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Russian jammer in Syria said to cause interference with flights to Israel

Pilot says spoofing, which tricks plane’s GPS into thinking it is elsewhere, is affecting civilian flights over Mediterranean; Israel complained publicly of issue in 2019

Illustrative: An El Al plane lands at Ben Gurion Airport, on October 13, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: An El Al plane lands at Ben Gurion Airport, on October 13, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Airplanes flying into Israel from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea are again experiencing navigation problems, due to a signal spoofing system installed by Russia in Syria, Kan news reported Monday.

According to the report, pilots began having issues a few weeks ago and Israel has sent a message to Moscow informing it that the system is interfering with its civilian airspace.

Russia, however, has reportedly rebuffed the Israeli request, insisting the system is needed to protect its soldiers stationed in Syria.

The interference with the airplanes’ GPS reception appears to stem from a form of electronic warfare known as “spoofing,” which Russia has been accused of doing in the past as a defensive measure, despite the disruptions it causes to nearby aircraft and ships.

The report said Israel was working to “neutralize” the jamming, without elaborating.

According to Kan, the issue is related to a signal jammer installed at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia, close to where some alleged Israeli airstrikes have taken place recently. However, officials reportedly believe the jamming to be aimed at other targets, with Israel as collateral damage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets troops alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad on a visit to the Hmeimim air base in Syria, December 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP/File)

One pilot told the broadcaster that the spoofing has caused pilots to have to react suddenly, such as when a plane’s GPS guidance system tells it is in a different place than it is, or that it suddenly has to pull up immediately.

“What we’ve run into is [electromagnetic] spectrum interference from the east, which has taken us a while to understand,” the pilot said.

Even before the report on the jamming, some amateur radar watchers took notice of odd behavior by planes nearing Israel.

In 2019, Israel civil air authorities complained publicly that similar Russian interference was having a “significant impact on all aspects of operating a plane from the cockpit, as well as on managing air traffic.”

Russia dismissed the allegations as fake news, but the problem was dealt with, until recently.

This time, there has been no official confirmation or complaint about the interference.

The pilot charged that officials knew of the problem but were “burying their heads in the sand,” rather than issuing an official complaint.

“The IDF controls the spectral dimension and defends and acts against threats as part of the multidimensional defense of the State of Israel,” the military told Kan in response.

The broadcaster also said some in Israel believe the jamming was an effort by Russia to show who is boss in Syria, noting the many airstrikes there attributed to the Israeli military.

The source of a signal interfering with GPS reception for planes flying over Israel, located on Russia’s Hmeimim Air Base in western Syria, from a presentation by aerospace engineer Todd Humphreys to the US government in June 2019. (Courtesy)

The report comes after Syrian state TV said Israel carried out strikes near Damascus early Monday. It was the first such attack since Russia announced last week it was carrying out joint military jet patrols with the Syrian air force of the airspace along Syria’s borders, including in the Golan Heights area.

Following the patrol, the Ynet news site reported that Israeli military officials were holding talks with Russian army officers to calm tensions.

According to the report, Israeli officials were struggling to understand why Russia, which announced that such joint patrols were expected to be a regular occurrence moving forward, had apparently changed its policy toward Israel.

The report claimed, without citing a source, that Israel may limit its air campaign in Syria as a result of Russia’s move, even after discussions end.

Israel has staged hundreds of strikes on targets inside government-controlled Syria over the years, but rarely acknowledges or discusses specific operations. Many of the strikes in the past targeted the main airport in the capital Damascus, through which Iran is believed to transfer advanced arms to its proxies.

Israel has acknowledged that it targets the bases of Iranian forces and Iran-allied terror groups, particularly along the Golan border, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has fighters deployed in southern Syria. It says it also attacks arms shipments believed to be bound for those groups.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are all fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the decade-long civil war.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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