A remarkable series of photos have emerged showing the final moments as an Israeli air defense missile destroys a rocket launched by a militant organization. Although the particular air defense system that fired the interceptor missile is unconfirmed, Rafael, the manufacturer of the David’s Sling medium-range system used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), just announced the first operational interception using this weapon, reportedly also against a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip.
Attributed to Israeli photojournalist Gilad Kfir, the photos in question show, at first, the interceptor missile, its motor blazing, heading directly toward the targeted rocket, on a clear collision course. It’s been claimed that the projectile being intercepted is a Badr-3 unguided rocket, a weapon used by the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second largest Islamist militant group in the Gaza Strip, after Hamas. While this cannot be confirmed, the weapon in the first photo certainly fits its appearance.
There have been suggestions that the Badr-3 was designed in Iran specifically for use by its proxies across the Middle East, and it’s simple enough for them to produce it locally. Very similar to the Al-Qassim rocket, also of Iranian design, the Badr-3 is thought to carry a warhead weighing between 660 and 880 pounds, providing considerably more destructive power than most Palestinian rockets, but this will come with a commensurate reduction in range.
The subsequent photos show the fireball left after the interceptor missile meets its target, with devastating effect.
Some accounts suggest that the interceptor missile was fired from one of the IDF’s Iron Dome air defense systems, which use the Tamir missile, and which was originally designed to intercept incoming rockets and other artillery rounds. The Iron Dome has already been proven in combat on thousands of occasions. However, it primarily employs a proximity fuze, which causes its kinetic warhead to detonate in the vicinity of the target, but it can also hit the target directly due to its very high degree of accuracy. You can read more about Tamir and its capabilities here.
On the other hand, the missile fired by the David’s Sling system only uses a hit-to-kill concept — it relies on the interceptor slamming into the target to destroy it. That type of engagement is a better fit for what we see in the photos, but both missiles are capable of that intercept profile.
The missile used in the David’s Sling system — which is known as the Stunner — is around 15 feet long as a complete round, i.e. with both the first and second stages. In this view, the booster-like first stage would have already fallen away, leaving the interceptor second stage to do its destructive work. As it is, the general similarities in appearance between the Tamir and the Stunner missiles again rule out a definitive identification.
While the missile fired by David’s Sling features an unusual ‘dolphin’-shaped nose profile to house its dual-mode seeker assembly, the low resolution of the first photo means this point of identification is also not immediately obvious.
Whether coincidence or not, only hours before the photos of the rocket interception appeared on social media, Israeli defense company Rafael posted a tweet declaring that the David’s Sling system was “Officially Combat Proven.” The statement continued: “In the last 24 hours the IDF carried out its first operational interception using Rafael’s David’s Sling system over the skies of central Israel against a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip.”
That would certainly fit the timeframe of the rocket interception photos, although it’s also still possible that they show an Iron Dome. At this point, it’s simply not possible to say with any authority if they do show the first use of the David’s Sling system, but the timing of their appearance is certainly notable.
As for David’s Sling, this system became operational with the IDF as long ago as 2017, although — officially at least — it hadn’t been used in an operational intercept until this week. It isn’t clear if past unsuccessful attempts at intercepts occurred or are factored into this claim. As well as larger artillery rockets, David’s Sling is intended to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles. Earlier this year, David’s Sling won its first export order, from newly minted NATO member Finland, a deal you can read more about here.
As such, it comprises the mid-to-upper tier of Israel’s layered air defense system, fitting in between the Iron Dome and the upper-tier Arrow ballistic missile defense system, with the Patriot system sitting somewhere in between.
Each David’s Sling system includes a vertical launcher containing up to 12 interceptor missiles.
The interceptor missile’s aforementioned unusual canted ‘dolphin’ nose contains imaging infrared and active radar seekers. Using a dual-mode seeker system means that the missile is much more resistant to hostile jamming or decoys as well as making it better suited to tackling a wider range of targets, with different signatures and flight profiles, ranging from SRBMs to stealthy cruise missiles.
Additional reliability is conferred by an onboard datalink, which can feed the missile with targeting data from third-party sensors, with the main source of information being the Elta ELM-2084 3D active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
Its two-stage propulsion system also offers some significant advantages. Above all, higher levels of energy and maneuverability ensure that the hit-to-kill second stage finds its target, even if that is maneuvering at speed. Not having to pack that second stage and an explosive warhead and fuze assembly also means that overall weight is reduced, again helping with speed and agility, as well as overall range. The range of the missile is reportedly between 150 and nearly 200 miles, although most engagements are likely to take place at much shorter distances, especially if they involve unguided rockets, as seen here.
The Stunner missile, without its booster, has also been tested as an air-launched weapon.
As to why the IDF used David’s Sling to engage a rocket (whether it’s the one seen in the interception photos or not) is less clear. However, while the IDF’s Iron Dome is optimized for engaging rockets of this kind, as well as smaller projectiles, like artillery rounds, that system has a relatively limited range of a few dozen miles or less — with most engagements occurring at far shorter distances. With that in mind, it’s possible that David’s Sling could have been the best option to swat down this particularly larger rocket before it got over a populated area, or perhaps it was assigned to target a rocket headed to an area otherwise not as well covered by Iron Dome.
There is also the question of the costs involved when using David’s Sling for a target of this kind. Each missile fired by the system costs an estimated $1 million, far in excess of the cost of building an unguided rocket. On the other hand, Israel has consistently sought to field a highly capable and multi-layered air defense system that’s effective against all kinds of threats. After all, investing in reliable air defenses is always going to be an expensive endeavor, but one that is driven by the simple requirement to protect lives and infrastructure at all costs. Even with the far less costly Tamir, with a price tag of between $40,000 and $100,000, there is a huge gulf between it and the basic rockets and mortar bombs it very frequently intercepts. This is an issue we have explored in the past, too.
The volume of rockets being launched against Israel has also stepped up considerably in recent days, with Israel and Gaza militants locked in a new round of fighting that has left dozens killed, most of them Palestinian.
The latest violence broke out on Tuesday when Israel killed three leading members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, the first of a series of strikes intended to take out some of its leading figures.
Islamic Jihad said that its latest barrage of rockets was a “response to the assassinations and the continued aggression against the Palestinian people.”
According to its own account, the IDF has hit 170 Islamic Jihad targets this week, while more than 860 rockets have been fired from Gaza.
With the possibility of a peace deal negotiated by Egypt having apparently evaporated, there’s no obvious end in sight for the current fighting. That means it’s highly possible that David’s Sling could be called into action again.
For the time being, it’s not clear whether the dramatic photos that appeared in the last 24 hours really do show the combat debut of David’s Sling or the well-established Iron Dome. However, the announcement from Rafael does at least demonstrate how Israel is continuing to expand its multi-layered capabilities to defeat a range of threats, from the highest-technology weapons all the way down to the fairly primitive unguided rockets that are currently the focus of its energies in the battle with militants in Gaza.
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