In a historic expansion of NATO, Finland became the 31st member of the alliance, doubling the length of borders shared between NATO members and Russia. The membership has drawn an angry response from Russia.
On top of that, just a day after joining the alliance, Finland announced it would purchase the US-Israeli David’s Sling long-range air defense system for €316 million (US $345 million). This purchase is expected to raise the stakes in Russia’s neighborhood dramatically.
Finland’s Minister of Defense, Antti Kaikkonen, said, “This acquisition will create a new capability for the Finnish Defense Forces to intercept targets at high altitudes. At the same time, we are continuing the ambitious and long-term development of Finland’s defense capability in a new security environment.”
Before the invasion was launched in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin fiercely opposed the expansion of NATO eastwards. Although Putin believed he was pushing NATO back by invading Ukraine and dissuading it from joining the enemy alliance, another neighbor decided to make the unexpected switch.
There has been a significant uptick in Russian military activity along Finland’s border, which explains Helsinki’s decision to buy the cutting-edge David’s Sling air defense system. Currently, it is only operated by Israeli Defense Forces, and an acquisition by Finland would have to be approved by the US first.
Interestingly, Ukraine, pounded by Russian missiles and drones, has also made David’s Sling a top request to Israel. However, Israel has been reluctant to provide the system to Kyiv due to Tel Aviv’s’ working relationship with Moscow.
On its part, Russia has vowed to “strengthen its military potential” along its border with Finland. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said, “In the event that forces and assets of other NATO members are deployed in Finland, we will take additional steps to ensure Russia’s military security reliably.”
Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced last year that his country was implementing “adequate countermeasures” and that its western military sector would receive 12 units and divisions of Russian forces. Meanwhile, Finland started constructing a fence on its border with Russia in February this year.
After Finland joined NATO, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov warned that Russia would be “watching closely” what happens in Finland, describing NATO’s expansion as a “violation of our security and our national interests.” Finland shares a 1,340 kilometers border with Russia.
It may also be interesting to examine how the David’s Sling air defense system that Finland has set its sight on compares to Russia’s combat-hardened S-400 air defense systems that the Russian military has extensively deployed in the ongoing Ukraine war.
David’s Sling Vs. S-400 Triumf
Last year, Russia also reportedly moved its Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles closer to the Finnish border. In fact, in 2016, Moscow went so far as to move two batteries of its S-400 air defense systems closer to Finland.
Finland’s decision to purchase the US-Israeli air defense system is based on the threat from Russia after it launched an unprecedented invasion of Ukraine last year. Due to Russia’s aggressive posturing, there is an overarching fear that the conflict might spill over to other countries in the neighborhood.
One of the biggest takeaways from the ongoing Ukraine war is Kyiv’s admission that it has been unable to intercept Russian missiles like the Soviet-era Kh-22 supersonic cruise missiles and has had difficulty shooting down Russia’s barrage of ballistic missiles, especially the Iskander-M.
The David’s Sling air defense system can shoot down short-range ballistic missiles, planes, drones, cruise missiles, and massive artillery rockets with its distinctive “dolphin-nosed” Stunner interceptor.
David’s Sling can intercept rockets and missiles at a range of 40-300 kilometers (25-185 miles). The statement by the Finnish MoD said that Finland’s minimum flight altitude requirement for the system was set at 15,000 meters or 15 kilometers.
According to the manufacturer, up to 12 interceptors can be carried from a launcher and fired from a near-vertical position.
In contrast, the Russian S-400 air defense system can engage all aerial targets, including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and ballistic and cruise missiles, within a range of 400 kilometers at an altitude of up to 30 kilometers. The range of the Russian system, thus, exceeds that of David’s Sling.
According to Rafael, co-developer of David’s Sling, the Stunner’s canted “dolphin” nose has imaging infrared and active radar seekers. This dual-mode seeker technology increases its reliability in intercepting various targets from short-range ballistic missiles and stealth cruise missiles while making it more difficult to jam or decoy.
Additionally, a data link serves as a sort of “third mode” and feeds targeting information from external sensors, particularly the system’s Elta ELM-2084 3D AESA radar array.
In contrast, the Russian S-400 employs four different types of missiles with different ranges and roles- making a layered defense. One of these missiles, the 40N6, has a claimed range of 400 kilometers and uses active radar homing to intercept air targets at great distances. As per the claims, it can be launched against AWACS, J-STARS, EA-6B support jammers, and other high-value targets belonging to NATO.
Moreover, the fire control and target tracking radar of the S-400 is the 92N6E based on the MZKT-7930 8×8 vehicle. However, when deployed autonomously, the same vehicle may carry a 96L6 Cheese Board 3D surveillance and tracking radar.
The 8×8 trailer is the foundation for the S-400’s 91N6E Big Bird acquisition and battle control radar. Within a range of 600 kilometers, the radar can detect and track aircraft, rotorcraft, cruise missiles, guided missiles, drones, and ballistic rockets.
With all its advantages, David’s Sling would complement Finland’s existing layered air and missile defense system. As of now, the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), the Advanced Short Range Air Defense System (ASRAD-R), the RBS 70 Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS), and Finnish Air Force F/A-18 Hornet multirole fighters make up Finland’s present air defense ecology.
The AIM-120 AMRAAM, which NASAMS primarily employs as an interceptor and whose ground-launched range is significantly lower than that of Stunner, is not designed to stop ballistic missiles or other high-speed projectiles.
There is, however, a minor hiccup. In 2019, the Times of Israel reported that the Russian military had acquired one of Israel’s most sophisticated air defense missiles from David’s Sling battery. At the time, experts feared that this raised the possibility that Russia could quickly learn how to defeat an advanced system designed to intercept ballistic missiles in flight.
The Russian military reportedly captured the missile in July 2018, when Israel fired it against Russian-made Syrian rockets headed toward Israeli territory. One of the two missiles the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fired toward Syria was self-detonated by the Israeli Air Force after it became evident that the Syrian forces wouldn’t cross into Israel.
Several years on, no report suggests any development on that front.
When David’s Sling is finally deployed in Finland, it will give NATO an additional air and missile defense line against Russia. The United States, on its part, is unlikely to stand in the way of the purchase given that it has been relentlessly arming East European countries to build deterrence.
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