TEL AVIV, Israel, April 27 (UPI) -- Israel's military plans to arm its helicopter fleet with a protective system against shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles it says are in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The system, known as Fliker and developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, fires an interceptor at an incoming SAM and is designed to minimize debris to avoid shrapnel hitting the aircraft.
The rotating system "is designed to serve as the second layer of defense for helicopters and will be activated when automatic flares fail to divert an incoming missile," The Jerusalem Post reported Friday.
The unveiling of the system, which recently successfully underwent testing, is the latest in a string of new weapons the Israeli military has announced amid growing concerns that a new regional conflict is simmering.
This war, with Iran, Syria and their proxies Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza the likely adversaries, is expected to focus largely on a sustained missile and rocket bombardment of the Jewish state on an unprecedented scale.
Israel's principal response would be airstrikes by its 227 ground-attack F-15 and F-16 jets, built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and its 80-plus attack helicopters, including 48 Boeing AH-64A/D Apaches and 33 Bell AH1-E/F Cobras.
Israel also has some 200 transport helicopters, including 73 twin-engine Sikorsky Black Hawk craft of various designations.
Israel has the Middle East's most formidable air force and has long maintained aerial supremacy over its Arab neighbors and Iran.
But Hezbollah, which is reputed to have in excess of 42,000 surface-to-surface missiles and rockets that can be unleashed on the Jewish state, is now reported to have an array of Russian-built SAMs. These weapons, supplied by Iran and Syria, could challenge Israel's mastery of the skies over Lebanon for the first time.
The Jerusalem Post recently reported that Shiite guerrillas, who have underground missile depots across their heartland in the Bekaa Valley of northeastern Lebanon along the Syrian border, now possess the SA-8, a Russian mobile SAM system with an estimated range of around 20 miles.
Hamas is believed to have received SAMs from Iran, as well as an unknown number of Soviet-era weapons plundered from Libya during and after its civil war in 2011.
Israel says it has spotted some of the 480 shoulder-fired Russian Igla-S 9K-338 SAMS, which NATO calls the SA-24 Grinch, that Western counter-terrorism officials say are missing from Libya.
The SA-24, built by Russia's KBM design bureau at Kolomna, outside Moscow, is one of the most potent surface-to-air missiles in service these days.
It's effective up to 19,000 feet and is resistant to most electronic countermeasures.
However, Israeli AH-54 gunships operating over Gaza were reported to have been able to defeat SA-24s sold to Iran and apparently passed on to the Palestinians in Gaza, as well as Hezbollah.
The Israelis haven't commented on these reports.
The Israeli air force, equipped largely with U.S.-made aircraft and weapons systems, is capable of countering the SA-8 with electronic jamming systems and precision-guided munitions.
It displayed these capabilities Sept. 6, 2007, when seven F-15I Boeing Raam fighters destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor being built by North Korea in Syria at Deir al-Zor 80 miles from the Iraqi border.
The warplanes in Operation Orchard were able to evade Syrian air defenses during the nighttime raid because an electronic warfare aircraft accompanying them blinded Syrian radars and missiles defenses.
However, if Hezbollah has SA-8s in sufficient numbers to hurl multiple missiles at Israeli aircraft it could impede airstrikes aimed at destroying surface-to-surface missile storage and launch sites that would likely be heavily defended.
In the first 36 hours of the 2006 war, Israeli warplanes destroyed most of Hezbollah's long-range missiles before they could be used but they were unable to stop a non-stop 34-day barrage on northern Israel that lasted until the final moments of the conflict.
With enough SA-8s, and the large quantity of Russian shoulder-fired SAMs Hezbollah is believed to have received from Syria over the last two years, the battle-hardened guerrillas could blunt Israeli air operations for a time to a degree not seen since the invading Egyptians drove off Israeli jets in the opening days of the 1973 war.