The sling fizzled, but better to learn that lesson now

July 26, 2018 by Yoav Limor - JNS
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It is well-known that investigations launched by the ‎Israeli Air Force are like no others: They are swift, ‎thorough and leave no stone unturned…writes Yoav Limor/JNS.

Yoav Limor

Those ‎participating in them know that they must be completely ‎honest about their mistakes because it is the only ‎way for the IAF to learn and improve. After all, ‎human lives are at stake.‎

The IAF will undoubtedly do the same when it ‎investigates what went wrong with the operational debut of the David’s Sling air-defense systemon ‎Monday, when it fired two interceptors at errant ‎Syrian missiles. The missiles were launched as part ‎of the war between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ‎army and rebel forces in southwest Syria, but ‎threatened to breach Israeli airspace, prompting ‎David’s Sling into action.‎

It would take a systematic review to figure out what ‎went wrong, but even now it is clear that the ‎system, which was unable to hit its targets, ‎suffered a serious operational and technological ‎failure. ‎

To the credit of the team operating the David’s ‎Sling battery deployed near the Israel-Syria border, ‎the challenge they faced on Monday was highly ‎complicated.

The projectiles launched in Syria were Russian-made ‎OTR-21 Tochka missiles—tactical ballistic missiles ‎whose trajectory profile differs greatly from other ‎missiles. This may be why the IAF’s radars ‎identified them as a threat to Israeli, triggering ‎air-raid sirens in the country’s north and ‎subsequently, David’s Sling.‎

Photo by Hillel Maeir/TPS

The system’s designers will most likely review ‎whether it could be calibrated more accurately to ‎prevent false launches in the future, but that’s ‎the easy part. The hard part of this investigation ‎will delve into the operational decision-making process on ‎the ground, which led to the order to launch David’s ‎Sling interceptors for the very first time—only to ‎have them miss their targets. ‎

The problem here is not the waste of resources—‎each interceptor costs $1 million—but the ‎issue of their failure. Other than their ‎intrinsic role, air-defense systems are supposed to ‎generate deterrence; to make the enemy think twice ‎before launched an offensive they know is doomed to ‎fail.‎ One must remember that David’s Sling, which counters medium – to long-range ‎projectiles, was designed to fend off ‎Hezbollah’s extensive rockets and missiles arsenal. ‎

The upside to Monday’s incident is that no harm was ‎done on either side of the border. The Syrian ‎missiles did not breach Israeli airspace, and the ‎Israeli missiles landed in an open area on the ‎Syrian side of the border. ‎

The downside is that David’s Sling, which was ‎declared operational in April, is clearly not ready ‎to be deployed. It still has to undergo some ‎improvements before it can meet the challenge of ‎defending a sector brimming with volatile ballistic ‎threats.‎

The IAF’s investigation should also see whether the ‎Air Defense Command was perhaps too eager to employ ‎David’s Sling. Striving to engage the enemy is a ‎welcome trait, but it doesn’t come without risk. ‎

Luckily, Monday’s failure took no toll on the ‎ground, but it is doubtful that failure was what the ‎Air Defense Command ‎had in mind with respect to ‎‎the ‎system’s operational debut.

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

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