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Analysis

Gaza’s anti-aircraft capabilities are neither new nor likely to be effective

Expert says 50-year-old Soviet Strela-2 shoulder-fired system, hyped by Hamas, is easily countered and has limited functionality, with aging missiles and makeshift power solutions

Emanuel Fabian

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Members of Saraya al-Quds, the military wing of Islamic Jihad terror group hold shoulder-launched anti-aircraft systems during a military parade in Gaza City, on January 5, 2022. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
Members of Saraya al-Quds, the military wing of Islamic Jihad terror group hold shoulder-launched anti-aircraft systems during a military parade in Gaza City, on January 5, 2022. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

In the early hours of Tuesday, the Hamas terror group launched several anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli jets conducting airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces, which was targeting Hamas sites in the wake of a rocket fired from Gaza at Israel hours earlier, said the missiles did not damage any aircraft.

Palestinian media presented the use of the missiles as a new, groundbreaking capability, with Hamas itself later publishing a video showing off the attempt.

But not only are these capabilities not new for Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups — they are also highly unlikely to be successful, according to experts.

Hamas’s first reported use of an SA-7 shoulder-fired missile, also known as a Strela-2, was in October 2012. In November of that year, Hamas also released a video in which it claimed with no evidence to have hit an Israeli F-16 jet with the missile.

In fact, Gaza groups have had no known success using anti-aircraft missiles against Israeli aircraft.

The Strela-2 shoulder-launched air-defense system, produced in the early 1970s by the Soviet Union, works by using primitive infrared tracking to lock onto a target, known commonly as “heat-seeking.”

A well-known Western weapons expert who writes anonymously on Twitter under the pseudonym of Calibre Obscura, and whose reporting has been cited by The Guardian, AFP, Vice and others, told The Times of Israel that Israeli aircraft would heavily use flares in order to trick the system, the most common and simple countermeasure.

The system also requires a thermal battery in order to launch the missile. As the original batteries tend to degrade over time, Palestinian groups have apparently resorted to manufacturing their own makeshift versions to keep the 50-year-old system functional.

“Sometimes they can function beyond their shelf life,” Calibre Obscura said, which he estimated to be around 15-20 years, “but often they won’t, especially if there has been less than ideal storage conditions.”

He said Hamas had evidently improvised a battery solution similar to what rebel groups have done in Syria over the course of the civil war in the country. “You can sort of cobble together laptop batteries… or car batteries,” he said. The original batteries are also single-use, so a rechargeable solution can be somewhat ideal if the group has a stock of missiles.

But even with improvised batteries on the 50-year-old system, “you’re also dealing with some of these missiles, which are 40, 45 years old,” Calibre Obscura said, meaning they may not work exactly as intended.

Israeli officials previously estimated the system was smuggled into the coastal enclave from Libya in the early 2010s. Calibre Obscura said he suspected this was the case, but because the system is so common it could have come from elsewhere.

“It was good in the 70s, especially with the upgraded versions, but nowadays it’s pretty ancient,” he said.

Still, Gaza terror groups are known to have another Soviet system, the 9K38 Igla, which the expert described as “more modern and more functional” than the Strela, citing recent successful use by Ukraine against Russian aircraft during Moscow’s invasion of the country over the past month.

But the Igla also uses similar heat-seeking technology, which is easily countered.

“If you had an Israeli helicopter that for some reason was sleeping on the job, and was flying low, and didn’t use flares or other countermeasures… then technically speaking [it could hit],” he said.

Barring that, the Israeli Air Force is likely to continue to operate freely over the Palestinian enclave.

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