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IMI develops air-launched missile that sounds familiar

TEL AVIV, Israel, July 9 (UPI) -- Israel Military Industries, one of the Jewish state's leading defense companies, has completed development of its long-range MARS precision air-launched rocket, which appears to have capabilities similar to the missiles the air force reportedly used to hit targets in Syria in May.

IMI's Rocket Systems Division has been developing the supersonic half-ton weapon for several years and will soon offer it to the Israeli air force and to the armed forces of other countries, providing the Defense Ministry's Defense Export and Cooperation branch, known as SIBAT, gives its approval.

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To boost the missile's export prospects -- and like every other defense industry in the world Israel's relies on exports in these days of swingeing defense cutbacks -- state-owned IMI has customized the MARS system for a wide range of combat jets around the world.

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These include the trio of fighters that currently dominate the U.S. inventory -- Lockheed Martin's F-16 Fighting Falcon and Boeing's F-15 Eagle, as well as the F/A-18 Hornet also built by Boeing.

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Non-U.S. jets include France's Dassault Mirage-2000, Russia's MiG-29 interceptor and Sukhoi's Su-27 and Su-30, and the Eurofighter Typhoon built by a pan-European consortium.

The MARS can also be carried by the single-engine Kfir F-21 multirole fighters built by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries. It's modeled on Dassault's Mirage V, with the French Atar 9 engine replaced by General Electric'sJ79.

The Israeli air force no longer deploys the Kfir, but it's in service with Sri Lanka, Ecuador and Colombia, while the U.S. Air Force uses a variant as an advanced jet trainer.

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"In the case of the MARS, there's a capability to quickly and accurately silence a wide range of targets from a distance, which already is making the rocket very attractive to armies around the world," said Yuval Sharonia, IMI's vice president and general manager of its Rocket Systems Division.

"The rocket's ready after successfully undergoing tests. Besides being supersonic, it carries technologies which different IMI divisions have developed in recent years to meet the needs of the current battlefield, and which are expected to meet the needs of the future battlefield as well."

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IMI says the 14-foot-long MARS, with an estimated range of 62 miles and a GPS navigational system, can be used as a fire-and-forget system against predetermined mobile and fixed targets, even if they're protected by anti-aircraft systems.

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This means the rocket can take out radar sites, communications centers, weapons storage facilities and airfields while the launch aircraft remain out of range of AD systems around the targets.

This rings a bell.

On May 3 and 5, Israeli warplanes attacked targets inside Syria, apparently using long-range precision missiles that were launched from Lebanese air space, west of the targets, presumably to give Israel a veneer of deniability regarding the airstrikes while delivering a forceful political message.

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The Israeli officials who leaked the reports did not identify the weapons used in those attacks, but all seemed to have hit their targets.

In one strike on missile storage facilities around Damascus International Airport May 5, witnesses reported up to 10 separate explosions from missiles aimed at a variety of targets.

There's no formal indication that prototype MARS weapons were given their combat debut in those attacks.

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The Israelis have never even officially acknowledged that the missiles on these raids were fired from outside Syrian airspace.

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However, the Globes business daily reported that several of IMI's recent inventory of new rocket and artillery munitions "received their baptism of fire during the Second Lebanon War" -- Israel's 34-day conflict with Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the primary target of the May airstrikes in Syria, in the summer of 2006.

IMI has had problems in recent years. The Defense Ministry has been pushing to merge it with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, arguing that would open up resources currently spent on competition between the companies.

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Rafael is another state-owned defense company which is producing the Iron Dome counter-rocket system that has racked up an 87 percent kill rate against short-range Palestinian rockets and is currently developing David's Sling, a medium-range anti-missile system, with The U.S. Raytheon Co.

IMI's situation deteriorated after the Finance Ministry sought to privatize it in August 2005, but that ran into stiff opposition from labor unions and the Defense Ministry.

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