The Powerful Implications of Israel's Successful Missile Defense Test | Opinion

The Israeli Missile Defense Organization and U.S. Missile Defense Agency announced earlier this month the successful completion of a series of tests of a multilayered missile defense system using the David's Sling, Iron Dome and Arrow systems.

Under the auspices of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the tests simulated a variety of advanced threats, including low-altitude cruise missiles, long-range ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and more. The tests integrated multiple interception systems, using a single command and control node to build a picture of the threats in real time, while deploying each individual interception system to operate independently.

Success was not a foregone conclusion: There are significant technological and operational differences between these systems, such as maneuverability, range and cost. But the tests proved the systems can work simultaneously.

For Israel, this was the first time all three of its missile defense layers worked simultaneously, demonstrating interoperability and enabling Israel to leverage each specific system's comparative advantages. It was a major milestone in Israel's capabilities to defend itself against current and future threats.

Missile defense represents an important pillar of Israel's new national security strategy. Investments in missile defense have enabled the Jewish state to protect itself, by itself. The now-proven success will encourage Jerusalem to continue its missile defense-related research, development and production with an eye toward new capabilities against future threats.

These capabilities will also provide an edge at sea. Israel's navy participated in the missile defense tests. Its Sa'ar 6-class corvettes will soon be equipped with a special naval version of Iron Dome and eventually a version of David's Sling, along with other air defense systems, to protect natural gas rigs against low-altitude cruise missiles and medium-range threats.

During the recent tests, Israel also tested the ability to integrate its tactical laser system—still in development—as an alternative to Iron Dome interceptors for lower-tier threats. These systems are not yet ready for primetime; still, Israel has made notable progress in the field.

The recent tests were a clear message to Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Israel demonstrated for the first time its ability to intercept a salvo of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), which the Iranian proxy has endeavored to stockpile in recent years. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) last year identified PGMs as the most lethal conventional threat facing Israel, second only to Iran's nuclear program.

In recent years, Israel has consistently targeted PGMs that Iran has tried to smuggle through Syria into Lebanon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have declared a zero-tolerance policy for attempts to acquire what it calls "game-changing weapons." Israel's ability to intercept PGMs adds teeth to this policy.

Iron Dome missile defense battery in northern
Iron Dome missile defense battery in northern Israel JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

Moreover, Netanyahu's new National Security Strategy makes clear that the Islamic Republic of Iran and the state of Lebanon will not be immune from retaliation if PGMs are launched at Israel. Indeed, Israel communicated its willingness to strike terrorist patrons, including critical infrastructure in Lebanon and Tehran.

The recent test also sends a message to Israel's most important ally, the United States. U.S. interests are increasingly vulnerable to Iran's growing arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial systems and rockets. Repeatedly, Iran and its regional proxies have used these weapons to attack U.S. personnel and partners in the Persian Gulf, exposing dangerous gaps in American defense. Finding fast and practical solutions to fill those gaps should be an urgent U.S. priority. Proven Israeli technology can help.

The commander of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, testified that Iran's inventory of 2,500 to 3,000 ballistic missiles constitutes the primary threat facing the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Iran has not yet achieved intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Washington should thus focus on Iran's short- to mid-range threats. This includes Iranian PGMs and new variants of combat drones, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) "Fotros" long-range attack drone. The drone is capable of flying for 30 hours and has a range of 1,250 miles, posing a threat to U.S. forces across the Gulf and parts of Europe.

The threat to the United States from Iran's short-range weapons is particularly apparent in Iraq. Since May 2019, Iran-backed militias have launched dozens of rocket attacks against U.S. military, diplomatic and commercial targets in Iraq. On January 8, days after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran's top IRGC general, Qassem Soleimani, Iran launched a direct attack on the U.S. military, launching short-range missiles at two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops. And the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was again targeted this month.

Unfortunately for Washington, the current American Patriot systems are at best only a partial solution to such threats. Even the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 enhanced missiles are far less capable against PGM rockets, advanced drones and cruise missiles. After Israel's recent missile defense tests, Washington has little choice but to look closer at Israel's two proven air defense systems: Iron Dome and Skyceptor interceptors.

Though Iron Dome was not developed originally to defeat drones and cruise missiles, the recent tests demonstrate the system's ability to do just that. In 2018, with congressional urging, the U.S. Army opted to purchase two Iron Dome batteries. Those systems are now being assessed by the Pentagon. Recent upgrades and proven capabilities make it an attractive option for additional investments.

The second U.S.-Israeli technology requiring serious consideration is the Skyceptor interceptor. Based on the Stunner interceptor developed for David's Sling, and tested successfully during last week's test, Skyceptor can be fired from Patriot batteries. It was specifically designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles and low-altitude, maneuverable cruise missiles and drones.

In Washington, bipartisan support for Israeli missile defense is strong. Indeed, Washington has already invested billions of dollars in support of Israeli missile defense over the span of decades. These investments have paid off for Israel. It may now be time to see whether they can pay off for forward-deployed U.S. forces in the Middle East and beyond. It may also be time for closer cooperation on research and development for other advanced technologies that can benefit both countries.

Brigadier General (Res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acting national security advisor and head of Israel's National Security Council. He was also the former deputy director of the Israeli Ministry of Defense's Directorate of Defense Research and Development. Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at FDD.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.