Analyzing last weekend’s Israel-Syria-Iran clash

Popular Mechanics sums up the events last weekend.

The flight of a single drone this weekend will spark the biggest Israeli air battle with Syria in more than 20 years.

Israel takes an aggressively defensive posture following the drone incursion. Commanders decide shooting down the drone is not enough to punish the Iranians who operate it. They want to degrade their enemy’s ability to fly drones from Syria into Israel.

Israel’s attacking tools of choice are F-16 fighters … The IDF target is a command-and-control vehicle containing the crew that operates the Simorgh drone.

. . .

Syrian air defense crews don’t take the raid lying down. Israel’s bombing of Hezbollah, even inside Syrian airspace, is one thing. Killing the troops of the Syrian regime’s Iranian allies is something else, and fighting back, even if it fails, is important to save face … the sky swarms with anti-aircraft missiles, all seeking to kill a warplane before it crosses back into the safety of Israeli airspace … Suddenly, one with a proximity fuse detonates nearby, peppering the F-16 with whirling metal. They’ve been hit.

The F-16 is damaged, and the pilots have to eject.

. . .

By 8 A.M. the Israelis are ready to respond to the shootdown. The government calls it “a large-scale attack” against the Syrian air defenses and says it’s the biggest operation against Syria since 1982’s war over Lebanon.

Israel targets SA-5 and SA-17 sites, apparently able to track the mobile batteries. The government claims 12 separate locations for airstrikes, and make sure to target Iranian installations as well as Syrian military sites. The raid is one of the largest taken against Syria in recent years … The Israeli warplanes are again met with volleys of anti-aircraft missiles. None touch an Israeli airplane.

There’s more at the link.

The first thing that struck me was how many missiles were fired at the F-16 that was shot down.  According to Israeli sources, at least 20 missiles were used, of which only one got close enough to detonate via proximity fuse and damage the fighter, causing the two crew members to eject.  That’s pretty poor performance from the missiles and those controlling them.  Clearly, the jet’s maneuvers and countermeasures were sufficient to defeat most of the incoming threats.  I presume the sheer number of incoming weapons finally overwhelmed the aircraft’s defenses.

That did not apply when the Israeli Air Force responded by going after the missile batteries.  There were no further Israeli planes shot down, despite what must have been dozens of attacking aircraft and literally hundreds of missiles launched against them.  That’s pretty telling.  Once the IAF began using all its electronic defenses, they were effectively immune from Syrian weapons – which is very bad news for Syria and its Iranian allies.  Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon, which is aiding and abetting Syria and Iran, will also take cold comfort from that fact, as it will be very vulnerable to those same aircraft if another shooting war breaks out on its home turf.

(I presume Russia did not use its S-400 missile system, deployed in and around its bases in Syria;  and I presume the IAF were very careful not to target anything too near those Russian bases, to avoid any such development.)

Another element is the compressed timescale in which the engagement took place.  The drone was shot down in the early hours of the morning.  Within a couple of hours, eight F-16 strike aircraft hit the trailer containing the launch controls and crew that had operated it.  One of those aircraft was shot down.  Within a couple of hours of the shoot-down, a massive retaliatory strike involving dozens of aircraft was hitting targets all over Syria, in the face of massive air defenses that clearly didn’t faze the attacking pilots at all.  That’s a very rapid escalation of response, and indicates the Israeli Air Force can go from zero to all-out operations in a very short time indeed.  Kudos to them.  I doubt whether any other air force in the world could have responded that quickly, or that effectively.

Another consequence of the weekend’s engagement is likely to be that Israel will buy more aircraft capable of carrying large numbers of heavy strike weapons, with a sufficiently long range to carry them to where they’re needed and sufficient defenses to keep them safe on the inward and outward journey.  Flight Global reports:

Israel’s air force command wants to keep a “critical mass” of fighters that can carry a variety of heavy weapon systems, including those produced by local companies. The immediate effort is to acquire additional surplus F-15s from the USA, on top of the nine ex-Air National Guard examples delivered last September. Once intended for use only as a source of spare parts, these are now being upgraded to the same standard as the Israeli service’s F-15C/D “Baz” strike aircraft. This process includes air force technicians performing fuselage, wing and tail surface treatments and installing Israeli-made systems.

The 10 February clash also will serve to expedite plans to establish a missile unit within Israel’s ground forces to strike at threats from within home territory … [Syria’s] military appears to be prepared to mirror Iranian doctrine by launching large salvoes of weapons against airborne threats: a practice which could encourage Israel to employ surface-to-surface missiles where possible – protecting its air force assets from attacking such targets up to a distance of 400km (216nm). Defence minister Avigdor Lieberman earlier this year expressed his full support for the development of such a capability.

Again, more at the link.

Israel is no stranger to missile systems of many types.  It’s built intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (the Jericho series) and artillery rockets (the LAR-160 system, the Accular family, the Romach precision-guided rocket, and the EXTRA long-range rocket), and the Predator Hawk and LORA tactical ballistic missiles.  In 2016 the IDF expressed interest in buying a large quantity of precision-guided ground-to-ground rockets or missiles with a range of between 150 and 300 kilometers (93 to 186 miles).  Therefore, Minister Lieberman’s latest comment is merely the latest in a long series of developments, and is entirely logical.  It supplements the Israeli Air Force’s strike aircraft, rather than replace them.  In theory, the missiles could be used as a “first strike” weapon, meaning that pilots won’t have to put themselves and their aircraft at risk.  The missiles are also faster and much more difficult to intercept than cruise missiles or armed UAV’s.

This is a particularly difficult development for Syria, Iran and Hezbollah to counter.  In order to defeat such ground-to-ground rockets and missiles, defenses such as Israel’s Iron Dome and related systems will be necessary – but none of those parties have any such systems, and because Israel is their only source at present, no-one else will be able to provide them in the short term.  In addition, the launch of counter-missiles against incoming weapons will reveal the location of defensive batteries and radars – and Israel is not likely to allow such installations to survive being revealed for very long.  I wouldn’t like to be a crew member of such batteries.  I suspect their life expectancies will be rather short, in the the event of conflict.

Note, too, that the latest air strikes apparently did not involve Israel’s new F-35 strike aircraft.  They appear to have sat this one out.  (It’s rumored that the US has requested the F-35’s should not be used within range of Russian forces in Syria, so the latter can’t gain intelligence about its operational capabilities.)  If they weren’t used, that’s even worse news for Syria and Iran, as Israel’s attacks succeeded without the use of stealth technology.  Add the latter to the mix, and future Israeli strikes will be even more difficult to intercept.

Israel believes that its most recent air attacks, apparently the most extensive since the 1982 Bekaa Valley air war, have destroyed about half of Syria’s total air defense system.  That’s a loss Syria can’t afford, and one that will cost a great deal to replace and refurbish.  I hope Syria and Iran got the message . . . otherwise I predict Syria will lose the other half in short order, and probably more besides.



  1. I wonder about the Israeli F-35s. Even if they never fired a shot, I think they would have contributed tremendously to the lop-sided results by flying stealthily around acting as passive sensor platforms and coordinating the strikes of the older aircraft.

  2. When is Syria going to learn not to mess with the Israelis? Oh, wait, never.

    And yeah, the F-35s were probably tooling around the Israeli border using their sensors as part of the overall sensor net, as that is one of the expensive functions of that bird.

    Mayhaps it was as a known threat. Hey, Syria, we're messing you up with our -16s. We're beating you with one arm and two legs tied behind our back. Neener-neener!

    Not that Israel has ever sunk to taunting their enemies. Nope, never happens, yeah…

  3. I'd be interested to learn more about "technicians performing fuselage, wing and tail surface treatments" to the F-15's they bought from the US. Were these treatments to compensate for age and use, or were they something else, such as stealth material, antennas, or performance enhancements?
    The Israelis have a history of being very innovative and secretive; it would not be surprising if they have undisclosed technology that makes the F-15s harder to detect and harder to hit than other countries know.

  4. Another reason that the F-35's were not used is that the IAF F-16's should be able to carry (at a minimum) 8 SDB's that have a range of 45 miles (at least) and have the ability to hit moving targets. Let alone not so mobile missile batteries. This range and ability to hit moving targets lets the IAF engage targets before the targets know they are in extremis.
    And the F-35 has had problems with carrying the SDB's.

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