The air-defense layout of the IDF is currently at the peak of a large-scale organizational restructuring process. The essence of this process: adapting the structure of the air-defense layout and its operational concept to the range of threats currently facing the State of Israel. This range of threats now includes munitions that are larger, more accurate and fly through higher altitudes than ever before, and might arrive from various directions. The range of threats includes ballistic and non-ballistic munitions, missiles of various types, cruise missiles, various types of unmanned platforms and even small drones.
The IDF/IAF solution is well-known. It is the essence of the multiple-tier theater defense concept, whose primary elements cover the entire airspace above the Israeli territory – the Iron Dome system, the David's Sling system, the Arrow-II and Arrow-III systems and in the future – the Arrow-IV system as well. The integration and coordinated operational cooperation between these layouts should provide the solution – effective protection for the national airspace and territory from north to south, detection, interception and elimination of any munition making its way from the direction of enemy territory toward Israeli territory and attempting to penetrate the protective envelope. That is the mission.
Two elements of this protective envelope are well established and some of them – the Arrow missiles and Iron Dome batteries – have already gained operational experience. The third element is new, fresh, almost "out of the box" – the David's Sling system, previously designated Magic Wand, declared operational on April 2 of this year in a ceremony attended by the national leaders and top military command.
Not only new but renewing as well: even at this early stage, a new and updated block of David's Sling launchers and interceptors is being introduced, having been updated according to the current intelligence regarding new enemy threats/munitions. Every new block of interceptors will upgrade the system.
Israel Defense headed south to the IAF airbase where, among the underground pens housing the fighter aircraft, the base of the 66th David's Sling Battalion is located. In the distant past, this battalion had operated Vulcan anti-aircraft guns, and today it operates Israel's newest air-defense system – David's Sling, the name being a reminder of the stone little David had shot right into the forehead of the Philistine giant Goliath.
A Protective Envelope as Wide as the State
Anyone who visited the Arrow and Iron Dome missile batteries is familiar with the picture: the missile batteries (launchers and interceptors) and the command and control trailer are all deployed within a relatively small area cell. With the David's Sling system, the picture is different: the battalion HQ operates from this airbase: they have a battalion commander and deputy battalion commander and other staff officers; there are administrative, maintenance, logistics and human resources elements, but the launchers and most of their operators are not to be found at the battalion's base. They are deployed throughout the country with their operators, as David's Sling is a nation-wide, centrally-operated system rather than a local system. A collection of Radars and sensors, deployed throughout the country, provide alerts of incoming threats and initiate the interception sequence. The interceptors are deployed nation-wide, in the north, center and south.
The David's Sling system is intended to protect the entire country. While the protective envelopes of the Iron Dome and Yahalom (Patriot) systems are focused and localized, the protective envelope of the David's Sling system is as wide and as long as the State of Israel. Air-defense operations are controlled from the same southern base that is the home of the Interception Management Center (IMC), where the threats are assessed, where the detection and interception processes are managed and where the operator who presses the launch button is located.
The official definition of the David's Sling system is "a defense system against long-range artillery rockets (LRAR), short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), cruise missiles (CM) and traditional air defense threats." The system consists of a Battle Management Center (BMC), the Stunner interceptor, a Multi-Mission Radar (MMR) system and a command and control system. The basic configuration includes four missile units with 12 Stunner interceptors each. The interceptor is defined as a two-stage, three-pulse missile. It has an electro-optical, electromagnetic seeker head that hits the target using the aim point or pin-point impact method, namely – iron-on-iron contact with the actual target producing a hard-kill effect.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Kobi Regev, had risen through the ranks of the air-defense layout (he served as the commander of a Yahalom/Patriot battalion during Operation Protective Edge). He considers it a privilege to command and manage an entirely new weapon system. In addition to commanding the David's Sling Battalion, the unit has a highly relevant military/civil secondary mission: they are responsible for the management of MENATEV – the control room that coordinates the operational picture of ballistic threats launched in the direction of the State of Israel.
MENATEV cooperates with the IDF Home Front Command, which disseminates relevant alerts in the form of the well-known "Color Red" alarm and other forms of alarm to all of the country's citizens, and also operates the alarm sirens in an emergency. The operators of MENATEV say that today they can provide an appropriate alarm to the public. Even if a threat managed to penetrate the defensive layout, if the individual civilians were attentive and listened to the alarm and responded properly once the "Color Red" alarm had been sounded – in all probability, they would not be harmed.
Regev explains the deployment and operational concept of the David's Sling system, which is different from those of other air-defense systems: "The interceptor battery and the Radar are not deployed close to the area or city being protected, as the protective envelope of the David's Sling system is nation-wide. We do not have to deploy close to an area that needs to be protected. Obviously, we will not position our Radar opposite a mountain or emitting antennae, but at a site that would provide us with good surveillance coverage of the enemy's territory.
"The battery commander is normally an officer at the rank of Major, and his command group includes surveillance and interception, logistics and maintenance specialists. The number of launchers and interceptors depends on the situation appraisal and on the mission at hand. If we need more firepower, according to the targets, we will deploy additional launchers and interceptors. The operational concept is based on the integrated operation of the David's Sling, Iron Dome and Arrow systems. These layouts overlap to some degree and each one of them has the ability to integrate with the other layouts, as the right thing to do is to provide a solution for any threat, while utilizing the relative advantage of each layout.
"The relative advantage of the David's Sling system is the ability to cope with high-precision, long-range munitions carrying large, advanced warheads. The David's Sling system is intended to deal with threats within the intermediate layer, with the Iron Dome system dealing with threats below this layer and the Arrow system dealing with threats above this layer. The David's Sling system will provide an effective solution for the most complex threats.
"The air-defense operational doctrine clearly separates between the different layouts – which should do what, as one must bear in mind the fact that an air-defense battle only lasts seconds – not even minutes. We are facing munitions designed to penetrate our airspace at tremendous speeds and in large numbers. Consequently the detection, situation appraisal and interception decision-making processes must be completed in seconds. Accordingly, the systems and their operators maintain a 24/7 alert state and the speed of response is perfected through countless drills. Sometimes, when an enemy munition is flying through the airspace, you realize that there is something up there that must be dealt with very promptly."
Shaping a New Reality
The David's Sling system was designed for automatic or semi-automatic operation, but the emphasis is on the central role played by the human element in the loop. The preference (and aspiration) is always for a human operator to actually engage the target. When a target has been detected and the decision to engage has been made, the Stunner interceptor will be launched. According to the battalion commander, the Stunner missile "…is an amazing product, the crown jewel of interceptors, rigid, designed to engage and destroy high-speed, high-flying, high-precision targets. It is aimed precisely at the point of impact and produces a kill."
The David's Sling system constitutes a technological breakthrough that generates a lot of interest worldwide, and in the past it was reported that Poland wishes to establish its own air-defense system based on the Patriot batteries already deployed in Poland, fitted with Stunner interceptors – the interceptor of the David's Sling system. The system was developed and manufactured through a cooperative alliance of several Israeli and US defense industries: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems developed the Stunner interceptor, IAI/ELTA developed the Multi-Mission Radar (MMR), Elbit/Elisra developed the Battle Management Center (BMC) and US giant Raytheon developed the launcher, parts of the interceptor and the missile canisters.
The development of the David's Sling system by Rafael was initiated in response to an order issued by IMOD's MAFAT Administration (which had originally ordered the Magic Wand system) and as a response to an SOR (Specific Operational Requirement) by IMOD's Homa Administration.
The director of the David's Sling program, Brig. Gen. (res.) Pini Youngman, told Israel Defense: "We learned from Rafael's experience in the development of air-to-air missiles. We looked at the future threats, from surface-to-surface missiles to missiles arriving from the top of the atmosphere, and our basic assumption was as follows: the enemy launches a ballistic missile in our direction, and we must detect it at the earliest possible stage and while it is as far away as possible. They wanted the interceptor to be able to handle all of the various threat types, to acquire the target and destroy it."
Thousands of people were involved in the development process, which had been conceived at record speed, and the senior US partner Raytheon joined the project from the outset. Between 2012 and 2015, several trial launches were carried out by the David's Sling system. The last and conclusive trial launch, from the Palmahim airbase, was attended by Vice Admiral James D. Syring, the Director of the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
Today, with the David's Sling system already operational and its batteries already deployed throughout the country, the battalion conducts itself as any other air-defense battalion, fitting well into the southern IAF airbase as part of the defensive envelope provided by the David's Sling system to the fighter squadrons deployed at that airbase. The battalion's warfighters receive their basic training at the Air Defense Training School in the south, where everyone, from the youngest operator to the battalion commander, studies and trains. The establishment nucleus of the battalion had been assembled from representatives of different "air-defense content worlds", namely – individuals from the Iron Dome, Yahalom (Patriot) and Arrow layouts. This establishment nucleus received specialized training from the defense industries that developed the various systems. The specialists of the technical and maintenance flight had been trained at the IAF Technical School.
As per the standard procedure used by many layouts in the IDF and the IAF, a substantial part of the training and practice activities is carried out on simulators. The David's Sling system has a unique simulator manufactured by Elbit Systems, which simulates all of the stages and aspects of the detection and interception process as well as the cooperation with other air-defense layouts. Simulator training and practice are essential to the operators and for this reason they are provided fairly frequently, as there are no practice launchers and interceptors.
The promotion course for a potential David's Sling officer consists of the following stages: basic training, air-defense warfighter course (training for any one of the systems), service term as operator with the David's Sling Battalion, IDF officer training course and specialized IAF officer training. The David's Sling command and control trailer is manned by warfighters and an officer, but the operator is the one responsible for pressing the interceptor launch button – not the officer.
The David's Sling Battalion still regards itself as a battalion undergoing an assimilation and organization period. The men and women of the Battalion are shaping a new reality, establishing the infrastructures and outlining the corporate culture for the battalion entrusted with a brand-new weapon system. "We are etching the DNA of the organization," says one of the Battalion's officers, "And it is a primeval experience involving a lot of determination."
Battalion Commander Kobi Regev added that "the number of launchers and interceptors always depends on the threat status picture. The David's Sling system is deployed nation-wide with massive, costly launchers, and we will always match the weaponry to the threat. We will not use a Stunner interceptor to intercept a target that the Iron Dome system can intercept successfully. We will launch our interceptor at a target carrying a large, high-precision warhead."
The people of the air-defense layout stress that today's ballistic threat consists of long-range, high-precision missiles in increasing numbers. "The steep trajectory world is the future as far as the enemy is concerned, that is what we are preparing for and that is what our operational concept is based on. As stated, our operational concept is integrative, consisting of several layouts of which the David's Sling system is just one. Admittedly, the Israeli Air Force is regarded as a world leader in the field of defending a territory against ballistic threats (e.g. Iron Dome) and we have at our disposal groundbreaking technologies (e.g. David's Sling), but there is no denying it – no air-defense system is hermetic, and things are bound to drop on us. The required achievement, as far as we are concerned, is to minimize the number of such things dropping on us."