The Unlucky COOT

For the second time since the start of the Syrian Civil War, a reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the Mediterranean by the Syrian air defences this week. However, unlike the last time when it was a Turkish RF-4E Phantom, this time it was Russian Il-20M (NATO codename ‘COOT-A’) which was brought down. The friendly fire incident caused quite a stir, and the fallout is yet to settle.

HMS MONTROSE TRACKS RUSSIAN WARSHIP IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS
An Il-20M similar to the aircraft downed in Syria, here photographed when it kept an eye on western ships during exercise BALTOPS 14. Source: PO(Phot) Si Ethell/MOD via Wikimedia Commons

The loss of the Il-20 is by far the most serious aircraft loss suffered by the Russian forces in Syria. This is regarding both the highly specialised aircraft as well as the large crew of intelligence specialists (likely 10 out of 15 killed). The single Il-20 arrived at the very beginning of the Russian operation in Syria. The exact mission in Syria is unclear, but likely includes eavesdropping on enemy ground forces as well as signal gathering from NATO ships in the Med and unfriendly air assets in Syria. It seems a single Il-20 has been on strength throughout the operation. It was e.g. caught on satellite pictures back in March 2017, and is visible on Google Maps.

However, recently a total of three similarly looking aircraft has been spotted at the base, though these likely include the Il-38 (NATO codename ‘MAY’) anti-submarine aircraft which have been deployed to Khmeimim, and are based on the same Il-18 passenger aircraft. Much have been made of the fact that the Il-20 is based on an airliner that first flew in 1957, making it an ancient design by aircraft standards. However, it should be noted that this is not rare when it comes to larger specialised airframes, with the corresponding US type, the P-3 Orion, being based on the Lockheed L-188 Electra which first flew the same year. The C-135 family still in widespread western use is based on the Boeing 707, which made its debut the following year.

The exact target of the Israeli raid is unclear. Israel has earlier indicated that there is an Iranian missile factory being built in Baniyas, around 30 km south of Khmeimim. Iranian long-range weapon systems, including rockets as well as surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles, have always been one of Israel’s prime worries, and the transfer of these to Hezbollah has been a policy red-line. It now seems that Israel suspected Iran of dismantling the whole or parts of the production line in Baniyas and shipping it to Hezbollah. Israel has not made any further details public, but the Russian MoD in their presentation of the raid stated that four Israeli F-16 approached at low level, used the Il-20M as cover, and released GBU-39’s at three different targets, including a military base, a fuel depot, and an aluminium plant. A Syrian S-200 battery then shot down the Il-20M while trying to hit the F-16s (or the GBU-39s).

It is quite clear that not all factors add up in the Russian story. The GBU-39 is an unpowered glide-bomb, also known as the SDB for Small-Diameter Bomb. This means that the range is highly dependent on the altitude at which the weapon is released, meaning an Israeli low-level raid would have had to get very close to the target, largely defeating the idea of using the GBU-39 with its pop-out wings. It also seems that a single target, a large warehouse in Latakia, was hit by the raid. Interestingly, this was the same modus operandi used by Israel in a raid that leveled a warehouse close to Aleppo airport in July (the weapon was identified by pieces left behind). The GBU-39 packs a small warhead, and is generally not used against buildings. However, the small diameter of the weapons allow large numbers to be carried by a single aircraft, enabling this Israeli ‘death by papercuts’-approach. As such, it is entirely possible that the Russians identified the weapon used correctly (either based on the number of weapons released or by pieces found in the ruins of the building hit).

With regards to the friendly fire incident, it is highly unlikely that the Israeli fighters would have ‘masked’ behind the aircraft in any meaningful way. To begin with it would have brought the Israeli aircraft closer to the Syrian air defences, and it would also have put the Russian aircraft at risk, something which Israel has so far been unwilling to do due to political considerations. It is also notable that the S-200 is a semi-active radar-homing system, meaning that it will only home in on a target that is locked by the 5N62-radar. As such, this was not a case of a runaway missile switching target after launch, but of the Syrian crew misidentifying the Il-20M. They hit what they aimed for, they simply aimed at the wrong aircraft. Crucially, Russian MoD has afterwards stated that Syrian forces doesn’t have access to IFF-equipment to identify Russian aircrafts as own forces. Once the Il-20 was lit up by the 5N62 it stood no chance, as the aircraft completely lack self-defence equipment. A modernised version designated Il-20MS has been in the works for a few years, and feature both UV-missile approach warning and decoy launchers. However, the program does not seem to have moved beyond a single prototype, leaving the operational Il-20M defenceless.

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The F-16I is the workhorse of the Israeli Air Force when it comes to ground-pounding, and was likely the aircraft used in the raid. Source: Own picture

The Russian reaction was interesting. The first suspect was the French frigate Auvergne (D654) which would have fired a missile in the area at the time. Then it was changed to that the Auvergne had fired a cruise missile (France has sternly denied the Auvergne releasing any kind of weapon at the time), which had confused the Syrian air defence crew. Then the Russian MoD came out all guns firing, and declared that while it was a Syrian S-200 that brought the plane down, it was the reckless and calculated Israeli provocation that placed the Il-20 in the lane of fire. Russia would also respond in force.

Granted, from the outset it is clear that Russia would not respond in force to the “Israeli aggression”. Russia is very much playing the away-game if they would launch raids on Israeli targets, and while the small force of jets assembled in Syria together with naval assets and the long-range bomber force is plenty enough to make an impression on any Syrian rebels, the Israelis vastly outnumber them in the region. The Israeli Air Force is also on another level when it comes to quality, both regarding aircrafts, support, and training, and while things definitely would get ugly, there’s little doubt that it would end with a serious Russian defeat. Luckily for all involved, neither Putin nor Netanyahu was interested in escalating the whole thing, and crucially Putin shifted the Russian narrative to describe the situation as a series of unfortunate events leading to the accident. The very active Israeli communication, including the Israeli Air Force CinC major general Nokin visiting Moscow to present a report on the Israeli findings, is contrasted to what seems like a very low-key and late Syrian response to get their version of events out. All in all, it does seem like the risk for further Israeli-Russian escalation is low for the time being.

The big question is what happens now? Putin indicated that he would respond by strong measures to ensure better protection of the Russian servicemen in Syria. It isn’t hard to envision this including the deployment of further Russian SAM-batteries, though truth be told when it is your allies that are the greatest threat it naturally won’t do much good. The Syrian air defences, especially those in areas where Russian aircrafts regularly operate, will likely come under closer Russian command, something which likely won’t be appreciated by Damascus or the Syrian forces. Syria could potentially use the incident to renew requests for delivery of more modern air defence systems, as the more modern user interface of a system like the S-300 would likely significantly reduce the risk of blue-on-blue incidents. However, I have not seen any indication that this would happen, and considering that Putin seems to more or less agree with the Israeli narrative this is unlikely to happen.

If Russia chooses to up their game, one possible way to communicate intent would be to send the modern Tu-214R to Syria as a replacement. This would signal determination without escalating things. The aircraft has made a short visit to the region earlier, and nothing says it couldn’t come back. The major issue is that while the number of operational Il-20M is likely down to single digits following this, there are a grand total of two Tu-214R in service. Another option is the earlier mentioned Il-20MS prototype, which would offer continued ELINT/SIGINT operations with a level of protection.

A further look at the Gabriel 5

The field of advanced weaponry such as anti-ship missiles is rarely a transparent one. Still, the new PTO 2020 is turning out to be quite something, being about as opaque as your favourite Ostrobothnian river following heavy spring rains.

The ANAM / Gabriel 5

The best source on the ANAM that is currently available is likely the single cutaway found on IAI’s homepage. This can then be compared to the dimensions of the Harpoon, which are well-known. Under the assumption that the diameter of the ANAM and Harpoon are similar(ish), which seems reasonable considering their very similar layout, a closer comparison can be made.

Harpoon vs ANAM
Comparison between non-ER RGM-84 Harpoon (cyan) and ANAM (dark blue). Notably the ANAM has the engine sligthly more forward, but otherwise the two match surprisingly closely both when looking at internal compartments and external features. Source: Own picture based on available cutaways

My original impression which I voiced in the last blog was that ANAM is longer and with a slightly different arrangement of the fins. Having compared the cutaway of the ANAM with that of the Harpoon (see e.g. Think Defence’s piece on the Harpoon), it does seem clear that this was a mistake, and the ANAM is in fact almost impossible to externally differentiate from the Harpoon. It should be noted that this conclusion rests on the assumption that A) the ANAM cutaway supplied by IAI is at least remotely correct, and B) that the diameter of the missiles are indeed the same. On the first account there does exist a possibility that the supplier isn’t completely honest when it comes to marketing material, but it is an OSINT-risk I am prepared to live with for the time being. On the second account, there seems to be little reason to produce a new weapon so closely modeled after the layout of the Harpoon, unless it is designed to fit the current logistics chain, including storage containers and possibly the launchers themselves. This is as I see it the only possible explanation why the Israelis chose the exact same layout and size of fins to the exact same external body. Small caveat here that the inlet might differ, as it is shrouded by the fins in the cutaway, and a retractable scoop a’la BGM-109G GLCM is a possibility. Something like this is visible in the Skimmer-video referenced in the last post, though it is unclear if that is the ANAM or a generic anti-ship missile (it does look somewhat like IMI’s Delilah HL, but the configuration of the fins is different).

One interesting point that stands out in the cutaway, however, is the internal component layout compared to the non-ER versions of the Harpoon. Crucially, the warhead occupies more or less exactly the same space as the 500 lbs (227 kg) warhead of the Harpoon. If the cutaway is correct, this would indicate that Finland has decided against downsizing the warhead compared to the current MTO 85M. The size of the fuel tank would also likely indicate a range in the 150 km class rather than the 200+ km ranges of the RBS 15 Gungnir, NSM, and Harpoon Block II+ ER. Crucially, as 150 km is more than “about 100 km“, this does not contradict that the PTO 2020 has longer range than the MTO 85M, one of the few capability details revealed by the Finnish authorities (this being confirmed by captain Valkamo).

For the sensors available to the Finnish Navy and for the relatively limited firing ranges of the Baltic Sea, blast size for range isn’t an unexpected trade-off. However, in a field where only the RBS 15 and Gabriel had a 500 lbs warhead, this might certainly have been one of the deciding factors. Notably, the traditionally conservative Finnish Defence Forces seems to continue favouring radar-seeking missiles with large warheads, operating at high-subsonic speeds.

All in all, it does seem likely that at some point after the introduction of the RGM-84D into Israeli service, the Israelis were not happy by the continued development path of the Harpoon, and decided to make a better version on their own (note that “better” might be in the narrow sense of better suiting Israeli requirements). This is not unheard of when it comes to Israeli weapons development (see e.g. Magach contra M60 Patton, or Kfir compared to Mirage V), and would make Gabriel 5 something of a cousin to the Harpoon Block II+ ER.

The DCSA-request

The Harpoon DSCA-request was discussed when it arrived, and while the Harpoon wasn’t picked, it does give some interesting pointers regarding the scope of the Gabriel-deal. It covered 112 live missiles and eight exercise ones, for a total sum of 622 million USD (532 million Euro). This is likely the absolute maximum, and corresponds to the Gabriel order including options. The quoted sum for the latter was 162 million Euros for the firm order and options for an additional 193 million Euros, for a total of 355 millions. In other words, the Israeli offer including options was 40% cheaper than the DSCA-request. Even if there are discrepancies between the two offers, the difference is big enough that the Israeli offer must have been objectively cheaper by all standards.

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Israeli Sa’ar 5-class corvette sporting the Israeli stealthy Harpoon-launchers behind the forward tower. Here only a single quadruple launcher is mounted, but two can be carried (one pointing port and one pointing starboard). Source: IDF via Wikimedia Commons

In Israeli Service

As noted the last time around, the Israeli decision not to upgrade their RGM-84D Harpoons to even -84L standard is rather revealing. In an article from 2014, a ‘senior naval source’ discusses the improvements to the anti-air and land-strike capabilities of the Navy, and reveals that “planned upgrades are also scheduled for sea-to-sea missiles.” These are all part of the “overall strategic vision in which the navy plays a growing role in the IDF’s integrated warfare capabilities.”

In 2017 INS Hanit, an Israeli Sa’ar 5-class vessel, took part in the international exercise ‘Novel Dina 17‘ with a single quadrupel-launcher of a new design (note that at least one of the pictures described as showing the INS Hanit in fact shows a Sa’ar 4.5-class vessel). This was captured on picture by AP press photographer Jack Guez, and labelled as the ‘Missile boxes Gabriel’. The box-shaped launchers have to the best of my knowledge not been seen either before or since. This is not surprising, as their unstealthy and generally crude look does give the impression of them being a test-installation rather than the final mount.

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Israeli Sa’ar 5-class corvette with striped launchers. Source: Israeli Navy YouTube-channel

The Sa’ar 5 employs their Harpoons in two stealthy launchers, each holding four missiles. As discussed above, it is possible that the Gabriel can be fired from the same launcher, with only the missile control unit inside the vessel being switched out. As such, identifying which missile is carried based on the launcher is hard to impossible. However, in a YouTube-video posted by the Israeli Navy on their channel in the spring of 2017 a launcher with two longitudinal ‘stripes’ is visible. These might be vents, but in any case they differ compared to the standard version. If they are related to the Gabriel or not is impossible to tell, but there seems to be an upgraded version of the launcher introduced into service within the last year(s).

…and abroad

When Svenska Yle asked the Armed Forces about which other countries use the system, they could only confirm that other countries also use the system. Individual countries could not be mentioned because the information is classified.

An interesting question is where the Gabriel is in operational use. There is a small caveat that since this isn’t a direct quote and the interview might have been conducted in the secondary language of either the journalist or the Defence Forces’ representative, it is possible that this was a misunderstanding. However, the quote above, from an article by the Finnish public broadcasting company YLE, gives the impression that more than one country uses the missile. This obviously raises the question which country that might be?

Books can, and indeed have been, written on Israeli arms trade. In oversimplified terms, Israel is ready to export their weaponry to most anyone who can guarantee that it doesn’t end up in the hands of any of the countries actively promoting the destruction of the Israeli state. In effect, this has lead Israel to exporting arms to numerous countries in Africa, Asia, and South/Central Americas. Deals to western countries usually go through local partners (see today’s announcement about Lockheed Martin cooperating on the SPICE guidance kit). Export of earlier versions of the Gabriel have usually been tied to the export of Israeli surplus naval vessels, something which isn’t the case with the Gabriel 5 as it is so new.

In recent years, three countries stand out when it comes to Israeli exports: India, Vietnam, and Azerbaijan.

The missing link between the jewish democracy of Israel and the muslim dictatorship of Azerbaijan is Iran. Azerbaijan is in fact somewhat western-aligned, in part as neighbours Armenia and Iran are aligned towards Russia, and operate an impressive array of Israeli equipment. This includes Israeli Shaldag-class fast patrol craft and Sa’ar 62-class offshore patrol vessels. The latter are based on the Israeli Sa’ar 4.5-class fast attack crafts, and can likely lay claim to the title of the world’s most heavily armed coast guard vessels. Interestingly, Azerbaijan’s Turan news agency reported in 2011 that the country was buying an unspecified version of the Gabriel (secondary source, primary link broken). As the Sa’ar 4.5 in Israeli service is armed with the Harpoon, it is plausible that the missile system was destined for the Sa’ar 62. However, there are no indication of the system ever having been delivered to Azerbaijan, and the Sa’ar 62 currently operate with the SPIKE-NLOS (as seen in the infamous music video which confirmed the presence of Harop in Azerbaijani service). As such, it seems likely that the Gabriel was axed and replaced by the SPIKE-NLOS in the arms package.

India has bought Barak surface-to-air missiles for their newer vessels, and Vietnam is in the midst of a naval expansion program. While there are reports that some Vietnamese vessels are set to get improved firepower, nothing tangible indicate that the Gabriel would have been exported to either country.

Enter the Singaporean Formidable-class frigates. These are based on the French La Fayette-class, and is certainly one of the most formidable classes in operation in Asia. However, one odd feature is the fact that most sources list their main armament as being the outdated RGM-84C Harpoon, first introduced in 1982 and only marginally better than the original 70’s design of the -84A. While the Singaporean Navy isn’t exactly open with their armament choices, it seems that the assumption is that they share the RGM-84C version with the older Victory- and Sea Wolf-classes (the latter now retired, and curiously enough originally fitted with the Gabriel 2). The continued use of the RGM-84C would place the vessels at something of a drawback in a neighborhood featuring Exocet MM40 Block 2 and NSM, and would seem a strange decision considering the considerable cost sunk into the frigates.

There has been some rumours* that IAI participated in and lost the tender to arm the Formidable-class. Looking back, it might just be that they did participate, but in fact won. And no-one even noticed.

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RSS Intrepid, second vessel of the Formidable-class. Source: Rjv25 via Wikimedia Commons
*The post reporting the rumours also discusses an Israeli missile shot showing a slender and fast missile, and speculates this could be a scramjet powered Gabriel 5. If that is the case, it is something completely else than the ANAM. My personal opinion is still that the ANAM is the likely Gabriel sold to the Finnish Navy.

Gabriel announced for PTO2020

The decision on one of the most important weapon systems for the Finnish Navy has become public today with the surprise announcement that Israeli Aircraft Industries’ Gabriel has been chosen for the PTO 2020-contract. The PTO 2020 will be the main ship-killing weapon of the Navy, being used on the Hamina-class FAC and the Pohjanmaa-class corvettes (Squadron 2020) as well as from truck-mounted batteries ashore. As such, it will replace the current MTO 85M (the RBS15 SFIII, a customised RBS15 MkII). This also effectively kills alls speculation that there would be a joint anti-shipping weapon operated by the Navy and by the Air Force, as there seems to be no air-launched version available for fast jets.

First a short discussion regarding the designations: IAI never mention Gabriel on their homepage, but they do market the Advanced Naval Attack Missile, and most sources agree that this is the Gabriel V. The odd one out is CSIS, which lists two versions of the Gabriel V, of which the ANAM is a shorter-legged and newer version of the original Gabriel V, which instead is designated Advanced Land Attack Missile. Also, the version of Gabriel bought is not publicly confirmed by the Finnish MoD, but there’s few possibilities. My working hypothesis is that while there might be slightly different versions the missile most commonly described by the Gabriel 5 / Advanced Naval Attack Missile designations is in fact the one bought by the Finnish Defence Forces.

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Probable Gabriel V launch from a Sa’ar 5-class corvette during Israeli SINKEX in 2016. Screenshot: IDF exercise video

Looking at the field, it was clear from the get-go that the big dividing line was between the IIR-seeker of the NSM compared to the traditional radar seekers of the rest of the field. Coupled with the stealthy body of the missile, this allows the NSM a completely passive approach. The phrase “they never knew what hit them” has never been truer. However, the world of physics also dictate that IIR-seekers perform worse in adverse weather conditions (snow, rain, fog, …) compared to radar ones, a serious drawback for any weapon designed to operate in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea. While Kongsberg always claimed that the NSM offers true all-weather capability, it has remained impossible to judge the true differences based on open sources. Also, the Finnish Defence Forces is known as being somewhat conservative when adopting new technology, preferring evolution over revolution. This became evident once again with the decision to opt for the tried and tested radar seeker, and notably stealth isn’t as important for a sea-skimming missile were detection ranges are extremely short.

The Gabriel has an interesting history. A month after the end of the Six Day War in 1967 the Israeli (ex-Royal Navy) Z-class destroyer was attacked without warning by three P-15 Termit anti-ship missiles from an Egyptian Project 183R Komar-class vessel sitting inside the harbour of Port Said. While tactical lessons of a WWII-vessel being hit by three missiles fired from inside a port basin might be discussed, it was clear for the IDF that a modern anti-ship missile was needed, and the Navy took over the failed Luz-program of surface-to-surface missile to produce what became the first version of the Gabriel. This proved to be an excellent weapon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, where the Israeli Navy was the sole service branch to completely sweep the floor with the enemy.

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The Gabriel missile was already once on its way out. Here the launcher of INS Mivtach, an ex-Israeli FAC currently a museum ship in Haifa which originally sported the Gabriel but changed to Harpoon from 1984 to its decommissioning in 1996. Source: Own picture

Development of the Gabriel continued, but by the mid-80’s the Harpoon was being introduced in Israeli service, and it looked like it spelled the end of the indigenous weapon. However, in a country famous for resurrections, death should never be taken for granted, and by the early years of the new millennium analysts where starting to question why Israel wasn’t upgrading their stocks to the new RGM-84L standard. Rumours started spreading about a new weapon being development.

The exact specifications of the Gabriel V are shrouded in secrecy, but it seems to be built according to generally the same form factors as the Harpoon. The first relatively confirmed sighting of the new weapon came two years ago, when a SINXEX involved the Israeli Navy firing a Harpoon followed by a new weapon. The stills are blurry to say the least, which seems to indicate a faster launch speed and/or worse camera than used to shoot the corresponding Harpoon launch. Another one of the few publicly available pictures/renders is found in this video, where an unspecified anti-ship missile is available as part of the IAI Skimmer-package for maritime helicopters. An air intake below the missile fuselage is found on the helicopter video but not visible upon launch in the SINKEX, but might be retractable or specific to the air-launched version.

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A twin launcher for the original Gabriel with the carachteristic twin X-array of fins. The first generations of the missiel bear nothing but the name in common with the missile now acquired by the Finnish Defence Forces. Source: Own picture

On their homepage, IAI offers a few choice insights into the weapon. It does sport and active radar seeker, and while Israel has no archipelago whatsoever, they are situated close to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes with the number of civilian and neutral vessels vastly outnumbering those of potential targets at any given time. This means that the missile should feel right at home in the Baltic Sea. The weapon also reportedly “copes with rapidly evolving tactical situation”, which can only mean that it sports a datalink.
It also “penetrates hard-kill defenses”, which likely is a cover phrase for end-phase maneuvering. From the video of the SINKEX the impact point low on the hull is visible, though it is impossible to tell whether the missile shown impacting the tanker is in fact the Harpoon or the Gabriel. On the cutaway it is evident that the weapon has a jet engine.

The size of the warhead is unclear. RBS15 sports an impressive 200 kg warhead, while Exocet sports a 165 kg one, the Harpoon ER has shifted down from a 220 kg to a 140 kg warhead, with NSM also having a 120 kg one. The question of what kind of destructive firepower is needed for the Navy to effectively stop the Baltic Fleet short in their tracks is an interesting one. In short, 200 kg of explosives going off won’t send a frigate or destroyer-sized target to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. A good example here is the attack on the Iranian 1,100 ton frigate Sahand. which was hit by five 220 kg warheads (including three Harpoons) and cluster bombs, and still floated for hours before fires reached the magazines of the ship. A common theme is that fires might however prove troublesome, as was seen with both the Swift, hit by an Iranian C-802 near Yemen, and the HMS Sheffield hit by a single Exocet in the Falklands war. In both cases the ensuing fires caused significantly more damage than the warheads themselves. In the case of the Sheffield, the warhead seems to have failed to detonate, but the impact put the main firefighting systems out of action, severely hampering the fire-fighting effort.

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Probable Gabriel V in the leftmost picture. Screenshot from IAI marketing video

If I had to take a guess, the warhead size of the Gabriel is likely closer to 120 than 200 kg. However, it can be argued that A) vessels need not be sunk to be effectively put out of action, and B) the majority of the vessels of the Baltic Fleet are relatively small compared to blue water ships such as destroyers. Also, modern warheads do pack a larger punch compared to similarly sized ones dating back to the 80’s. All in all, the choice to downsize from the current warhead size probably wasn’t a major factor in deciding the lethality of the Finnish Navy

One thing that has potentially been seen as an issue for the Gabriel has been the lack of shore-based systems. While the technical difficulties of creating a new launching system by mounting the tubes on a truck aren’t overwhelming, the certification process still will require some additional funding. Apparently this still fit within the given cost/capability brackets, especially as the MoD states that the deciding factors have been “performance vis-à-vis acquisition costs and schedule, lifecycle costs and security of supply, and compatibility with existing infrastructure and defence system”. Notably the maintenance will be done in Finland.

The Gabriel was decidedly something of an underdog, but it is clear that the Navy went into the project with an open mind and looking for the best option instead of just continuing in the tried and tested tracks of the next RBS15. Following the Polish and German export orders for the RBS15, diversifying the anti-ship missiles of the western countries around the Baltic Sea is also a good thing, as this makes it harder for the Baltic Fleet to optimise countermeasures.

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INS Haifa (S322) firing an early Gabriel. Source: Nir Maor via Wikimedia Commons

The weapon also has a secondary land-attack capability, although the damage of the comparatively light warhead deals to any kind of hard target isn’t too impressive and the missile comes with a relatively hefty price tag. It could potentially have a role in taking out soft high-value targets, such as the kind of long-range radar systems. This demonstrates another case of a Finnish defence program moving into what the US likes to call ‘cross-domain’. In other words, joint capabilities where the ground, naval, and air domains interact over the boundaries to support each other either through kinetic effect or by providing targeting data for each other. As such, it does provide another part of the Finnish deterrence picture, further strengthening the ability of the Finnish Defence Forces to hit targets at long-ranges (most sources seem to agree upon at least 150 km range).

Imagine the following scenario: an HX-fighter identifies an enemy brigade headquarter being temporarily set up in the terrain close to highway E18, outside of the range of the Army’s long-range multiple rocket launchers. The maritime threat level is however low, and the Navy dispatches two Hamina-class FAC’s which in a few hours travel from their hiding locations near Örö, to take up positions west of Suomenlinna within the air defence umbrella created by the Army’s ground-based SAM systems covering the capital. From there they fire a salvo of PTO 2020’s, which strike the target 150 km east, not necessarily putting it out of action but dealing severe damage to it. While the missiles are still in the air, the Haminas retreat back to the safety of the cluttered archipelago, stopping for a refill of missiles at one of the several smaller ports found along the Finnish coastline. The whole operation is over well within 24 hours from that the fighter first spotted the target. That is cross-domains fires and joint capabilities.

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.

 

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.