The downing of the Israel Air Force F16 plane on Saturday, apparently by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles or their fragments, surprised Israel and put in question its technological defense systems, which were expected to give it a clear advantage over its neighbors. However, despite the fact that the Syrian anti-aircraft system is outdated, relying on the S-300 missiles that were first deployed by the Soviet Union in 1979, it is considered relatively efficient and accurate, and now, for the first time in 35 years, it managed to bring down an Israeli advanced fighter plane.
Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV center at the Fisher Institute in Herzliya, on Sunday told Israeli media outlets that the Syrian anti-aircraft system did not erode during the civil war, except where rebels entered bases and destroyed some of the missiles.
Would the Syrian military engage incoming Israeli attack planes without permission from the Russians? Inbar believes that although the whole Syrian air defense system is based on Soviet and later Russian systems, “it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that for every launch of a surface-to-air missile, the Russians must be informed.”
In his view, the Syrian missiles are located in several different places under junior command, and only in certain cases is authorization from above required – save for situations where Russians would be hurt, “and I assume that there were no Russians in the air at the time,” he said.
“The defense system deployed by the Russian military in Syria, using the S-300 and advanced radar systems, can identify aerial activity in the skies of Syria, and therefore the coordination between Israel and Russia is necessary. But if there is no Russian activity in the air, what do they care if the Syrians are shooting?” Inbar explained.
“There are long-range surface-to-air missiles like the SA5, which, although they are outdated and stationary launch pads, can intercept planes deep inside Israel,” Inbar said.
The NPO Almaz S-200, listed by NATO as SA-5 Gammon, is a very long-range, medium-to-high altitude surface-to-air missile system designed in the 1960s to defend large areas from bomber attack or other strategic aircraft. Each battalion has 6 single-rail missile launchers for the 35 ft long missiles and a fire control radar. It can be linked to other, longer-range radar systems.
Noting that Israel uses advanced electronic technology to distract and confuse the Sa-5 and S-300, in the end, the most advanced technology cannot guarantee a 100% protection “in skies that are saturated with dozens of missiles,” Inbar said.
He also noted that after decades during which Israeli warplanes were operating unmolested in Syria’s airspace, the downing of one plane was to be expected, statistically.
Undoubtedly, the downing of one of its warplanes was a wakeup call to the IAF, on the eve of what’s shaping up to be a full-out clash with its worst enemies in the region.