This weekend saw an air war over Syria unlike anything seen since 1982. The Israeli Air Force (IAF), arguably the best air force in the world has lost its first aircraft in combat since 1982 and the Syrian air defense has scored a victory over the IAF.
One big difference this time is the presence of Russian pilots patrolling Syrian airspace and Russian manned air defense systems on the ground. The result is a situation that can quickly spin out of control.
Although details are murky, Israelis claimed that Israeli jets were scrambled in response to an Iranian drone launched into Israeli airspace, which the IDF says was intercepted and destroyed. Security cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio the Iranian drone was modeled on the U.S. RQ-170 drone that was downed in Iran in 2011. There was strong denial of such incident from the Iranians.
The IAF claimed that it has launched attacks targeting the facilities controlling the drone and Syrian air defense systems.
It was during these attacks that the IAF F-16 was hit by a Syrian S-200 missile. Both crewmen ejected from the aircraft.
The Syrian military has stated that its air defense missile system further struck an Israeli drone shortly after the F-16 was downed, which had been launched from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. In response to the F-16 downing, the IAF fired several missiles targeting the Al-Kiswah area near what is said to be an Iranian base outside of Damascus. And shortly after this initial Israeli retaliation strike, a more massive wave of missiles hit a mountaintop Syrian Army base in the same area. Regional sources are reporting that multiple Israeli missiles struck the base, while others were intercepted by Syrian air defense.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military has blamed Iran for the F-16 shoot down and escalation. The IDF issued a threatening statement which reads: “The IDF will act determinately against such severe violations of Israeli sovereignty by Iran and Syria and will continue to act as necessary. The IDF is ready for various scenarios and will continue to act according to situation assessments.”
Given the fact that the IAF has struck Syria over 100 times in the last few years, more air strikes can be expected in the future.
The Jerusalem Post warns that Israel is planning for “A war in the north.” There are reports by witnesses that Israel is moving mobile air defense systems to the north.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu struck a defiant tone on Sunday in remarks to his cabinet broadcast by Israeli media. “Yesterday we landed hard blows on the forces of Iran and Syria. We made unequivocally clear to everyone that our modus operandi has not changed one bit,” he said.
Since criminal charges are expected to be made against Netanyahu in the coming days some say the Prime Minister’s belligerent attitude is designed to remove the focus from his own problems.
However, the truth is that the situation has changed and the IAF is facing a much improved Syrian air defense system – a system that might claim more IAF aircraft if the current fighting continues.
Syrian Air Defense Reborn
Syria was the first country outside the Soviet Union to have an S-200 air defense system and the SA-5 Gammon missile. They were initially manned by Soviet crews, but were later transferred to the Syrians.
However, it appears that they weren’t well maintained by the Syrian military. During the initial years of the Syrian War, parts of the S-200 systems were occasionally spotted when Syrian Air Defense sites were overrun by rebel forces. Radars, missiles and other equipment belonging to S-200 system were pictured in disrepair when rebels overtook the air defense site in Eastern Ghouta in October 2012.
Starting with the Russian intervention in late 2015, there were new efforts to restore some Syrian S-200 systems. On 15 November 2016, the Russian defense minister confirmed that Russian forces repaired Syrian S-200 to operational status. For example, in July 2016, the Syrian Army, with Russian assistance, rebuilt an S-200 site at Kweires airport, near Aleppo. On September 12, 2016, the IDF confirmed that two Syrian S-200 missiles were fired at Israeli attack planes while they were on a mission inside Syrian airspace. The Syrian Defense Ministry claimed that an Israeli jet and drone were shot down, but the IDF said their aircraft returned.
On 17 March 17, 2017, the Israeli Air Force attacked a number of Syrian targets near Palmyria, Syria. Syrian air defense fired S-200 missiles at 2 IDF aircraft, which were in Lebanese airspace. One of the Syrian missiles lost its fix on the target and went ballistic. The Israeli missile defense fired at least one Arrow missile to intercept the incoming rocket. As a result, Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems after they fired on Israeli warplanes carrying out strikes.
On October 16, 2017, a Syrian S-200 battery located around 50 kilometers east of Damascus fired a missile at an Israeli Air Force surveillance mission over Lebanon. The IAF responded by attacking the battery and destroying the fire control radar with four bombs. The Syrian Defense Ministry said in its statement that the air defense forces “directly hit one of the jets, forcing [Israeli aircraft] to retreat.” Israel said that no plane was hit.
Despite the different reporting by the Israelis and Syrians, it is apparent that the Syrian air defense system is active and carrying out attacks on Israeli aircraft invading Syrian airspace. This is a major improvement for the Syrian from a few years ago.
However, Syria also has Russian air defense systems that Israel must be aware of. After a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 was shot down over Syria in November 2015, Russia deployed S-300 and S-400 to the region - some to the Russian base at Latakia, Syria.
The system has little combat experience, but has done well in tests. Various versions of the S-300 had successfully destroyed ballistic missiles and other objects in exercises, with a high success rate (90% or more if 1 missile interceptor is used). In exercises, it has shot down strategic bomber aircraft at 186 km and tactical missiles at 34 km and a height of 17.7 km. It is considered a very capable SAM system that poses a significant hazard even to the most advanced aircraft or other airborne targets. In fact, Israel's purchase of F-35 Lightning II fighters was allegedly motivated in part to nullify the threat of S-300 missiles.
And, despite the fact that these air defense systems are in northern Syria, they can track and destroy IAF aircraft in Israeli airspace.
In 2015, a retired Israel Air Force Brigadier General, Asaf Agmon, told the Globes daily that Israel would need to spend billions of dollars to cope with S-300 missile, whose lock on targets he said was impossible to jam.
As one senior U.S. Marine Corps aviator told National Interest, the S-300 series is deadly. “A complete game changer for all fourth-generation aircraft [like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18]. That thing is a beast and you don’t want to get near it,” he said.
Not only are the missiles mobile, but the systems are networked together. One S-300 battery is a dangerous, but several such systems networked together into an integrated air defense system is a nearly insurmountable challenge for most fourth-generation fighters
However, the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems are under Russian control, not Syrian. That means that the use of these missile systems will need to meet Russian aims, not Syrian ones. And, since the Israelis regularly are talking to the Russians (including talks between Putin and Netanyahu) in order to prevent any international incidents, the chances of an intentional Russian attack on IAF aircraft is slight.
But, what would happen if the IAF decides that it must take out the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems?
NATO has carried out exercises (called “Global Strike Task Force”) against these air defense systems and it is assumed that the IAF is aware of these tactics. The tactics rely largely on a stealth fighter like Israel’s F-35.
The F-35s would open up the attack by using their unique combination of stealth, high altitude and speed to target the communications nodes of the integrated air defense system so that the F-35s with precision munitions can proceed to their targets unmolested.
The other option to take down an integrated air defense system is to use a combination of standoff weapons like the JASSM cruise missiles together with electronic attacks from Israeli electronic warfare aircraft called the Eitam. This aircraft can not only jam the enemy’s radar, but can generate an indirect flight path to target the missile site.
The F-35 also has impressive electronic warfare capabilities itself. F-35s carry active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radars with sophisticated electronic attack capabilities, including false targets, network attack, advanced jamming and algorithm-packed data streams. This system allows the F-35 to reach well-defended targets and suppress enemy radars that threaten the F-35. In addition, the ASQ-239 system provides fully integrated radar warning, targeting support, and self-protection, to detect and defeat surface and airborne threats.
The F-35 is also capable of stand-off jamming for other aircraft — providing 10 times the effective radiated power of any older fighter like the F-16. F-35s can also operate in closer proximity to the threat (‘stand-in’) to provide jamming power much greater than any older fighter.
All of this means that Israel will likely use F-35s if it intends to take on the Russian air defense or if it’s likely that Russia will start supporting Syria’s more modest air defense.
In fact, Israel may have already used its F-35sin the region. Air Forces Monthly, noted the French newspaper Le Figaro said Israel took its F-35s out on a combat mission one month after getting them from the US.
However, the US and Israel would like to test the F-35 against both the S-300 and S-400. The F-35's stealth abilities remain untested, and only in a heavily contested environment could the F-35 really meet its match. In the past, F-35 pilots have complained that surface-to-air threats are not advanced enough to provide realistic training, and the Air Force has run short on adversary services to provide enough competition to prove the F-35's capabilities.
What to Expect
So, is this air war expected to die down or escalate?
Escalation raises the specter of a confrontation with Russia – something that neither the US or Israel want. That’s surely one reason that Israel has targeted sites south of Russia’s air defense system.
It’s also why Russia has upgraded Syria’s own air defense system and kept its Russian manned air defense system in the north near its own facilities.
Israel has made it clear that it considers Syrian airspace its own and will continue to carry out attacks in Syria under the claims that moving of weapons to Hezbollah, threaten the IAF, or pose a security threat to Israel proper.
However, the loss of an F-16 will cause the IAF to rethink its operations. It would be unwise to think the Syrians were just “lucky.” As noted earlier, the Russians have invested much in improving the Syrian air defense system. The IAF must consider that the Syrians have learned from the Russians and Iranians and that previous tactics may be outdated.
Expect the IAF to employ new tactics in future raids in Syria.
Also expect to see the F-35 to make its first combat sortie. There has been quite a bit of controversy about the F-35 and its capabilities. Some operation against the Russian air defense system – even if it’s just a trial penetration of airspace – will give Israel and the US a chance to see how good the F-35 is. That, in turn, will allow Israel to develop new tactics against Syria’s air defense.
In other words, there is only a slight chance that the current hostilities will escalate. However, expect the IAF to evolve, improve its tactics, and make every effort to bring the F-35 into the Syrian air war.