Cabinet Crisis May Spur Israeli Air Force Showdown with Russian S-300s in Syria

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation as Israel’s Defense Minister. He may have seen in Russian news media the day before a series of strange images under the caption: “Israel Allegedly Trains to Destroy Russian Air Defense Systems.” They illustrated an article relating that “Osa and Kvadrat surface-to-air missiles systems were supplied to Syria by the Soviet Union and are known by their NATO codename SA-8 and SA-6, respectively. Photos, believed taken in the Negev desert and unearthed on Twitter show inflatable dummies of those same Soviet designed surface-to-air missile systems, which the Israeli Air Force is allegedly using during training.”

The publications note that, some days ago, Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, Ze’ev Elkin, told Russian reporters that Moscow’s deliveries of S-300 air defense systems were a “big mistake” and Tel Aviv would attack them if they were used against Israeli jets.

The Russian media article was an apparent follow-up to the brief encounter two days earlier between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Paris, and offers some salient pointers;

  1. Moscow now understands that Israel is determined to resume its air strikes against Iranian and Hizballah targets in Syria even at the cost of braving the S-300 missiles.
  2. Russia is bound to fire those missiles against any Israel’s warplanes taking part in those strikes.

3, It is also clear to Moscow that Elkin’s threat to attack and destroy any anti-air batteries used against Israeli planes was for real.

  1. If this happened, it would be the first direct collision between US-manufactured fifth generation F-35 stealth planes and advanced Russian air defense missiles and, just as significantly, the first test of US, Russian and Israeli and electronic warfare systems in battle. The Russians are not seeking this contest, but neither are they avoiding it, Putin informed Netanyahu in Paris.

Defense Minister Lieberman, in outlining the rationale for his resignation (see a separate article), accused the Netanyahu government and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot of indecision and vacillation among different fronts. He commented sarcastically, “I know all their arguments about a front in the west, a front in the east, a front in the south and a front in the north, the remote cycles (Iran) and the near cycles (Iranian forces in Syria) – all of them nothing but excuses,” he said.

The emergence of the rift in the cabinet and Lieberman’s allegations oblige the prime minister to prove him wrong by using the Gaza ceasefire, such as it is, to go back to actively curbing Iran’s expanding presence and deepening grip on Syria. Inaction will lay him open to the popular perception that the former defense minister got it right.

Under political duress, Netanyahu will likely order the air force to go on the offensive again in the face of the S-300s and the electronic blanket the Russians have thrown over Syria since the downing of the Russian spy plane in the second half of September.

The timing is apt additionally because, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, the Russian army has not fully completed the deployment of its air defense network across Syria. Russian spokesmen keep on stating that all foreign aircraft (including American) no longer have freedom of action in Syrian air space, although so far the S-300 batteries are only in position in a few, select areas of Syria.

Because one S-300PMU2 battalion can track 300 targets (and engage 36 with 72 missiles) simultaneously at very long range, the acquisition of these battalions greatly enhances Syria’s early warning capabilities, making it that much harder for Israel to mount surprise attacks.

At the same time, Syria does not have enough S-300/S-400 batteries to “lock” all of its air space, only to protect certain high-value targets. So as soon as the US/Israelis get a sense of what is deployed, where and how the integrated defense network works, they can chart and pinpoint their aerial operations. There is another weakness they can exploit: Each air defense missile has a probable kill capability of one target, so the US and Israel could mount a saturation attack by more missiles than the Russian systems can muster to kill them. This relative balance is not expected to change in the foreseeable future, even when all the Russian air defense systems become operational.

The Russians must also take into account the advanced US and Israeli EW capabilities, which enable them to disrupt Russian fire and reconnaissance systems, especially when low-RCS flying aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, are used in an attack. Low-RCS aircraft and missiles don’t need to operate alone and are often engaged with the support of a determined EW effort.

And finally, the US and Israel own long-range weapons, which could strike Syria from outside its borders, such as the AGM-158 JASSM low RCS standoff air-launched cruise missile, especially during a combined electronic warfare and standoff anti-radiation missile attack.

Even if all these advantages combine for a successful air offensive over Syria, Israel and the US will be left with a recurring problem: the air defense missiles they knock out can be replenished. By that time, too, Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will have taken the measure of Israel’s tactics and be ready with answers for standing up to US and Israel aerial assaults. This round of hi-tech will almost certainly generate a new arms race in Syria.

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