context of which the Radar, battle management center, interceptor and launcher were tested. In March 2015 – a third full trial of the system was conducted and a 'typical threat' was successfully intercepted. In December 2015, a fourth comprehensive system trial was conducted and delivery to the IAF was initiated. On January 25, 2015, the fifth, final and conclusive trial of the David's Sling system was conducted.

Operational Deployment

The final trial, conducted at the Plamachim airbase, was attended by the Director of the US Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral James D. Syring, who stated: "We are determined to fulfill our commitment to support the development of Israel's missile defense system." IMOD's DDR&D and the Homa administration reported that during the trial, threat-simulating targets had been launched and were successfully intercepted by the interceptor. The multi-mission Radar (MMR) system by IAI/ELTA identified the threat immediately following the launch and conveyed the information to the battle management center (BMC) by Elisra/Elbit Systems. The interceptors were launched according to the plan, executed all of their flight stages and intercepted the target as planned. The David's Sling system reflects a joint Israeli-American project involving the development of a defense system against short-range ballistic missiles and large-caliber rockets, stated the conclusion of the final trial before the operational deployment. In this fifth and final trial, the Stunner interceptor of the David's Sling system was launched against a Rafael Sparrow missile – a target-simulating missile.

The David's Sling system may be operated fully autonomously or semi-autonomously. How does that work? The system 'knows', through the Radar, that a threat is approaching. It produces an interception plan according to the threats and 'informs' the operators of the details of that interception plan. The operator can stop the launching and interception process or allow the system to operate autonomously until the threat has been eliminated. Target acquisition is accomplished dozens of kilometers before the actual impact. The operator's role is to supervise the activity and ensure there are no safety issues, but the human operator does not interfere with the system's computation plan. It should be noted that all of these processes are executed within extremely short periods of time, measurable by microseconds (1 microsecond = one millionth of a second).

The deployment of the David's Sling layout is radically different from that of the Iron Dome system. You will not find David's Sling batteries deployed close to the major cities, as Israeli civilians were able to encounter Iron Dome batteries close to their settlements in the past. The David's Sling layout has a single, nation-wide command and control center, located somewhere in the central region of Israel. Numerous sensors are deployed at different sites around the country, along with – naturally – the communication system. In this case, deployment is centralized but planned very precisely according to reference scenarios. The system is not dependent on any particular geographic region. It is not regional, but rather nation-wide. The effectiveness and range of the interceptors are so substantial that the physical location of the launchers becomes insignificant and there is no need to relocate interceptor batteries from one deployment site to another, from the northern region to the southern region and vice versa. The layout provides a comprehensive solution – a complete protective envelope for the entire country.

Tal Inbar, Head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies: "We should take into account future threats in the shape of high-precision missiles. The lower threat tier – mortar bombs – has not been provided with an effective solution yet. Efforts are currently under way toward that end. The Iron Dome system proved itself as a highly effective system. The primary function of the David's Sling system is to intercept high-precision enemy missiles, like the Fateh-110 missile and its derivatives. In the future, the Yakhont missile may emerge as a threat. The David's Sling system is highly advanced and provides an effective solution for a wide range of cruise missiles and long-range aircraft. It provides an effective solution and coverage for an expansive area. The David's Sling system was designed to handle maneuvering targets and high-precision cruise missiles." Inbar believes the current price of the interceptor (about one million US Dollars) is very steep and that efforts should be made to reduce its cost. He considers the cooperative alliance with Raytheon as a major advantage: "The development and production cooperation between Israeli defense industries and an American giant like Raytheon is of strategic importance, as is the fact that Israel has joined the air defense program of the USA."

The IAF troopers who currently operate the David's Sling layout were trained over a period of eighteen months. Their training included the use of simulators, through which they can learn, practice and drill all of the interception procedures. The battalion is already operational and the battalion commander is Lt. Col. Kobi Regev. The operational system is deployed at an IAF base in central Israel and the battalion's troopers are deployed at various sites. Battalion Commander Regev told us that all of his troopers came to the unit after having gained operational experience and background and that they all share a healthy dose of esprit de corps. The operators of David's Sling are "mission ready."