Pantsir taken out

On 9 May, Iranian forces in Syria launched several rockets against Israel. The Israeli response was swift and included one of the largest air campaigns the region has seen.

However, attention soon turned to one single strike in particular, as the Israeli forces released a video clip shot by a missile taking out a Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 GREYHOUND). While it has earlier been reported that Pantsirs have been destroyed in Syria (a misidentified Mercedes truck a year ago comes to mind), this is the first confirmed instance I have seen.

The Pantsir is the short-range companion to Russia’s more famous long-range S-300/S-400 air defence missiles, and its role is to swat down any aircraft or air-launched weapons which manage to penetrate to close range where the longer-ranged systems are less capable. In line with the Russian marketing of the longer-ranged systems, the Pantsir is described as “near 100 % efficiency” and some western journalists have described it as showing how Russia’s “air defenses outpace America’s”. Needless to say, there are preciously little evidence to support Russia’s claims, and as the Israeli video is one of the rare documented encounters between the system and an airborne enemy it quickly generated considerable discussions.

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Pantsir on Kamaz 6560, note the lowered radar hiding the U-shaped support. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

On one hand, some questioned whether the system was a decoy, others whether it was operational, and some declared the whole Pantsir-family as being nothing but expensive trash. All in all, the short clip deserves further scrutiny.

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It is clear that the radar is elevated and pointing backwards, as the U-shaped radar support is visible (blue). The weapons are pointing towards the rear, which is the transport position (though if the whole vehicle was rigged for transport, the radar would be lying flat facing upwards). The front of the truck corresponds with the Kamaz 6560 which is used by the most numerous Russian version (red).

Could it be a decoy? Parking out in the open on the tarmac and not making any attempt at covering the system certain seems to be begging to be destroyed. However, a crucial detail is visible in the video. A group of people are standing next to the vehicle, and seconds before the missile impact it one of them runs towards it.

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Whether he was trying to save it or fire at the attacker is unsure, but in any case you would not run towards a decoy being fired upon. A brave act, but far too late.

Interestingly enough, images of the destroyed vehicle also appeared afterwards.

The picture matches the video as far as it is possible to tell. The truck is hit just aft of the cabin, the weapons are facing rearwards, and the radar is raised. The versions floating around on pro-Assad accounts often refer to the IAI Harop, a loitering UAV, while other sources often mention the Delilah loitering cruise missile (others still refer to the Spike NLOS, a very long range anti-tank missile). All three carry relatively small warheads consistent with the kind of damage visible in the picture. However, the only evidence in either direction I’ve seen is that the sight picture does seem to match the Delilah better than it does for the other two.

In any case, the exact weapon doesn’t really matter, as this was not a case of an Israeli wonder-weapon being able to crack the defences of the Pantsir. Instead, it is clear that poor training on the part of the Syrian air defences, coupled with the lack of a clear situational picture, spelt the end for the Pantsir. The latter comes as no surprise, considering the numerous Israeli strikes targeting the integrated air defence network operated by Syria, but as shown by Serbia during Operation Allied Force, it is possible to stay alive and at least constitute a force-in-being even if the individual units have to fight their own war. This however require basic skills and training which the Syrians clearly lacked in this case. The Pantsir had no job standing out in the open if it lacked missiles, and it never had any job being parked in such an open spot without camouflage (as a matter of fact, it can fire on the move, so parking out in the open even if camouflaged might not be the best option).

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S-300PMU-2 TEL. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

For the Russians getting the Pantsir knocked out was something of an embarrassment, and they have been quick to point out that it must have either been out of ammo or otherwise non-operational. While that seems to indeed have been the case, it should be noted that days after the strike, the Russian government made a U-turn with regards to supplying the advanced long-range S-300PMU-2 free-of-charge to Syria. The idea was floated after the Western cruise missile strikes, but is now apparently completely scrapped. Many sources attribute this to Israeli prime minister Netanyahu’s successful lobbying during his recent visit to Moscow, but one has to wonder if not the incompetency shown by the Syrians operating the Pantsir caused concerns about the international embarrassment a successful strike against the S-300 would cause for the Russian arms manufacturers. As such, taking out the Pantsir might indeed have had significant regional consequences, but it does not in any way prove the system itself either good or bad.

Syrian Chase

From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.

This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.

Red: Iskander-M ballistic missile range (700 km). Blue: S-400 with 40N6 SAM-range (400 km). Source: Wikimedia Commons/VictorAnyakin

I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.

The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.

If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.

However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.

The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.

Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.

Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.

As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.

A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.

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S-300PMU-2 TEL. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin

While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.

This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.

 

Syrian Strikes

“They had three buildings there [Barzah scientific research center] and a parking deck,” McKenzie said.
“Now they don’t.” via USNI.

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French frigate firing off one of the three MdCN cruise missiles that were part of the strike. Source: Marine Nationale

As information about yesterday’s strikes against targets in Syria has been slowly to trickling out throughout the weekend, it is by now possible to piece together a picture of the raid. Perhaps the single most informative piece was the press briefing held by Pentagon.

In short, the following units were involved:

Armée de l’Air

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Two-seater Rafale B launching with twin SCALP EG cruise missiles under the wings. Source: French MoD

5x Dassault Rafale, launching 9 SCALP EG cruise missiles

4x Mirage 2000-5, escort

E-3FR AWACS and KC-135R/C-135F aerial refuelling aircraft

All aircraft operated out of bases in France

Royal Air Force

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Tornado GR.4 sporting two Storm Shadow cruise missiles under the fuselage. Source: British MoD / © Crown copyright 2013 (unmodified news item)

4x Tornado GR.4, launching 8 Storm Shadow cruise missiles

?x Typhoon FGR.4, escort

Operating out of RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus

USAF

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B-1B preparing to launch for the raid from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Source: US AFCENT

2x B-1B, launching 19 AGM-158A JASSM cruise missiles

?x F-16, escort

?x F-15, escort

?x F-22 Raptors, escort

Numerous supporting assets, including RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV’s for intelligence gathering, E-3 AWACS, KC-135 and KC-10 aerial refuelling aircraft, and likely a single E-11B relay aircraft

Bombers operating out of Al Udeid AB in Qatar, fighters from both Al Udeid and European bases

Edit: updated information corrected the JASSM version from -ER to the baseline version which is also in Finnish use, and included the presence of F-22’s as escort.

USMC

VMAQ-2 Transits Souda Bay
No image of the EA-6B from VMAQ-2 which was part of the raid has been released as far as I know. Here is a similar aircraft from the same squadron during a stopover in Crete, Greece, back in 2007. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mr. Paul Farley via Wikimedia Commons

1x EA-6B Prowler, ECM escort

Operated out of Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait

Marine National

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FREMM-class frigate Aquitaine (D650), likely the vessel that fired the MdCN missiles. Source: Marine National

1x FREMM-class frigate, launching 3 MdCN

Operating in the Mediterranean

US Navy

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Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Monterey (CG-61) launching TLAM missiles from the Red Sea. Source: US Navy via USNI

1x Ticonderoga-class cruiser

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer

Operating in the Red Sea, launching a total of 37 TLAM cruise missiles

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USS Higgins (DDG 76) which launched the strikes from the Persian Gulf. Source: US Navy/Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Frederick McCahan

1x Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, launching 23 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Persian Gulf

USS California at sea during sea trials.
Virgina-class SSN underway. Source: Chris Oxley/U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

1x Virgina-class attack submarine, launching 6 TLAM cruise missiles

Operating in the Mediterranean

Alert readers will note that the total amount given is 105 cruise missiles (36 air-launched, 63 ship-launched, and 6 sub-launched), coming in two above the 103 given by Russian sources. The missiles hit the following targets:

Barzah/Barzeh Scientific Research Center

Situated in the western parts of Damascus, the center was hit by 57 TLAM and 19 JASSM missiles.

Sputnik published a video reportedly shot at the scene, which seems to match the location below. It also matches the description given by the Pentagon, in that three large buildings have been completely destroyed.

Interestingly, the dual weapons used says something about the nature of the target. While the TLAM has a rather standard 1,000 lb (454 kg) class blast/fragmentation warhead (i.e. it explodes and creates shrapnel), the JASSM sports what Lockheed Martin calls a “2,000-pound [908 kg] class weapon with a dual-mode penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead” (i.e. it is made to penetrate hardened structures such as bunker before then exploding and creating shrapnel). Another thing to note is that the number 57 does not correspond to any possible combination of the salvos from individual ships, meaning that at least one vessel targeted two different sites.

Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage facility

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BDA pictures of the Him Shinshar. Source: Pentagon

The bunkers and facilities used for storing chemical weapons were hit by 22 weapons, these being 9 TLAM, 8 Storm Shadow, 2 SCALP EG, and 3 MdCN. This clearly shows the different nature of the target compared to the research center, as the number of missiles is much smaller, but also the fact that 13 out of 20 missiles were bunker-busting Storm Shadow/SCALP EG/MdCN (which are simply different local designations for the same missile, with MdCN being the ship-launched version). The Pentagon briefing described the target as ‘destroyed’, and while it is harder to verify when it comes to underground installations, significant damage is visible in the satellite imagery posted since.

Him Shinshar command facility

The final target was a command facility associated with the Him Shinshar site. This was hit by the last 7 SCALP EG. Pentagon described the facility as having taken ‘damage’, as opposed to the two others which were rated as ‘destroyed’. It is unclear if this is a failure, or simply representative of the different nature of the target. Command facilities might be able to continue to function to some extent even if key buildings are wiped out, which is not the case with a storage facility in which the storage buildings are hit.

In any case, satellite imagery shows what looks like two larger and one smaller hardened building having been targeted and destroyed.

Conclusions

Despite wild claims of the majority of the missiles having been intercepted and the rest having missed, it is clear that the raid was an unequivocal success on the tactical level. The targeted sites have all suffered heavy damage. If the description of the nature of the targets is correct, it is highly possible that the use of sarin has been made harder by the strikes. Obviously, this does not stop the regime from using a whole number of other ghastly weapons and tactics, including barrel bombs, starvation through sieges, and quite possibly industry grade chlorine (which has been featured in numerous attacks in Syria).

Notable is also the fact that several of the weapons and systems used were making their combat debuts. These include the JASSM and MdCN, as well as the Virgina-class SSN. From a Finnish viewpoint, the combat launch of JASSM (albeit not in the exact version used by the Finnish Air Force) was certainly of interest. However, it should be noted that ‘damaging’ a single command facility virtually undefended by air defences required 7 missiles of the same class as the JASSM, something which puts the Finnish acquisition of (a maximum) of 70 JASSM into perspective.

When it comes to the defences, it is clear that the talk of the S-400 deployment in Syria creating an impenetrable A2/AD-bubble stopping western strikes was not correct. While many of the earlier Israeli strikes had taken place in areas which present difficulties for the S-400 (and supporting shorter-ranged systems) to see and intercept the targets, the strike waves approaching over the eastern Mediterranean would be more or less the perfect scenario for long-ranged SAM-systems, and is very similar to the setup of systems operating from Kaliningrad which often are described as being able to deny NATO access to the Baltic Sea. While it likely was political will that stopped the Russian air defence systems from being activated, the Syrians did their best, with around 40 missiles having been reported by Pentagon as fired. While it is not impossible that some of the cruise missiles were intercepted, it is clear from the pictures linked above that even this barrage of air defence missiles was unable to serious lessen the damage suffered by the Syrians. A significant issue was likely that all missiles struck their targets within an extremely short time span, leaving the individual air defence batteries saturated.

F-16 down in Israel

News broke this morning that during the night an Israeli two-seat F-16 had come down in Israel (pictures). This chain of events started with an UAV entering Israeli airspace, which was then intercepted and shot down by an Israeli AH-64 Apache (‘Peten’/‘Saraph’ being the local designations for the AH-64A and D respectively). Four Israeli two-seat F-16’s then launched a retaliatory strike against targets in Syria, said to be the “Iranian control system” responsible for launching the UAV. Most reports seem to agree that this was located at the Syrian T4 airbase, which has played a prominent role in the Syrian war.

So far the official Israeli reports seems to avoid the use of the phrase “shot down”, instead opting for a more general “crashed”. However, while not impossible, it does seem unlikely that the F-16 would have crashed due to other reasons.

The official Israeli statements also include references to Iran being responsible. 20 minutes after the tweet above, IDF spokesperson Lt.Col. Conricus stated that “accurate hits of Iranian UAV control facility confirmed.”

The site of the Israeli crash site is located in the northwestern parts of the country (not close to Golan as some early reports indicated), at the eastern entrance to Kibbutz Harduf. The kibbutz is approximately midway between Haifa and Nazareth, and just 10 kilometers north of the major Israeli air base of Ramat David. One of the squadrons at the base is the 109th “The Valley Squadron”, which flies two-seat F-16D ‘Barak‘. While the crashed aircraft certainly could be from the squadron, it should be remembered that Israel is tiny, and the plane could easily be from another base as well.

Update 11:00 GMT +2: The aircraft is in fact a F-16I ‘Sufa‘, the highly modified Israeli version of the F-16D Block 50/52. This is clear following the publication of AFP pictures by NRK.no.  The F-16I is the IDF/AF’s aircraft of choice for long-distance strikes against ground targets, and the air force operates around 100 fighters of the version (out of an original order for 102). For the past ten years it has been a mainstay of Israeli strikes in Gaza and abroad, and is likely to be the most advanced version of the F-16 in operation anywhere when it comes to the air-to-ground role. That it was chosen for the raid against T4 does not come as a surprise.

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An F-16I ‘Sufa’ in the colours of the 107th “Knights of the Orange Tail” squadron at the Israeli Air Force Museum. Source: Own picture

Syria has earlier been happy to throw up anything they got against Israeli strikes over their territory (including the obsolete S-200), but so far the only tangible results have been the downing of some guided munitions/missiles. Crucially, it seems that the Russian air defence systems have not taken part in the defence of Syrian territory, and that Israel and Russia in fact have a rather working de-escalatory system in place. While intervention by Russian systems can’t be ruled out, a more likely explanation is that throwing up “massive amounts” of anti-aircraft fire and possibly some older SAM’s eventually got lucky.

Edit 12:06 GMT+2: Haaretz journalist quoting anonymous Israeli sources stating that it was a Syrian surface-to-air missile that brought down the F-16I.

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F-16D ‘Barak’ from The Valley Squadron. Source: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia Commons

In retaliation to the downing of the Israeli aircraft Israel struck 12 targets inside Syria, describing them as including both Syrian air defence installations and Iranian military targets. The nature of the strikes are not described in detail, and could potentially include both ground-based systems (artillery and surface-to-surface missiles) as well as air strikes. While this certainly could escalate, it is unlikely that Syria and/or Iran are interested in a full-blown war with Israel at the current time, considering that the Syrian Civil War is still going on at a quite intense pace. However, as has been seen before, wars can happen despite no one really being interested in them. On the positive side, the fact that both pilots are safe inside Israel probably triggered a significantly more limited retaliation than what would have been the case if they had come down inside Syria and been captured there.

Edit 21:36 GMT+2: So far a number of pictures claimed to show missile debris have appeared, including the ones above. These show a missile fired by some version of the 2K12 Kub (SA-6), a system which scored major successes in the Yom Kippur War 1973, but which was decisively defeated by the Israelis nine years later in operations over Lebanon 1982.

The pictures above, though said to show a S-200, are most likely from S-125 (SA-3 Goa), an even older system which was introduced in the early 1960’s. If either of these two systems were involved in the downing there was probably a significant amount of luck involved. One possibility is that the Israeli aircraft simply ran out of energy trying to dodge a large number of missiles, some sources have stated that more than 20 missiles were fired against the strike package.

Interestingly enough, Israeli sources stated that the air defence sites targeted were S-200 and Buk-sites, though so far no pictures of Buk-missiles have so far surfaced (at least not to my knowledge).

IDF has released video said to show the downing of the Iranian UAV as well as the destruction of the command vehicle. In addition, pictures of parts of the wreckage have also been released. The wreck matches the UAV shown in the released video, and is serialled either ‘006’ or ‘900’.

While the downing of an Israeli aircraft in itself won’t change the balance of the air war, this was shown clearly by the massive wave of strikes against a variety of target following the downing, it is still a significant propaganda victory for Syria/Iran/Hezbollah. As such, the greatest danger is that it could potentially cause one or several of the actors to try and push their luck further, causing a downward spiral no one really want at the moment.

Has the F-35 gone to war?

A surprising Twitter-thread by Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot Tuesday stated that the F-35 made its combat debut already in January, when it would have taken part in an Israeli raid on Damascus.

Unfortunately, I do not read French, but Air Forces Monthly published a nice overview of the info, found here.

The raid has been known from before, and was directed against Mezze Air Base (alternative spellings include ‘Mazzeh’ and ‘Mezzeh’) in the western outskirts of Damascus, around 45 km from the armistice line marking de facto Israeli territory post-1973. The base is clearly visible in Google Maps. Notable observations include:

  • The base seems to house mainly military helicopters, though a few fast jets are visible,
  • A number of hardened-aircraft shelters are found, naturally it is impossible to tell if more aircraft are housed in these,
  • Several of the revetments at the ‘amoeba’-area in the middle of the field seems to have been hit. Several small marks could indicate either cluster munitions, secondary explosions/shrapnel/fires from aircraft standing there being hit, or salvos of (light) mortar fire.

The base has been hit several times by the Israelis, including in December last year. Then the alleged weapon of choice according to Syrian news agency SANA was a surface-to-surface missile system fired from a position close to Mount Avital (or Tal Abu Nada). As a side-note, I find the claimed firing position somewhat dubious. SANA claimed in the January attack as well that the weapon used was a surface-to-surface missile, but fired from close to Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Another interesting raid allegedly took place in December 2015. Here, a Syrian source claimed that the Israelis fired four Spice-2000 stand-off precision guided munitions from inside Israeli airspace, to take out the convicted Hezbollah-associated terrorist Samir Kuntar in his sixth-floor apartment in Damascus. While it seems certain Kuntar died in an explosion at his apartment, the exact circumstances are unclear to say the least.

What is certain is that in the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force completely dismantled the Syrian ground-based air defence network, and then followed it up by destroying the fighters that the Syrian Arab Air Force scrambled. After this, the Israelis has proved a number of times that they can operate inside Syrian airspace more or less with impunity. The single most famous raid was Operation Orchard, the raid that destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, and which included both fighter jets and helicopter inserted special forces. This haven’t changed despite the Russians bringing modern surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, though whether this is due to Israel only operating outside their range, the systems not being as capable as they are rumoured to be, or due to behind-the-scenes politics between Russia and Israel over the head of the Syrian government is unclear.

Air Mobility Command enables delivery of Israel’s first F-35s
One of the first two F-35’s being refuelled by a Tennessee Air National Guard KC-135 During their trans-Atlantic flight. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Erik D. Anthony via Wikimedia Commons

The first two F-35’s arrived in Israel last December, and they have seen heavy use by the Golden Eagle Squadron based at Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev desert. Officially the aircraft undertook their first night flight on the evening of 16 January (or 15 January, the wording is somewhat unclear).

The IAF article on the event is interesting in many ways. The squadron commander, Lt. Col. Yotam, has nothing but praise for the aircraft. “We are performing a night flight very quickly in comparison to other aircraft that were integrated in the IAF”, he notes, while at the same time maintaining that they “in every mission, we operate slowly and in a supervised manner, while performing in-depth risk management”.

This event took place a few days after the alleged use of the Adir over Syria.

“The ‘Adir’s ability to fly in threatened areas is allowed not only thanks to the dark”, explained Lt. Col. Yotam. “We plan to fly without constraints of time or space, so it is a scenario we want and need to train for”.

Despite the aircraft officially still being in test and evaluation use in Israeli service, the IAF has built up a reputation as just the kind of force to throw out the rulebook and go with a ‘whatever gets the job done’-philosophy. The ability to penetrate air defence networks to hit high-value targets is certainly there for the F-35, with the F-35A having the ability to do so (against static targets) already with the current state of software and weapons integration.

However, there are numerous things speaking against an early combat debut. The aircrafts would have spent barely a single month in Israel at the time of the raid, which despite the previous testing done in the US and the mission-centric philosophy of the IAF is a very short timespan. They also lack proper integration into the Israeli combat network, as the IAF will fit a number of indigenous systems into the aircraft on top of the aircraft’s own code (the changes are large enough that several sources, including the IAF, refer to the Israeli F-35A as the F-35I). This job has not been done yet, making some question whether the IAF would risk operating the fighters over enemy airspace outside of the Israeli command and control network.

Perhaps the main issue is the fact that Israel demonstrably has no urgent need to push the Adir into harms way. The Air Force, as well as some ground based systems, can reach Mezze even from within Israeli territory, and even if there would be a need to get closer for better precision, this has been shown to be possible with ‘legacy’ fighters such as the F-15I and F-16I as well.

It is of course possible that the Israelis saw the use of the Adir as a means in itself, showing not only Syria but other potential adversaries as well that the Israel’s newest tool is a true weapon system bringing new capabilities to the Air Force and not just an expensive toy (or perhaps to convince doubters high enough in the Israeli command structure/politics that they receive access to info on the raid). It might also have been decided to use the Adir as part of its test program, to measure its current capability.

Still, at the end of the day, there is no denying that the schedule simply seems too tight, and I find the claim that the Adir would have seen combat a month after its in-country arrival too far-fetched.

Another question is whether it would have made a difference if the Adir had taken part in the raid or not? In theory it wouldn’t. The baseline F-35A reached IOC last year with the USAF, and considering its performance both during the evaluations and in post-IOC exercises a mission 50 km into a relatively lightly defended airspace such as this is nothing spectacular. In practice however, the marketing value of the ‘Combat Proven’-stamp shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, it was Israeli combat use fifty years ago that provided some of the groundwork for the huge export success enjoyed by on of the truly classic fighters of the last century.

An Update to the IDF OOB in Gaza

It appears that there are several more units in Gaza than I thought when writing my original post.

Apparently the Givati Brigade is operating inside the Gaza Strip and not simply securing the Israeli side of the border. This became evident when the IDF spokesperson published a short video clip of a booby trapped housed the brigade found near a UN school in Gaza. The Givati, nicknamed ‘Samson’s Foxes’, have a solid history of operating in Gaza, and I was somewhat surprised when it first seemed that they would not take part in this operation. Exact place of operation remains unknown.

The Sayeret Maglan special forces unit also appeared inside the Strip in a tweet by IDF spokesperson. Their presence was perhaps less of a surprise than the fact that their presence was confirmed openly by the IDF.

The 77th “Oz” Battalion, of the 7th Brigade, concludes a military exercise at the Golan Heights in 2009. Photo by Michael Shvadron, IDF Spokesperson’s Film Unit, via Wikimedia Commons.

The 7th Armored Brigade is also apparently in full use in the central regions of the Gaza Strip. The brigade is best known for its stubborn defence in the opening hours of the Yom Kippur War, when in spite of large losses it managed to stop the vastly larger Syrian force trying to force its way through the northern parts of the Golan Heights. Then-battalion commander Avigdor Kahalanis account of the battle, “The Heights of Courage”, is widely seen as a modern classic of tank warfare.

A lone IDF Centurion/Sho't stands guard over the former battlefield at the Emek HaBakha (Valley of Tears). Photo by author.
A lone IDF Centurion/Sho’t stands guard over the former battlefield at Emek HaBakha (Valley of Tears). Photo by author.

All in all, there now seems to be at least three infantry brigades (Golani, Nahal, Givati), two armored brigades (7th and 401st), as well as a single paratrooper brigade operating inside the Gaza Strip. It seems that both armored brigades are operating in the central area of the strip, where the terrain is more open, with the 401st being the northernmost of the two.

Update 30th of July:

The location of Nahal and the paratrooper brigade has become somewhat clearer. Nahal is operating in the northern parts of the Gaza Strip, according to this video released by the IDF.

The paratrooper brigade, on the other hand, is operating in Khan Yunis, according to a Haaretz interview with the brigade commander.

…And perhaps the last of IDF’s more well-known brigades, the 188th ‘Barak’ armored brigade, is also in the strip (or at least their infantry), bringing the toal up to three armored brigades.

Update 1st of August:

The 188th seems to be the southernmost of the armored brigades, operating around the northern outskirts of Khan Yunis. This is based on the fact that their presence in Eshkol has been confirmed, as it was there five of their soldiers who were killed by a mortar strike earlier this week.

Note that with the figure for IDF personnel killed in action already over 60 and climbing, it is over halfway to the corresponding number of losses IDF suffered during the Second Lebanon War.

A rough estimate of the IDF order of battle in Gaza

This is a brief try at creating an OOB for the IDF units involved in the ground offensive in Gaza as part of Operation Protective Edge. As usual, everything is based on open sources, mainly published in English.

To begin with, as noted earlier, Haaretz listed that three brigades were mobilized on the border as part of the calling up of over 50 000 reservists. However, a far larger number of units involved in the fighting has since been identified. My guess (keyword) is that two task forces have been created around the Nahal and Golani brigades respectively, in the tradition of the Israeli Ugda (the IDF take on a divisional combat team, usually somewhat smaller than a regular division, but varies greatly in size depending on the mission). Units identified so far:

Golani Brigade: Hebrew: גולני. Often seen as the premier Israeli infantry brigade, it has seen battle in all of Israel’s major wars since its independence in 1948. In recent times, the brigade not only fought in the Battle of Bint Jbeil in 2006, described as the heaviest fighting in the Second Lebanon War, but also took part in Operation Cast Lead, the IDF incursion into Gaza in 2009. During Cast Lead, it was also deployed to the northern parts of the Gaza Strip, meaning that at least for some of the officers, it is a familiar battlefield they are coming back to.

Having met the hardest resistance, the unit has also suffered numerous casualties. An APC attached to the unit was destroyed in a widely publicized incident in the hard battles in Shejaia, with the brigade losing 7 soldiers, the body of one still being unaccounted for. It has been claimed the vehicle was a Zelda (M113), but this is unconfirmed as remarkably little details of the incident has surfaced, and I have not been able to find any photos of the wreck.

Among the brigade’s wounded are two high-profile cases, namely the (unnamed) commander of the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit (Hebr. Yehidat Egoz), the brigade’s special forces unit, as well as the brigade commander himself, Col. Rassan Alian, who suffered light-to-moderate shrapnel injuries, including to his eyes, but sources claims his vision was undamaged. He has since returned to Gaza to resume command of the unit. Of note is that Col. Alian is not Jewish, but an ethnic Druze.

Nahal Brigade: Hebrew: הנח”ל. Alternative transcription Nachal, is an infantry brigade which has its roots in the Nahal movement, which was a youth program created by Israel’s first (and very much socialist) prime minister David Ben-Gurion, where young people combined agricultural work and setting up new farming villages with military service. The brigade itself was created in 1982, and while the current brigade is more “standardized”, it still maintains a somewhat unique character through the inclusion of a large number of foreign volunteers (Hebr. “Mahal”), as well as having a battalion focusing on integrating soldiers from lower socio-economic communities into the army.

While this might sound like an unlikely candidate for use as part of the frontline troops, the Nahal also has a good track record in combat, tracing its roots to the Nahal airborne battalion which prior to 1982 fought as a reserve unit in the paratrooper brigade. As such, it counts the battles of the Mitla Pass in 1956 and unification of Jerusalem in 1967 amongst its traditions. The special nature also ensures that it has a cadre of volunteers with high morale, and in addition to the Second Lebanon War it has served in the West Bank, thus becoming familiar with fighting in an urban environment.

A rough sketch of my estimation of the positions of the main combat units on the frontline. From north to south: Paratroopers, Golani, 401st Armoured (?), Paratroopers, Nahal. The dividing line between the possible Ugdas is nothing more than a guess based on confirmed locations of units and studying of the map.
A rough sketch of my estimation of the positions of the main combat units on the frontline. From north to south: Paratroopers, Golani, 401st Armoured (?), Paratroopers, Nahal. The dividing line between the possible Ugdas is nothing more than a guess based on confirmed locations of units and studying of the map. The ‘X’ marks the spot of the Shejaia neighbourhood.

Additional units: A number of additional units are also in the general area, either operating in support of the infantry brigades, or securing the Israeli side of the border.

Paratrooper Brigade (Tzanhanim): Hebrew: הצנחנים. After going into battle by jumping out of plane went out of style, the IDF paratrooper brigade has been used as an elite light infantry unit in all wars since the Suez Crises of 1956 (where it performed its one and only operational combat jump). So far little has been leaked about the employment of the brigade, and the losses reported have been light. Picture number 4 in this slide show places their staging area in Sderot, and apparently they are supported by M113’s. However, this article places at least some paratroopers in northern Khan Yunis. This might indicate that the brigade is split into smaller components to provide added infantry support to the infantry brigades as needed.

401st “Iron Trails” Armored Brigade: Hebrew: הברזל. The unit is confirmed to be in Gaza. During Operation Cast Lead, the 401st led the advance through central Gaza Strip, and reached the Mediterranean Coast, cutting of Khan Yunis from Gaza City. The main equipment of the brigade is the modern Merkava 4 MBT, protected by the Trophy active anti-missile system. The article quoted earlier gives the impression that they are operating close to El-Wafa Hospital, which would place them in Gaza City. The natural place for the brigade would be the gap between Gaza City and Nuseirat, opposite Netivot, the same area where they operated in Cast Lead. It is also possible that the 401st is operating in an idependent role. The Armored Corps lost two company commanders Tuesday evening (22nd of July), at least one of whom fell to sniper fire, but it is unknown if they came from the 401st or if more units are in the area.

The Engineering Corps are naturally heavily involved, intermixed with regular units. At least one soldier from the Engineering Corps has been reported as a casualty. This happened in the central Gaza Strip, and it is mentioned that his Puma heavy combat engineering vehicle was hit by anti-tank rocket fire.

The Givati Brigade, the brigades of the territorial Gaza Division, and the officer training base Bahad 1 have all taken part in some fighting, with the commanding officer of the Gefen Battalion of Bahad 1, Lt.-Col. Dolev Kidar, being killed in action during a tunnel infiltration by Hamas terrorists [1], [2] & [3]. Most likely these units are deployed to guard against Hamas infiltration attempts.

The Artillery Corps are supporting the operation with M109 155 mm self-propelled howitzers.