Israel’s air superiority clouded by new Russian missiles in Syria
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Analysis

Israel’s air superiority clouded by new Russian missiles in Syria

Putin's deployment of advanced S-400 system impacts a mainstay of Israel's defense strategy, though coordination with Moscow mitigates the threat

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An Israeli F-16 takes flight through cloudy skies. (Hagar Amibar/Israeli Air Force)
An Israeli F-16 takes flight through cloudy skies. (Hagar Amibar/Israeli Air Force)

Israel’s air superiority over its enemies has been a linchpin of its defense strategy for decades. The capacity of Israeli planes to carry out attacks well within enemies’ borders has prevented Syria and Iraq from creating nuclear weapons. The Israel Air Force’s unquestioned supremacy over neighboring forces has kept Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian planes almost entirely out of Israeli airspace in the country’s wars.

But with the recent deployment of the Russian S-400 “Triumph” missile defense system in Syria, that absolute primacy is now in question.

The S-400’s specs are enough to make any Israeli’s heart race. The anti-aircraft system — constituting an array radar to monitor the skies and a missile battery — can track and shoot down targets some 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. At its new position on the Syrian coast in Latakia, that range encompasses half of Israel’s airspace, including Ben Gurion International Airport.

This is not the first time that Russian technology in Syria has called into question Israel’s aerial supremacy, and the precedent was catastrophic: In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 2K12 “Kub” missile defense system, provided to Syria by the then-Soviet Union, destroyed dozens of Israeli planes.

The S-400 anti-aircraft missile system on display in Russia. (CC BY-SA/Соколрус/Wikimedia)
The S-400 anti-aircraft missile system on display in Russia. (CC BY-SA/Соколрус/Wikimedia)

The “Kub” prevented an Israeli aerial offensive into Syria in 1973; the S-400 extends deep into Israel’s sovereign air space.

In addition to the S-400, Russia has been bringing highly advanced ordnance into the Syrian theater of war, including outfitting its jet fighters with air-to-air missiles, the Israeli NRG website recently reported.

By bulking up their air defenses in Syria, the Russians hope to prevent future attacks on their aircraft, like the incident last week when the Turkish military brought down an Su-24 jet that Ankara claimed had entered its airspace.

Screen capture from video by Haberturk TV showing a Russian warplane on fire before crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, November 24, 2015. (Haberturk TV via AP)
Screen capture from video by Haberturk TV showing a Russian warplane on fire before crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, November 24, 2015. (Haberturk TV via AP)

“This system is liable to worry people,” said Yiftah Shapir, a military technology research fellow at the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies, said curtly of the S-400.

Nonetheless, he stressed, while the S-400 restricts the previous free rein that Israel had over its neighbor’s skies, the people with their finger on the trigger are not enemies.

“Today [the S-400] is in the hands of the Russians, and we have coordination with them over what’s happening in Syria,” Shapir noted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted the importance of that coordination during and after a meeting in Paris on Monday with Russian President Vladimnir Putin.

So long as that’s the case and the Moscow-Tel Aviv hotline remains open, the S-400’s presence in Syria shouldn’t “keep anyone from sleeping at night,” said Uzi Rubin, a missile defense analyst for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Besides, Rubin said with dry humor, “there are enough other things for us to worry about.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris, France, on November 30, 2015. (screen capture/YouTube)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the United Nations climate change conference at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris, France, on November 30, 2015. (screen capture/YouTube)

The S-400 missile defense system is also intended to stay in the hands of the Russians, even when — or if — their army pulls out of Syria. The anti-aircraft battery will not be a party favor for whoever ultimately winds up running Syria, both Shapir and Rubin pointed out.

In Paris on Monday evening, Netanyahu and Putin further discussed the lines of communications and announced they would be strengthened in the coming days, with IDF and Russian Army generals meeting in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

And yet, some experts stress, while there is currently no impending threat to Israel’s operations in Syria, there is an inherent discomfort with having your freedom of movement potentially restricted and requiring coordination with an outside force, no matter how friendly. The supremacy of the Israeli Air Force, one of the most advanced and capable air forces in the world, is, after all, a central factor in Israel’s essential capacity to defend itself, by itself, in a hostile and wildly unpredictable region.

No conflicts of interest

Today, the interests of Russia and Israel in Syria do not conflict with one another. Israel’s immediate concern in Syria is not President Bashar Assad or his forces, but Hezbollah. Putin, meanwhile, is concerned with propping up Assad and defeating the Islamic State — and very much in that order of preference.

Though Israel certainly sees no friend in Iran-backed Assad, who regularly speaks out against the Jewish state and whose father waged war with Israel in 1967 and 1973, the IDF has taken a hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war, only intervening and striking Syrian army outposts when mortar shells or rocket fire spills over onto Israeli territory.

Meanwhile, Russia has adopted a laissez-faire stance towards Assad’s ally, and one of Israel’s main enemies, Hezbollah, according to Nadav Pollak, a researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Studies and former analyst for the Israeli government.

“Russia has sold a lot of weapons to Syria. If they sell 15 crates and two of them go to Hezbollah, Russia’s not going to say anything. I’m not even sure they’re aware it’s happening,” Pollak said.

But on the flip side, he said, “It doesn’t seem that Russia cares too much if Israel is targeting those arms shipments.”

Which it has been doing, Prime Minister Netanyahu admitted on Tuesday. According to an accumulation of reports, in fact, Israel has struck sites in Syria some five times in the past few weeks alone, for the most part against weapon caches and convoys. One of these raids, an alleged bombing run in Qalamoun, near Syria’s border with Lebanon, occurred on Saturday night, two days after Russia claims the S-400 was put in place.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon at the Israel Democracy Institute on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 (Ariel Hermony/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the Israel Democracy Institute on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 (Ariel Hermony/Defense Ministry)

Russian pilots have also accidentally breached Israeli airspace, with no Israeli response — in stark contrast to the Turkey incident. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF officers have all indicated that these non-incidents demonstrate the efficacy of Israel’s hotline coordination with Russia.

At this stage, there is no threat to that hotline. Israel’s security demands have not changed. And should Russia’s plans for Syria change, the frequent communication between the IDF’s deputy chief of staff and his Russian counterpart is meant to ensure there is ample notice for the IDF to determine how best to proceed.

Though security experts are wary to hazard what exactly Russia’s intentions are in the Middle East — “might,” “possibly,” “could” and “may” are the constant refrain in analyses on Putin’s plans — no serious defense thinker has proposed that a surprise attack on an IAF jet is on Moscow’s agenda.

But Russia is scary

All that having been said, the increased presence of Russia as a Middle East actor is troubling to both Israel and the West. In the past few years, Putin has proven time and again that he is prepared to take steps, in both Ukraine and Syria, that NATO countries denounce.

Russia’s overall support for the Assad regime, and its current presence in Syria, have miffed Americans, several European countries and the Gulf States, who have called for Assad to step down.

For Israel, more problematic have been Russia’s plans to sell the less advanced, but hardly less problematic S-300 missile system to both Syria and Iran.

Russian army S-300 air-defense missiles move during a final rehearsal of a Victory Day parade at Red Square, Moscow, May 2008. (photo credit: AP/Sergey Ponomarev, File)
Russian army S-300 air-defense missiles move during a final rehearsal of a Victory Day parade at Red Square, Moscow, May 2008. (AP/Sergey Ponomarev, File)

Israel’s concerns over Russian military tech in the Middle East extend back to the Cold War, and the installment of anti-aircraft batteries in Egypt and Syria. Israel has always been able to overcome the challenges those systems presented, but often at some cost, in terms of both military effort and human life.

With regards to Israel’s enemies, Russia — and the former Soviet Union before it — has wavered between active support, as with Syria, and a more tacit form of support by remaining a trade partner, in the case of Iran. Such policies do not engender much good will among Israelis.

When Russia’s sale of an S-300 battery to Bashar Assad seemed set to go ahead in 2013, Mitch Ginsburg (my predecessor as Times of Israel military correspondent) summed up the problems with Russia’s support for Syria in his still-appropriately titled piece, “It’s not just the missiles, stupid.”

The ever present Plan B

When Soviet surface-to-air missiles — SAMs, in military parlance — neutralized the brunt of the IAF’s attacks in the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s air supremacy was not in question, it was in tatters. But that was not the end of the story.

In the years following the war, Israel invested heavily in developing weaponry to counteract those anti-aircraft batteries, and in the First Lebanon War, Israeli pilots successfully destroyed those missile defense systems, using a combination of radar jamming and radiation-seeking missiles.

In 2013, when the threat of Syria receiving an S-300 battery was looming, Uzi Rubin described the relationship between aircraft and missile defense systems as a back and forth exchange: I learn how to stop your airplanes with my missiles, then you learn how to stop my missiles with your airplanes. And repeat.

“Air defense is always a game of cops and robbers, and once you know a system for some time, you get to know its strong points and its weak points,” Rubin said at the time.

For years, Israel has been preparing for the deployment of the S-300 in enemy territory. The S-400 system is simply a more advanced form of the same S-300 system that has existed for years; indeed it was once known as the S-300 PMU-3.

Russia agreed to sell the S-300 to Iran in 2007, but the transaction was on hold until July’s signing of the P5+1 nuclear deal due to the sanctions against the Islamic Republic. In recent weeks, both Iranian and Russian officials have indicated that it is going ahead, but there has been no definitive confirmation.

In those intervening eight years, the IAF and Israel’s defense industries have presumably not been twiddling their thumbs, Yiftah Shapir said.

“From my understanding of our capabilities, if we wanted to operate in the area protected by the S-400, we could do it. It wouldn’t be easy, but possible,” said Shapir, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the IAF before joining the INSS.

But a military response to the S-400 would be considered only in case of emergency, he stressed. The missile defense system is powerful and a distinct threat to Israel’s air superiority, but at this stage, he reiterated, it is emphatically not trained on Israel.

It is also important to note that the S-400 is not alone in the region. Egypt has an advanced missile defense system; Jordan has an advanced missile defense system; Syria has its own missile defense system, though one that is decidedly less threatening and advanced than the others’.

An SM-3 interceptor missile is fired from the USS Hopper, which is fitted with an Aegis early warning system (photo credit: CC BY US Missile Defense Agency, Flickr)
An SM-3 interceptor missile is fired from the USS Hopper, which is fitted with an Aegis early warning system (CC BY US Missile Defense Agency, Flickr)

“The Americans also have the capability of shooting down Israeli planes, but we don’t fear them,” Shapir said, referring to US Navy warships located in the Mediterranean sea that are equipped with anti-aircraft missiles.

And yet, Shapir acknowledged, the existence of other missile defense systems in the region does not diminish the importance of the S-400’s deployment in so volatile a place as Syria and under the authority of so wily a leader as Vladmir Putin. “It is capable of harming Israel’s air superiority,” Shapir said.

Though Israel and Russia have thus far succeeded in coordinating their aerial attacks, the possibility always exists for potentially deadly mistakes.

Ultimately, though, the consensus among Israeli experts is that even if the situation changes dramatically, Israel always has its “Plan B” — its technological capabilities. In 2013, the IAF considered the S-300 to constitute a surmountable challenge. In 2015, there’s no reason why the S-400 shouldn’t be considered one as well.

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