Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What will be Russia's reaction to this weekend's events?

From The Times of Israel, 12 February 2018, by Judah Ari Gross:

...Army, analysts agree: Israeli aerial superiority shouldn't be in question because one plane got shot down -- but Russia's reaction to this weekend's events is a different matter

In this image made from video provided by Yehunda Pinto, the wreckage of an Israeli F-16 is seen on fire near Harduf, northern Israel, February 10, 2018. (Yehunda Pinto via AP)
In this image made from video provided by Yehunda Pinto, the wreckage of an Israeli F-16 is seen on fire near Harduf, northern Israel, February 10, 2018. (Yehunda Pinto via AP)

The apparent downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet by Syrian air defenses was an enormous public relations win for dictator Bashar Assad and his allies Iran and Hezbollah.

...In Israel, the downed F-16 prompted widespread hand-wringing and discussions about whether or not the Jewish state still maintains air superiority in the region.

...[But] Israel hasn’t had true air superiority in the region since late 2015, when Russia decided to install an S-400 missile defense battery in Syria powerful enough to track the vast majority of Israeli airspace.

S-400 Triumf missile defense system at the Russian Hmeimin military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015. (Paul Gypteau/AFP)

...“A fly can’t buzz above Syria without Russian consent nowadays,” an Israeli defense official told the International Crisis Group think tank after the S-400 was installed.

...The F-16 was shot down on Saturday morning after it and seven other fighter jets took part in an airstrike on the T-4 military base near Palmyra in central Syria, from which the IDF says an Iranian operator flew an Iranian drone into Israeli territory an hour earlier.

The downing of the F-16 might have ended a false notion of the Israeli Air Force’s invincibility, but it does not have serious negative consequences for Israel’s aerial dominance, experts say.

View of the remains of an F-16 plane that crashed near Kibbutz Harduf on February 10, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

Far more serious is the potential for Russia to end the policy it has maintained until now of not taking direct action against Israeli planes conducting airstrikes against targets in Syria.

...The Israeli military does not see the downing of the F-16 as the disastrous loss it’s being painted as and still considers itself as having aerial superiority, though it does recognize it as a “significant event,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told The Times of Israel on Monday.
“Yes, a plane was shot down... But let’s keep it in proportion. The important thing is that an hour after this plane fell, we went out and destroyed about half of Syria’s air defenses.”...

How it came down
The initial assessments of the event indicate that the plane was brought down while flying over Israel after a large volley of anti-aircraft missiles — at least five, but possibly more — were fired at it, Conricus said.

The army said it was still investigating if the plane was brought down because it was operating at a high altitude to ensure its bombs were hitting their targets, which made it easier for Syrian air defenses to spot and fire at it, and failed to react quickly enough, as was reported in Israeli media outlets on Sunday.

Conricus said the initial investigation should be completed shortly, after reviewing the evidence and speaking with the flight crew.

On Monday, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily also reported that another fighter jet was also targeted by the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles in the same barrage but managed to escape.

It therefore does not appear to be the result of any kind of new Syria capability or unknown Israeli vulnerability, but some combination of human error, lucky timing and, perhaps, a degree of hubris by the flight team.

Brig. Gen. Amnon Ein Dar, head of the air force’s Training and Doctrine Division:
“There’s no [new] issue that we hadn’t previously identified. We operate in Syria continuously, conducting thousands of missions in Syria in just the last year...There are many levels of protection for a plane during a mission: intelligence, electronic [warfare], the flight team itself. We’re going to go level by level to find out what happened...” 
Dominance in the air battle
Regardless of the exact cause of the F-16’s destruction, one event is not what determines air superiority, according to Yiftah Shapir, a former air force officer and analyst on quantitative military balance who has written on the concept.

An Israeli Air Force F-16C takes off during the Blue Flag air exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 8, 2017. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Air superiority is defined by NATO as “that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”

As a result, Shapir said on Monday, “You never look at one lone case. You calculate the possibilities. If X air defense can bring down this or that many airplanes, then you can say if it’s prohibitive or not.”

Those equations don’t change because of one airplane, said Shapir, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Lt. Col. (res.) Reuven Ben-Shalom, a former IAF pilot and current analyst, was even more direct.
“It doesn’t mean anything about our air superiority. You can have superiority and you can win, while still losing people...” ...
Ben-Shalom described the downing of an F-16, sinking of a ship or destruction of a tank as simply the cost of waging war, though he said it’s not one the Israeli public is used to paying.

...The issue, according to Ben-Shalom and Shapir, is in part that the Israeli Air Force has been too good in recent years, leading to unrealistic expectations.
“It is nothing short of a wonder that in the operations in Gaza [terrorist groups] haven’t been able to take a fleck of paint off our aircraft,” Shapir said, noting that these groups have shoulder-fired missiles and other weapons that could feasibly hit an Israeli helicopter or low-flying plane.

According to Ben-Shalom, who runs a strategy firm, these victories have made “us used to acting freely and nothing happening.”...

While the downing of the F-16 might not indicate a change in Israeli air dominance, it is not yet fully clear what impact this weekend will have on the air force’s freedom of operation in Syria.

On the one hand, the air force’s destruction of a large percentage of Syria’s air defense would indicate that Israel could operate more freely in the country in the future.

The serious blow to the Syrian anti-aircraft systems, which air force officials say was the most significant of its kind since 1982, was also meant to send a message to Assad of what’s to come if he again fires on Israeli aircraft. If that was internalized by the despot, this too could smooth the way for future Israeli missions in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, November 20, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin via AP)

The Russian complication
But on the other hand, there is rising concern over how Russia — by whose grace Israeli pilots are currently flying — will react to its ally, Assad, getting pummeled by Israel.

Moscow, which has not accepted Israel’s claims, could make its efforts more difficult, risky and complicated, Ben-Shalom said, though he is convinced that Israel could get by even if Russia took a more antagonistic view.

According to Shapir, the problem is not the capabilities of Russia’s S-400 themselves, but that Israel would rather not go to direct war by attempting to disable the system, which it might be more inclined to do if it belonged to another country.
“[Israel’s freedom of movement] isn’t limited because the system is an S-400, but because it is flying the Russian flag...” ...

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Iran-Israel War Flares Up

From WSJ, 11 February 2018, by Tony Badran and  Jonathan Schanzer*:

The fight is over a Qods Force presence on the Syria-Israel border. How will the U.S. respond?

Israeli soldiers inspect the wreckage of the downed F-16 Saturday.
Israeli soldiers inspect the wreckage of the downed F-16 Saturday. 

The conflict between Israel and Iran may be heating up after a half-decade simmer. On Friday night Iran dispatched a drone from Syria that penetrated Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights. Israel destroyed it with an Apache helicopter. Then on Saturday Israel sent eight F-16s across the border to strike the airfield in the Homs governorate, called the T-4 base, where the drone originated, as well as a handful of other Iranian targets. Although the mission was a success, one F-16 was shot down by Syrian antiaircraft fire—though the pilot made it back to Israel, where he and his navigator ejected successfully.

This was the most significant clash to date between Israel and the so-called Axis of Resistance—Iran, Syria’s Assad regime and Hezbollah—since Iran began deploying soldiers and proxies to Syria six years ago. 

Israel insists its response was limited and its intent is to contain this conflagration. Its critics worry that the skirmish could explode into one of the worst wars the Middle East has ever seen.

The Iranians have been exploiting the chaos of the Syrian civil war to build up military assets there that target Israel, all the while sending advanced weaponry to Lebanon by way of Damascus, also under the fog of war. 

The Israelis have been vigilant; they have destroyed some of this hardware in Syria with one-off strikes. In December they struck an Iranian base southwest of Damascus, some 30 miles from the Golan Heights. But they had never entered Syria with the kind of overwhelming force seen on Saturday morning.

What prompted this level of response is still unclear. Israeli military officials won’t say whether the Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle was armed. It would be a surprise, though, if Israel’s reprisal was prompted by an unarmed UAV. Indeed, this was not the first drone incursion into the Golan Heights. Last year, Israel’s missile defenses intercepted several Iranian-built drones, operated by Hezbollah, attempting to enter Israeli airspace from Syria.

The Israel Defense Forces had warned that the T-4 base was crawling with fighters from Iran’s Qods Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had paid multiple visits to Moscow hoping to convince President Vladimir Putin to curb the threatening activities of Iran and its proxies. Mr. Putin has established a formidable presence in Syria since 2015, when his forces entered the country ostensibly to combat Islamic State.

The Israelis took a significant risk Saturday of rankling the Russians, especially since they reportedly did not warn Moscow of the attack in advance. Russian personnel sometimes embed with Syrian air-defense units and are sometimes present at the T-4 base. Thus the strike might have been intended as a message to the Russians as much as to the Iranian axis.

Whether Russia had advance knowledge of the Iranian drone operation isn’t clear. Nor do we know whether Russia was involved in unleashing the Syrian surface-to-air missiles that downed the Israeli F-16. What we do know is that after many Israeli airstrikes in Syria over many months, this was the first time Syrian antiaircraft weapons managed to hit a target. That points toward Russian involvement.

Even so, the Israelis were not deterred from launching, within hours, a second wave of airstrikes against additional Iranian and Syrian targets, including air-defense sites, many of which likely had been monitored for months. According to Israeli sources, the second wave was the largest aerial attack against Syria since the Lebanon war of 1982, when the Israeli Air Force hammered Syria’s Soviet-built surface-to-air missile batteries in the Bekaa Valley.

Now all eyes are on Israel as it mulls its next moves. For Jerusalem, the status quo is unsustainable. The Iranians are clearly willing to absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position, which will prepare them for a future conflict with the Jewish state. So while Israel’s political leaders are eager to avoid conflict, the military brass may soon determine that postponing it would be the riskier course.

The Israelis also are working the phones with the Trump administration, which has affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. That declaration will carry significance as Israel considers its options. Washington continues to tweak its new policy of targeting Iran with multiple instruments of American power. But this policy is encumbered somewhat by the White House’s agreement with Russia to maintain a “de-escalation zone” in southwest Syria—an agreement that clearly benefits Iran and the status quo.

The Pentagon and State Department have already condemned Iran and thrown their support behind Israel. The question now is whether the Trump administration will go further. In a speech last month unveiling the administration’s strategy for Syria, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that the U.S. seeks not only to ensure its allies’ security but to deny Iran its “dreams of a northern arch” from Tehran to Beirut. A good way to achieve both objectives would be to back Israel’s responses to Iran’s aggression—now and in the future.

*Mr. Badran is a research fellow and Mr. Schanzer senior vice president for research of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.