In recent days, it has been reported that an errant Stunner missile, the interceptor component of Israel's David Sling medium-range air defense system, fell into Syrian territory in a fairly intact manner. Supposedly the Assad regime was able to recover it and transferred the advanced weapon to Moscow for examination and technological exploitation. Stunner represents cutting-edge missile technology that is in some ways more advanced than any other system on the planet. The idea that Russia could gain very valuable insights into its technology is especially troubling as surface-to-air missile systems have extremely high strategic importance for Russia and are one of the country's most successful arms exports to both allies and enemies alike.
Nearly a year and a half ago, the Jerusalem Post reported that two Stunners were fired at an OTR-21 Tochka (NATO reporting name SS-21 Scarab) short-range ballistic missile that rose out of western Syria for fear that it might fall into Israeli territory near the Sea of Galilee. The Russian-made ballistic missiles were fired by the Syrian Army against rebel positions in the area. After the Stunners were already launched, it became clear that the ballistic missile was not a threat to Israel so the David Sling operators ordered the missiles to self-destruct. One did just that, but the other failed to do so, careening into Syrian territory. This was the first operational use of the David Sling air defense system and until recently, there was no word about what came of the errant missile. Now a report from China's SINA News (via Haaretz and Asia Times and other outlets) claims it was recovered relatively intact by Syrian forces and transferred into Russian hands.
The most unique aspect of Stunner—which was co-developed by American missile maker Raytheon and Israel's Rafael—is its use of dual-mode terminal homing. Its canted "dolphin" nose houses both imaging infrared and active electronically scanned array millimeter-wave radar seekers. This makes the weapon far more challenging to decoy or jam and more reliable overall in intercepting whatever its target may be, from short-range ballistic missiles to stealth cruise missiles. Beyond its cutting-edge dual-mode seeker, the missile is packed with advanced and highly miniaturized systems, including a data link that is fully networked with its David Sling battery and other offboard sensor systems and platforms. The missile is also super maneuverable with an advanced propulsion system and uses a hit-to-kill concept of operations, meaning it does not carry a traditional warhead. It slams into its target instead. This allows the missile to be far lighter, more compact, and more maneuverable than its traditional high-explosive packing counterparts.
Overall, Stunner is part of the middle tier in Israel's three-tier integrated air defense system that is widely regarded as the most advanced in the world. You can read all about Stunner and its potential air-to-air adaptation in this past article of ours. Suffice it to say, the Russians would love to get their hands on its technology, even in a damaged form, and it would be a perfect offering for embattled dictator Bashar al Assad to extend to his overlords in Moscow.
So far, the Israeli Defense Forces have not been willing to comment on the report. Even if it ends up being inaccurate, it is a good reminder of the real risks that go into using any advanced weapon system that is loaded with highly sensitive, proprietary technology on the modern battlefield. Dumping a stealth drone intact into Iran's hands or a stealth Black Hawk's tail into Pakistani hands was may be the most glaring illustrations of this, but just in 2017, an AIM-9X Sidewinder was fired over Syria by a US Navy Super Hornet and fell away from the aircraft as a dud. That missile ended up somewhere. As far as we know, its location was never identified by US forces or its allies, but it would have been potentially a huge technological coup if Russia were able to get their hands on it or even parts of it, just like the Stunner.
This issue isn't new, foreign materiel exploitation programs that are fed via espionage were staples of the Cold War. But it will only become more magnified as the years go by and evermore complex and "exquisite" aircraft and munitions that are literally made up of and packed full of highly-guarded technology proliferate around the globe. The F-35 enterprise is probably the most obvious risk when it comes to the potential sudden loss of massive amounts of sensitive technology in the years to come. The looming migration from manned mechanized warfare to unmanned mechanized warfare also has unique concerns in this regard.
We will keep you up to date if we hear anything more about the missing Stunner. I wouldn't be too surprised if the Russians eventually return it to Israel as they and the U.S. supposedly demanded some time ago. But by then the damage would have been done.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com