The Hezbollah terrorist organization recently acquired an advanced missile system, a German news outlet claimed on Thursday evening, which — if true — could have serious implications for the Israeli Air Force.
The Iran-funded terror group somehow came into possession of the Russian SA-17 missile battery, which had previously been given to the Bashar Assad regime, journalist Julian Roepke of the German Bild newspaper said on Twitter, citing anonymous, but presumably Israeli, “intelligence sources.”
The German report did not indicate where the alleged SA-17 battery was being kept or when it fell into Hezbollah’s hands, and the IDF has not responded to requests for comment.
However, if the information is indeed credible, this development would be “interesting,” said Nadav Pollack, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, whose research focuses on Hezbollah.
— Julian Röpcke (@JulianRoepcke) April 7, 2016
“It’s a big deal,” he told The Times of Israel in an email late Thursday night.
“Israel calls these weapons ‘tie-breakers,'” Pollack said, using a Hebrew phrase similar to the English “game-changer.”
The Russian SA-17 Grizzly would be the “most advanced surface-to-air missile in [Hezbollah’s] possession,” he said.
The Buk, as it’s also known, is a medium-range surface-to-air missile system with an attack radius of approximately 30 miles (50 kilometers). It can strike targets flying at altitudes of 30,000-80,000 feet (10,000-24,000 meters).
Though some Israeli aircraft would not necessarily be at risk from the system, others — notably helicopters — could be vulnerable, according to Pollack, a former analyst of the Israeli government and IDF Intelligence Corps.
The system is made up of a series of vehicles and trailers, which makes targeting an SA-17 battery more challenging, as it can be moved around, he said.
The report that the terror organization had acquired the SA-17 came just one day after the global intelligence company Stratfor claimed Hezbollah was constructing a fortified base within Syria in order to carry out attacks on the Jewish state.
Israel has long feared that the Shiite terror group would acquire the SA-17 system and has allegedly targeted a number of Hezbollah weapon convoys and caches over the years in order to prevent them from acquiring it.
Notably in 2013, US officials claimed Israeli aircraft targeted a shipment of SA-17 missiles en route to Lebanon.
From the number of alleged Israeli strikes targeting the SA-17, “you can sense that Israel really doesn’t want Hezbollah to have this system,” Pollack said.
In the last quarter of 2015 alone, Israeli jets allegedly carried out at least five airstrikes in Syria, according to foreign reports, though not all of them were necessarily aimed at the SA-17.
Israel, as a rule, does not comment on these kinds of airstrikes, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have each admitted that Israel does carry out airstrikes abroad in order to prevent advanced weapons from reaching terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
“We operate in Syria from time to time to prevent it turning into another front against us. We act, of course, to prevent the transfer of deadly weaponry from Syria to Lebanon,” Netanyahu said in December.
Of course, the IAF is one of the most advanced air forces in the world and has managed to overcome the obstacle of surface-to-air missile systems in the past, using technological work-arounds like radar-jamming missiles and other means of electronic warfare.
Yet as Pollack pointed out, if this report is accurate, it is a “big deal” and a legitimate threat to Israeli air superiority in the region, and one has to wonder — how did Israel let this happen?