JERUSALEM — Israel successfully tested its newest missile defense system on Wednesday, a key step toward making the third and final leg of the country's three-part defense system operational by next year, the defense ministry said.
"David's Sling," also known as "Magic Wand," is designed to intercept projectiles with ranges between 70 kilometers (45 miles) and 300 kilometers (180 miles), and is aimed primarily at countering the large arsenal of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon and those of President Bashar Assad's government in Syria.
The defense ministry said the system, developed by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and U.S.-based Raytheon Co, detected and destroyed a test ballistic missile over Israel on Wednesday morning and marked a "step forward" toward its scheduled deployment next year.
Israel has also deployed the Iron Dome system against short-range rockets from the Gaza Strip and the Arrow system for longer-range threats from Iran. Together, the three components will complete what Israel calls its "multilayer missile defense."
Iran has developed missiles that can travel 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), putting Israel and parts of Europe well within its range. Israeli concerns have been compounded by Iran's controversial nuclear program, which Israel believes is geared toward making nuclear weapons — a charge Tehran denies.
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, its support for anti-Israel militant groups and its missile and nuclear technology.
The test came as world powers and Iran open a new round of nuclear negotiations in Geneva later on Wednesday, talks that could result in a landmark deal that would force Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of Western sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Iran seeks a rollback in U.S.-led economic sanctions, while the West is pressing it to curb its uranium enrichment — the process to make nuclear fuel, which is a potential pathway to atomic weapons. Israel has voiced grave concern that a deal with Iran now may ease pressure on the Islamic Republic while allowing it to continue to strive toward acquiring a bomb.
Uzi Rubin, a former head of Israel's missile defense program, said the timing of the test was unrelated and merely a planned step in Israel's long-term plan to complete a defense umbrella against the myriad of rocket threats the country faces.
He said the test, only the second of its kind, was a "milestone" but refused to provide operational details.
The Iron Dome protects against short-range rockets fired by militants in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. It shot down hundreds of rockets from Gaza in last year's round of fighting.
The next generation of the Arrow, now in the development stage, is set to be deployed in 2016. Called Arrow 3, it is designed to strike missiles when they are outside the earth's atmosphere, before they are on their downward path toward their target. Together, the two Arrow systems would provide two chances to strike down incoming missiles.
Israel also uses U.S.-made Patriot missile defense batteries against mid-range missiles, though these failed to hit any of the 39 Scud missiles fired at Israel from Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Manufacturers say the Patriot system has been improved since then.