The Buzz

Israeli's Deadly Air Force Has Been Destroying Syria's Russian-Built Air Defense Systems

Since 2012, Israeli aircraft have launched dozens of air strikes on Syrian government, Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Syria. These attacks reached a new peak in May 9 when, in response to an Iranian rocket artillery attack, twenty-eight Israeli F-15s and F-16s launched more than sixty guided weapons at targets throughout Syria.

In addition to numerous Iranian logistical bases and staging areas, the Israeli jets also fired on Syrian air defenses that attempted to engage them, destroying five Syrian missile batteries. These reportedly included older, fixed S-75 and S-200 batteries, as well as more modern, self-propelled Buk-M2E and Pantsir-S1 systems. No Israeli jets were shot down.

The destruction of the Pantsir-S1 (NATO codename SA-22), which you can see in this video, has aroused interest because it is a relatively up-to-date short-range air defense system. While Israeli fighters likely attacked it from beyond its retaliation range, the Pantsir is supposedly capable of shooting down cruise missiles—precisely the type of weapon used to destroy it.

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In the video, the vehicle crew do not appear to react to the incoming guided munition, let alone shoot at it with its close-defense automatic cannon. While this would seem to be a failure of its infrared, optical and radar sensors, some Russian commentators have suggested the crew failed to be on alert despite the mass of Israeli airstrikes taking place, or that the vehicle had run out of ammunition—which seems unlikely.

The performance on May 9 was par for the course for Syrian Air Defense Force. Despite having well over eight hundred Soviet and Russian-built surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) bound together into an integrated air-defense network supported by dozens of radars, Syrian SAMs have only shot down a single Israeli jet over years of air attacks, and failed to intercept mass cruise missile strikes on two occasions.

Admittedly, years of civil war have caused the loss of numerous fixed air-defense assets and sapped morale, logistics and training standards. One must also consider that Moscow has actually upgraded and put back into service many of the older Syrian SAMs, and deployed two batteries of its most advanced SAM systems to its base in Latakia—the S-300V4 and the S-400—as well as additional Pantsir-S1s for close defense. Though the Russian batteries are not supposed to engage Israeli aircraft, and are unlikely to shoot at U.S. aircraft (despite periodic threats to the contrary), the Russian radars have been linked to the Syrian air-defense system, thereby enhancing their radar coverage.

Nonetheless, Syria’s air defenses have had conspicuously little success despite considerable expense invested in them. Why?

Israeli Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) Capabilities

Though the Israel Air Force has begun operating a few F-35 stealth fighters, it is unlikely they participated in the raid. Instead, radar-visible fourth-generation F-15 and F-16 jets likely used ‘standoff-range’ weapons, notably the Delilah cruise missile and Small Diameter Bomb. The Delilah is a small but highly precise munition that can be programmed to loiter while its ‘hunts’ a specific target, or be manually redirected by a human operator. The Delilah’s 160-mile range slightly exceed Syria’s longest-range air defense system, the S-200. The GBU-39 and -53 Small Diameter Bombs are 285-pound glide bombs with fold-out wings that can strike targets 50–60 miles away using GPS or thermal guidance.

Israel is tied with the United States for having the most experience combatting SAM systems—and those of Syria in particular. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli F-4 Phantom and A-4 Skyhawk jets suffered heavy losses to an Egyptian integrated air defense network built along the Suez Canal. Israeli fighters eventually adapted by employing new tactics and electronic warfare systems, while ground forces went on covert raids across the canal to destroy the SAMs from the ground.