The Israeli race against hypersonic weapons
Israeli defense contractor Rafael manufactured the Spike anti-tank missile. (Photo credit: Ministry of Defense)

Hypersonic weapons, once considered the preserve of science fiction, do many Israeli defense companies view today as a real threat to the state of Israel.

Recognized global powers such as  Russia, China and Iran claim to possess hypersonic missiles. Recently, Tehran unveiled its alleged hypersonic missile, the Fattah. This triggered speculation and assessments within the Israeli defense sector about the authenticity and effectiveness of these weapons, especially in the context of the war between  Ukraine and Russia, where these missiles were allegedly used.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, known for manufacturing the Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile defense systems, has studied hypersonic missiles and how to deploy effective defenses against them for years. In June, Rafael unveiled  Sky Sonic, the world’s first hypersonic missile interception system, which is still under development.

Despite Rafael’s progress, Israel’s Defense Ministry has not yet confirmed its investment in the system. This is due to a perception that hypersonic missiles, unlike ballistic missiles launched against Israel by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, are not a tangible threat.

Rafael has invested hundreds of millions of shekels over the years in the development of  Sky Sonic, with Brigadier General (reserve) Pini Yungman, director general of Rafael’s Air and Missile Defense Systems Division, optimistic about the project’s future. The investment will enable the development of an interceptor that addresses the hypersonic missile challenge.

Rafael is currently seeking international partners for the project. Traditionally,  partners of Israeli defense companies tend to come from the United States, which is why Rafael has presented the project to both the  Missile Defense Organization of the Israeli Ministry of Defense (IMDO) and the American Missile Defense Agency ( MDA).

A hypersonic missile combines a ballistic missile’s speed with a cruise missile’s maneuvering capabilities. Specifically, hypersonic missiles reach speeds exceeding Mach 5.

However, Israel already has an answer for rockets that reach speeds of 2000-2500 meters per second and for ballistic missiles that reach altitudes of 300-400 kilometers. The latter, capable of accelerating to speeds of 5000-6000 meters per second, has been successfully intercepted by the Arrow 3 system.

One of the looming challenges for Rafael could come from Tokyo, where Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US President Joe Biden have agreed to develop a hypersonic interceptor jointly. This highlights the global interest in this type of defense.

Despite the lack of funding from the Ministry of Defense,  Rafael continues to develop the Sky Sonic interceptor missile. The goal is to be prepared to confront the hypersonic threat when it becomes operational in a constant race to counter ever-changing defensive challenges.