At the end of October, an Israeli Arrow 3 long range air defense missile made its first intercept of a hostile target. A Green Pine over-the-horizon Israeli radar detected a ballistic missile launch somewhere along the Red Sea coast and headed for Israel. An Arrow 3 missile intercepted the threat in space, which was the first ever intercept of a hostile missile in space.
Even before that Arrow 3 had attracted attention from potential export customers. One of these was a European coalition consisting of Germany, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Latvia and the Netherlands. This coalition was formed to jointly select and purchase enough air defense systems to protect them all against missile attacks from Russia. These nations are only part of the coalition. Another nine nations in eastern Europe are making similar joint purchasing plans. The most likely purchases will be of systems like the American Patriot, the European IRIS-T, the Norwegian NASAMS and the Israeli Arrow 3 ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) system for use against longer range, and thus faster ballistic missiles. Iran has these and is now threatening to use them against Europe. Israel has been subject to that threat for over a decade and developed the Arrow system to deal with it.
The war in Ukraine has caused several major NATO nations to increase their defense spending and change their weapons purchasing plans. Germany is considering purchasing the Israeli Arrow 3 to defend against Russian ballistic missile attacks. Arrow 3 is comparable to the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system. The U.S. financed the research on Arrow 3 and U.S. firms built nearly half the Arrow system components.
Arrow 3 is a two-stage high-speed interceptor able to hit long-range ballistic missiles. Arrow 3 entered service in 2017, complementing and eventually replacing Arrow 2, which entered service in 2009. The original Arrow 1 entered service in 2000 and was then the world’s most advanced ABM system. Arrow 1 and 2 have been successfully used in combat while Arrow 3 has been successful in realistic tests against incoming ballistic missile warheads.
Each generation of Arrow used a smaller but more capable interceptor missile and increased system capabilities. That was one reason for the United States long prohibiting Israel from exporting Arrow. That ban was recently lifted, which led to an Azerbaijan order and Germany seriously considering a similar purchase. Azerbaijan, which borders Russia and Iran and is a major customer for Israeli weapons, ordered two batteries of Arrow 3 in 2021 to protect itself from Iranian ballistic missiles.
Germany and Israel have long been purchasing each other’s weapons and cooperating in weapons development. For example, in 2011 Germany agreed to lend Israel a Patriot anti-aircraft system radar so that the radars in Israel's six Patriot batteries could be sent back to the United States for upgrades. At the same time Israel was developing its own Magic Wand (now David's Sling) air and missile defense system as a replacement for Patriot. The David's Sling missiles have a longer range (300 kilometers) and better capabilities. The American manufacturer of Patriot cooperated with an Israeli firm to develop and produce David’s Sling, which entered service in 2017, David's Sling depends on longer range radars to get target location and speed information to the David's Sling launchers. Once launched, the Stunner missile fired by David’s Sling is guided to the general location of the incoming rocket, until the Stunner's on-board sensors pick it up, and then home in and destroy the long-range rocket.
Arrow was always meant to be a more capable ABM system than Patriot or American systems like THAAD and Aegis. This has helped American air-defense system manufacturers by providing a source of useful Israeli patents to use for American systems. Germany is a customer for German Spike ATGM (Anti-Tank-Guided-Missiles) and both nations sell each other weapons tech. Last year Israel joined a U.S. sponsored regional air defense network called MEAD (Middle East Air Defense Alliance). Israel is a vital component of MEAD, which includes other Middle East nations, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have purchased American air and missile defense systems like Patriot and THAAD. MEAD makes sense with Israeli participation because Israel not only purchased Patriot, but also developed a similar but superior system called David’s Sling as well as the unique Arrow anti-ballistic missile system.
Israel also developed and uses Iron Dome against rocket and mortar attacks as well as new systems that can detect and destroy low and slow cruise missiles which Iran has successfully used to evade Saudi air defenses and attack oil infrastructure targets. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been regularly attacked by Iranian ballistic missiles and cruise missiles launched by Iran-backed Shia rebels in northern Yemen. This need for Israeli air defense systems played a role in the 2020 American sponsored effort to secure diplomatic recognition of Israel by Arab states in the Middle East and led to Israel exporting some air defense systems to the UAE for protecting commercial aircraft from Iranian missile attacks.
After that diplomatic breakthrough, MEAD became a real possibility at the end of 2020 after Israel conducted two weeks of anti-aircraft system tests in the eastern Mediterranean against targets simulating multiple missile and rocket threats. To handle this kind of multiple threat attack Israel ran successful tests demonstrating three different air-defense systems communicating with each other using a centralized target detection and fire control network to take down multiples of different types of targets. This new fire-control network enabled each air-defense system to successfully attack the specific targets it was most capable of destroying. This test also showed that Iron Dome was capable of destroying an incoming cruise missile. Other incoming weapons included unguided rockets, a simulated ballistic missile and UAVs. The test was mainly about proving that a new integrated sensor and fire control system worked. The integrated system provided a single 3-D picture of the battlefield by combining data from the American Missile Defense Satellite early warning system plus the local radar systems used by Iron Dome, C-Dome (Iron Dome mounted on Israeli corvettes and offshore natural gas extraction platforms), David’s Sling (formerly Magic Wand), and Arrow 3, the Israel based ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) system. Such an integrated system was needed to protect Israel from a massive Iranian attack using rockets, explosives-laden UAVs and cruise missiles launched from Lebanon and Gaza as well as IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) launched from Iran and shorter-range ballistic missiles launched from Syria or (illegally) Iraq.
The IRBM interception capabilities of Arrow had already been tested in 2017 and David’s Sling had been used against incoming missiles from Syria in 2018. Iron Dome has intercepted nearly 3,000 rockets, mortar shells and UAVs since 2011 and demonstrated its ability to deal with cruise missiles during tests. Detecting and taking down cruise missiles is a new capability for Iron Dome and C-Dome. This new capability was seen as essential for Iron Dome because these can come from any direction and be used in large numbers in a single attack. Iron Dome is designed to deal with such mass attacks by rockets and, using the new integrated command and control system, it was found that the target data could quickly and successfully be used from other radar systems.
In early 2017 Israel successfully completed a final round of tests for its David’s Sling anti-aircraft/missile system and began deploying it in late 2017. At the same time the new Arrow 3 completed its final tests and was cleared for mass production as the version of Arrow that can intercept the longer-range Iranian IRBMs.
Iron Dome has a unique feature in which the radar system computes where the incoming rocket will land. If the rocket will not hit an inhabited area, it will be ignored. Otherwise, one or two interceptor missiles will be fired. David’s Sling adopted some of that technology for its anti-missile mode. The David’s Sling Stunner missile can be used against larger rockets that will be aimed (by Syria, Hamas or Hezbollah) at large urban areas, and these will almost always get a Stunner fired at them.
David’s Sling is expected to eventually replace Israel’s old 17 Hawk anti-aircraft batteries as well and, eventually, the six Patriot batteries. David’s Sling is very similar to Patriot and one option is to offer David’s Sling components as upgrades for existing Patriot equipment. Stunner is already available as a Patriot upgrade because Stunner has a max range of 300 kilometers, which is longer than Patriot. Many of the David’s Sling technologies were developed jointly by American and Israeli firms with Patriot upgrades in mind. The Stunner missile's long range allows two David’s Sling batteries to cover all of Israel. A David’s Sling battalion would have three batteries each with six truck mounted launchers (each with four missiles), a radar vehicle and control vehicle.
Arrow 3 was earlier tested in the Eastern Mediterranean against Israeli ballistic missile warheads launched from high-flying jets. In 2019 Arrow was also tested from the American PSCA (Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska) in Kodiak, Alaska against three different ballistic missile targets. Israeli “Sparrow” ballistic missile targets are often used for testing the ABM capabilities of David’s Sling, Patriot and Arrow. These targets are missiles carried to a high altitude by an F-16, F-15 or a large transport aircraft. When launched, the missiles fly higher and then plunge earthward at a speed and trajectory nearly identical to that of a ballistic missile warhead. This provides an adequately similar target for testing anti-ballistic missile systems.
The 2020 tests completed a decades-long Israeli effort to provide an integrated air defense system that makes the most of their numerous innovative air defense weapons. MEAD needs a networked system and the only one that incorporates the latest Israeli and American air defense tech is what Israel successfully tested at the end of 2020. There followed a year of discussions and negotiations between the U.S., Israel and major Arab partners in the anti-Iran alliance. Arab members of MEAD were not announced initially because Saudi Arabia had to determine if Saudi public opinion would tolerate belonging to MEAD. The Saudis have been a leader in anti-Israel rhetoric since the 1950s and only in the last two decades, as the Iranian threat grew, did Saudi political and business leaders realize that they needed Israel as an ally, not an alien entity that must be removed from the Middle East. The Saudis are the guardians of the most holy of Moslem pilgrimage sites and Saudis are proud of that. Some Saudis are still unwilling to accept Israel as a valued neighbor and ally. So far, the Saudis have established informal but effective diplomatic, intelligence and military links with Israel. To use MEAD the Saudis would have to go public with their acceptance of Israel. That’s risky for the Saudi government but so is staying out of MEAD. It is even more risky in 2023 because of the aftereffects of the Hamas attack on Israel. For Israel and the Gulf Arab states the major threat still comes from Iran. Because of that Iran would like to see MEAD fail and Arrow 3 be kept as far away from Iran as possible.