Israel on Sept. 3 conducted the first flight test of a new missile defense target designed to improve Israeli defenses against longer-range ballistic missiles. The unannounced launch of the target, designed to simulate medium-range ballistic missiles like those possessed by Iran, was detected by Russian radar and reported in Russian media.
Israel, which initially claimed that it was unaware of a missile launch over the Mediterranean Sea after it was reported in the Russian media, said the test of the Silver Sparrow ballistic missile defense target was long planned. The Israeli Ministry of Defense issued a statement on its Facebook page saying that the missile defense radar successfully detected and tracked the launch and transferred flight data to the battle management system.
The test comes as Israel is gearing up to field a new interceptor, the Arrow-3, to protect against longer-range ballistic missiles, mainly those fielded by Iran. The Arrow-3 has been flight-tested, but has not yet intercepted a target. Silver Sparrow would be the target used in a future Arrow-3 intercept test.
The U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, which frequently collaborates with Israel on missile defense tests, provided “technical assistance and support” for the test, according to a Sept. 3 statement from Pentagon spokesman George Little.
A Russian early-warning radar outside Armavir in southern Russia detected the launch of two ballistic objects before the test had been officially announced, according to the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. The news agency later reported that Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told journalists that Israel should not “play with fire” by conducting such tests.
The test had “nothing to do with United States consideration of military action” in Syria, Little said in the statement.
On Sept. 4, Antonov met with the U.S. and Israeli defense attachés to discuss the test, according to a Russian-language article posted by the Russian Ministry of Defense press office on its website.
The trajectory of the test was “oriented to the east,” and “under certain conditions,” a “prolonged trajectory” could reach Russian borders, the article said. According to the article, Antonov told the U.S. representative that the United States should have notified Russia of the launch under the terms of a 1988 U.S.-Russian agreement that requires each country to notify the other of its missile launches. The article cited Antonov as saying the Mediterranean is “not the most suitable region” for testing missile defenses.
The United States has moved several naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean to prepare for a potential strike on Syria in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons Aug. 21. This deployment included guided missile destroyers capable of firing anti-missile interceptors. Russia has long opposed the deployment of U.S. land- and sea-based missile defenses in the region.
The Sept. 3 test is the latest step in Israel’s ambitious plans to deploy layered defenses against ballistic and cruise missiles of various ranges, as well as short-range rockets. Israeli missile defense efforts began in response to attacks by Iraqi conventionally armed ballistic missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Israeli air and missile defense efforts have taken on a new urgency with the proliferation of short-range rockets in the region, especially the rocket arsenals of Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as the growth in Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.
Israel has invested considerable effort and resources in developing and fielding systems to counter rocket and missile threats from surrounding states and militant groups, with significant U.S. technical and financial support.
Israel possesses three systems designed to intercept ballistic missiles.
The Arrow-2 has been in service for the longest period of time and is designed to intercept ballistic missiles within the atmosphere using a high-explosive warhead. The hit-to-kill Arrow-3 interceptor has a longer range and underwent its initial flight test in February. Hit-to-kill interceptors carry no explosive and rely purely on kinetic energy to destroy an incoming warhead.
Another system, called David’s Sling, is a hit-to-kill system intended to intercept shorter-range ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as heavy rockets. Israel completed a successful intercept test of the David’s Sling system for the first time in January.
Israel’s Iron Dome system, which defends against short-range rockets rather than ballistic missiles, is part of the layered Israeli approach to air and missile defense. With the exception of Iron Dome, these systems have not been tested in combat.
The United States has appropriated between $200 million and $500 million each year since fiscal year 2010 to fund the Israeli systems, with the majority of the funds assisting Israel in producing additional Iron Dome batteries and interceptors.
The three targets in the Sparrow series, produced by the Israeli government-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., are designed to simulate Scud-series or Shahab-series ballistic missiles, which Syria and Iran, respectively, possess. Sparrow targets are launched from aircraft and can mimic the maneuvers of a ballistic missile during part of their flight.
Israeli missile defense systems may be used if Israel is involved in a conflict with Syria, which possesses a large arsenal of ballistic missiles and rockets. The government of Syria already has used these weapons, including rockets armed with chemical weapons, against rebel groups and civilians within the country, according to the U.S. government and others.