Finland is Getting Israel’s David’s Sling Air Defence System – But Russian Intel. Likely Compromised it Years Ago

The formalisation of Finland’s accession to the NATO alliance on April 4 was within 72 hours followed by the announcement that the country had made a request to the Israeli Defence Ministry to provide the David’s Sling missile system, under a contract estimated at 316 million Euros. The David’s Sling is widely considered the world’s most capable long range multirole air defence platform that is NATO compatible, and was developed as a replacement and successor to the Patriot system which is much more widely fielded but has had highly troubled combat and testing records. The system was jointly developed by America’s Raytheon and Israel’s Rafael, integrates some of the most sophisticated Western air defence technologies available, and notably makes use of surface to air missiles with dual-mode terminal homing – meaning that each missile deploys two seekers one using an active electronically scanned array radar and the other using imaging infra red. This allows either seeker to guide the missile towards its target, while using both significantly increases immunity to jamming or decoys which is expected to provide a much higher probability of achieving kills. The system is part of a multi tiered air defence network guarding Israeli airspace, and is deployed alongside the shorter ranged Iron Dome system optimised toward neutralising short ranged rocket artillery, and the higher altitude Barak 8 which was designed for defence against long ranged ballistic missiles. 

The David’s Sling is capable of providing both missile defence and neutralising enemy aircraft, and with a 250km engagement range its deployment could help cover key airfields in Finland which are set to host F-35 fifth generation fighters ordered in 2021. The system is considered an ideal complement to the F-35, taking pressure of the fighter for air defence duties, while the aircraft’s notoriously low availability rates due to high maintenance needs makes protection of airbases from missile strikes particularly essential. The effectiveness of the David’s Sling for Finland’s defence is nevertheless in serious question, with the country’s lack of complementary air defence systems to guard against higher and lower tier threats leaving its network vulnerable to strikes from a range of assets including saturation attacks by low cost assets such as Shahed 136 drones – which Russia has deployed effectively in Ukraine. The extreme cost of each round fired from the David’s Sling, and much smaller numbers in which it will be deployed compared to, for example, Ukraine’s massive S-300 and BuK arsenals, leaves Finnish air defences at much higher risk of very quickly seeing their munitions depleted – an issue even Ukraine’s orders of magnitude larger network has faced. The system notably lacks the ability to intercept hypersonic missiles such as the new Russian Zicron, with its viability against missiles using semi ballistic depressed trajectories like the widely used Russian Iskander also remaining in serious question.

While there is little doubt that Russia is the primary and perhaps sole target of Finland’s planned David’s Sling acquisitions, as it was for the country’s F-35 order, Russia also has more access to the Israeli system’s technologies and knowledge of its operations than it does for almost any other NATO compatible air defence asset. Russian forces not only have extensive experience operating in close proximity to Israel’s top aerial warfare assets for years in Syria, where according to USAF Lt. General VeraLinn Jamieson they benefitted from a “treasure trove” of information, but for the David’s Sling specifically one of its Stunner surface to air missiles was recovered intact by Russian forces after landing on Syrian soil. Reports of the missile’s acquisition, neutralisation and shipping back to Russia surfaced in November 2019, with this reportedly achieved in July that year. This was hardly the first time conflict in Syria provided Russia with access to NATO compatible missiles, with an American Tomahawk cruise missile being recovered and shipped to Russia for study in 2018 after landing and failing to explode. Acquiring a Stunner missile from the David’s Sling is likely to have provided key insights into how it flies, what kind of data links, radars and infrared sensors it uses, and how best to develop countermeasures either to evade interception or to more effectively neutralise the assets on the ground. The result is that Finland’s new air defence system could be highly compromised to Russian intelligence long before it ever arrives or becomes operational in the country.