A test of Israel's David Sling's missile defence system, a medium-range interceptor, developed with United States backing. Photo: Israel Defense Ministry via AFP
A test of Israel's David Sling's missile defense system, a medium-range interceptor, developed with United States backing. The Scorpius electronic warfare system was the star of the latest air defense exercises in Israel. Photo: AFP / Israel Defense Ministry

Israel conducted its fifth Blue Flag air exercise at the Uvda Air Base in the southern Negev from October 17th until October 28th.  A number of countries participated in flying 4th and 5th generation aircraft.

The primary focus was on cooperative operations that involve the newer aircraft and tactics for dealing with enemy air defenses.  But Israel also showed off something entirely new: the training version of its new Scorpius electronic warfare system which may have been the star of the show.

Scorpius is Israel’s new electronic warfare system.  It provides a unique capability against air threats including manned and unmanned aircraft, missiles (including air defense missiles), drones and cruise missiles.

The system, which comes in land, naval and airborne versions, also includes a training version, Scorpius T, that was part of the Blue Flag exercise.

Scorpius can be thought of as a type of jammer, but it differs significantly from other jammers because it combines both wide-area search and narrow-beam radars, making it possible to scan against threats and select specific targets which can be countered by the narrow beam part of the system.

Called a “soft kill” capability by the Israeli contractor, Israel Aerospace Corporation (IAI), the narrow beam can shut down radars and kill communications. Scorpius can work on multiple radar and communications frequencies and probably includes a built-in threat library to identify enemy targets.

IAI says that Scorpius can detect stealth aircraft and for that reason alone is a game-changer. China has developed and deployed the J-20 stealth fighter, modeled on the US F-22, and will soon deploy a lighter stealth fighter called the J-31.

China’s twin-engine, multi-role J-20 fighter can reach speeds of 2,100 kilometers per hour. Photo: AFP / ImageChina / Li Jianshu

Russia has just announced the Checkmate, its first single-engine jet fighter (which may also include an unmanned version) and is beginning to deploy the Su-57 which has a lower radar signature, though not quite stealth.

Conventional jammers try to jam on all frequencies and thus disable an enemy aircraft or radar. The drawback to such a system is that when it is operating it can also kill friendly aircraft.

Another weakness is that it is operating on multiple frequencies, making the jammer a “hot” radiation target for any weapon that can home in on its radio emissions.

Russia featured its Krakushka (Belladonna) advanced jammer system in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and Krakushka has also been deployed in Syria and near the Ukraine. It is a road-mobile wide-area system that seeks to confuse GPS and other signals.  Strategically Krakushka was designed to jam US and NATO AWACS radar early warning aircraft.

A US Air Force E-3 AWACS, or Airborne Warning and Control System, aircraft, which are not armed. Photo: AFP / Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Scorpius on the other hand is based on a high-powered AESA radar platform that looks for certain signals such as radars in missiles.

Increasingly Russia, China and others are adopting long-range interceptor missiles for air defenses and for air to air missiles.  Examples include the S-500’s interceptor missile 77N6, which is hypersonic and has a range of 370 miles; the Vympel R-77 with a range of 120 miles, and China’s PL-12 and PL-15 with claimed range of 120 miles.

These missiles all use active radars (sometimes combined with a terminal infrared seeker) which means they can be detected and jammed. Scorpius is able to detect such active radars at great distances and can jam both the aircraft and the missiles. This is especially significant since hypersonic missiles may be difficult or perhaps impossible to kill kinetically but are vulnerable to soft kill measures if available.

One of the main points of the exercise was to simulate air defenses and learn how to fly against them. Italy and Israel supplied F-35 stealth jets permitting the participants to take advantage of the F-35’s superb radar set to fix enemy targets and share those targets with 4th-generation aircraft such as the F-16, the Mirage and the Eurofighter.

The F-35 can act as a flying AWACS (airborne early warning and control system) and also provide electronic countermeasures and radar warning capabilities thanks to its sophisticated AESA (airborne electronically scanned array) radar.

Also, it can share data instantly with other aircraft if they have Link 16 or equivalent onboard systems. Link 16 is a military tactical data link network used by NATO and other nations including Japan and India. India flies Russian, French and British fighter aircraft.

Around 80 aircraft from various countries participated in the Israeli air exercise which, as it turns out, was important for improved regional defense and for NATO. Britain participated for the first time along with the US, France, Italy, Germany and Greece from NATO India also sent warplanes and a number of countries came as observers including the chief of the UAE Air Force. Other observers included Japan, Romania, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia, South Korea and Croatia. 

The result of the exercise is that the F-35 when combined with the Scorpius system offers the possibility of tactical and strategic dominance in the battle area and reduces the threat of counter-stealth systems and beyond-visual-range (BVR) air to air and air defense missiles.

Even if a country lacks the stealthy F-35, it would seem that the Scorpius system offers a way to identify threats at long range and use Scorpius’s soft-kill capability to take them out.  As such this can be a game-changer even against hypersonic threats.

When equipped with a Scorpius pod under the airframe or supported by a ground- or sea-based Scorpius platform, an older generation aircraft can aggressively respond to long-range threats that depend on radars and other electronics to go after their targets.