Is the U.S.-Israeli David’s Sling System Set to Dominate European Air Defences Markets to Face Down Russia

Following initial steps towards finalising a sale of the David’s Sling air defence system to NATO’s newest member Finland in early April, Executive Vice President and General Manager at  Israeli defence manufacturer Rafael’s Air and Missile Defence Systems Division Pini Yungman expressed optimism that the system could be exported “deeper into Europe.” “It’s a long journey. I believe that it will happen. The journey began with Finland,” he stated, adding that North America and East Asia could be sources of further sales. He described the system as one that was “designed to intercept all kinds of threats and has been operational since April 2017. It was designed and built to intercept long-range threats, including low-altitude manoeuvring missiles, and missiles that fly at high speeds.” Developed as a middle tier system comparable to the American Patriot or Russian S-300, with the higher tier defence against strategic ballistic missiles provided by the Barak system while lower tier defence against short ranged attacks by assets such as drones and rocket artillery is provided by the Iron Dome system. The U.S. Military has from 2019 also deployed the THAAD system to Israel to provide higher tier ballistic missile defence. Among countries and territories operating Western compatible hardware Israel’s air defence sector is considered to be rivalled only by that of Taiwan, which also produces competitive air defence assets in cooperation with the United States such as the Sky Bow system.

Regarding the success in marketing the David’s Sling to Finland Yungman stated: “I can tell you that it was a long and very hard competition, it’s a process. No government buys in six months or a year, it takes time.”  He added that “we got support from U.S. government because it is a system we developed with the U.S. Missile Defence Agency and Israel Missile Defence Organization. We need[ed] approval from the Americans.” He elaborated that he was “100 percent sure countries in Europe understand what is going on and understand the threats that exist and will be developed and produced for the future… Intelligence today is open and tracking what is happening in Ukraine. We understand Russians operate drones from Iran and other systems and threats.” Another possibility raised by the executive was that the Stunner surface to air missiles developed for the David’s Sling could be exported to operators of the Patriot air defence system operated by a fast growing number of Western countries, with the missile being a signature feature of the David’s Sling with a hit to kill system ensuring a superior flight performance. The possibility of developing the Stunner into an air to air missile has also been raised in the past. 

The David’s Sling was conceptualised as a direct successor to the Patriot and jointly developed by America’s Raytheon and Israel’s Rafael. It notably integrates 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 to its target, while using both significantly increases immunity to jamming or decoys to facilitate a much higher probability of achieving kills. A notable caveat of the system particularly for NATO use is that the Russian Military already has significant insights into how it operates and its constituent technologies. This was obtained not only by Russian forces operating in very close proximity to Israel’s air defence network from facilities in Syria, but also through the recovery of an unexploded Stunner missile which landed in Syria relatively intact in 2018 and was subsequently shipped to Russia for study.

Finland notably planned acquisitions of the David’s Sling near simultaneously to its consideration of options for modernisation of its fighter fleet which resulted in acquisitions of the F-35 fifth generation fighter from the United States. The highly complementary nature of the two assets could widen the David’s Sling’s appeal in Europe as F-35s proliferate widely and rapidly, with countries expected to begin receiving the aircraft in the coming years including Poland, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Greece among others. Very serious issues and delays developing an indigenous European post fourth generation fighter is expected to fuel interest on the continent for the fighter. As several European states raise military spending levels, and the continent’s own defence industries continue to fall short of producing competitive armaments in a growing range of categories, Israel could potentially join the United States and South Korea in capitalising on this with major exports. The fact that the Russian military is very heavily reliant on its formidable missile capabilities to asymmetrically tackle NATO’s much larger forces makes missile defence an area in which European states are expected to invest particularly heavily in future.