Putin Hands a Yellow Card to Israel and Its Air Force. What Comes Next?

Russia and Israel have been waging an unacknowledged competition for 35 years to prove which has developed the better military electronic system for stopping hostile aircraft.
July 17, 2016 was a red letter day for the Russians. An unidentified unmanned aerial vehicle crossed in from Syria over the Golan and penetrated 4 km into Israeli air space before turning back unscathed. An IDF spokesperson confirmed the event, without saying who send the drone. Hizballah tried claiming responsibility.
But a month later, in a phone call with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Vladimir Putin admitted the drone was Russian and had accidentally violated Israeli airspace as a result of human error.
This event cause great concern in Israel because the IDF had failed in three attempts to shoot the intruding drone down – two by US-made anti-air Patriot missiles and one by an air-to-air missile fired from an Israeli air force fighter to intercept it.
To this day, no one is sure whether the Israeli anti-missile defense system and air force were having a bad day, or the Russians had developed an innovative technology enabling its UAVs to evade anti-air missiles.
The Russians were in fact pleased with finally getting some of their own back for their long-ago debacle in 1982, when the Israeli Air Force in one raid wiped out the entire Syrian air defense system in Lebanon.
That system was the finest product of Russia’s electronic warfare industry and parts were manned by Russian officers.
Since then, Moscow has been working hard to close the military electronic gap with Israel. The drone’s successful evasion last July was seen as a major success towards that end. But a setback came with Israel’s in-depth air raid on March 17, which destroyed a Hizballah target near the northeastern Syrian T4 airbase on the Palmyra-Homs highway.
That air strike reopened the electronic competition for the following reasons:
1. There is a mutual accord between the Russian and Israeli air force commands not to get in the way of the other’s operations in Syrian air space.
2. A hot line links the two defense ministries for instantly dealing with breaches of that accord as a result of unforeseen accidents or misunderstandings.
3. There was an understanding in the Kremlin, the Russian air force and Hmeimim air base that Israeli air strikes would be confined to the south up to a line just north of Damascus and its military air port. Flights further north were to be confined to surveillance missions. This restriction supported Moscow’s rationale for justifying the Russian air force presence in Syria, which is to block all interference in Syrian air force operations over central, northern and eastern Syria.
4. Israel never confirmed, nor was asked to confirm, this understanding.
5. But taking it on trust from Moscow, Iran believed that its shipment to the T4 base of high-tech electronics for Hizballah was well out of range of Israel’s usual beat for smashing deliveries to the Lebanese group.
For that reason, Syria, the Russians and Iranians, were bowled over by the Israeli air strike so far north. It took a while for the Russian and Syrian commands to gather their wits and activate Syrian anti-air missile batteries against the intruders. By then, the Israeli F15 jets were back in their own air space some 400km from T4.
As soon as Israel’s air defense officers identified the SA-22 missile chasing its planes and in danger of landing on a populated location inside the country, they launched an Arrow to intercept it.
Moscow can scarcely pass over this electronic setback without making some response. Not only did Russia’s Syrian-based air force and air defense units fail to rise to the challenge and stop the Israeli attack, but the missile which was fired was shot down by the Israeli Arrow.
A Russian commentator summed up the Kremlin’s embarrassment after this episode:
However, this system (the military agreement between Russia and Israel) works only on condition that the balancing party successfully balances, that it finds common ground and does not allow the situation to be brought into direct military conflict, which can pull in all other countries in the region. If that happens, the strategic triangles (Russia, Israel, Syria and Iran) are destroyed and the balancer is forced either to take the side of one of the participants, or give way to a more efficient competitor who is capable of building new triangles.
If this is how President Putin perceives the incident, then Jerusalem and Tel Aviv should expect more reprisals from Moscow than the double dressing down administered quietly to the Israeli ambassador to Moscow.

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