Smooth Stones and Lightning

Finnish defence discussions have a few topics that quickly tend to derail into a somewhat unhealthy fandom, but few does so more readily than anything that has to do with the Ilmatorjuntaohjus 96, or Buk M1 as it is known internationally.

The Buk M1 had a rather short career in Finnish service, as the FDF quickly realised that having a system designed by the potential enemy might not be the best idea when it comes to such a technical arm as air defence – there’s a reason anything related to electronic warfare, radars, missiles, or SEAD/DEAD usually are among the most well-guarded secrets of any nation. The search for a replacement saw the NASAMS and SAMP/T face off, with the NASAMS taking home the price and becoming the new top-dog in Finnish ground-based air defences.

Let’s be clear, the NASAMS is simply a better air defence system than the Buk it replaced, there really is no discussion. However, as often is the case on the internet, discussions on capability has a tendency to be reduced to a top trumps comparison of specifications that are easy to describe with numerical values. And the top ceiling of the Buk is higher than that of the NASAMS.

Exactly how much of a difference is open to discussion. Most sources quote the ceiling of the NASAMS at around 10,000 meters, while others speak of 15,000 meters. The Buk M1 in turn is often quoted as going up to 22,000 meters (though some give a rather lower one, e.g. 12,000 meters). I personally have a hard time understanding the nostalgia for the semi-active radar homing 9M38 M1-missile that had turned 25 by the time conscript training in Finland stopped (something that does not mean it left the wartime forces at that time) and is well over 40 years old by now (I mean, if we really wanted something with altitude, we’d start shopping around on the second-hand market for the impressive S-200VE with it’s 29,000 meter ceiling and 240 km range…). It also deserves to be said that the F/A-18 Hornet-fleet is more than capable of taking on targets that attempt to sneakily fly above the NASAMS ceiling.

Still, air defence usually is best served by a layered approach, and it has been an ambition for the FDF to get back into the ground-based high-altitude air defence-game for quite some time. In 2018 an RFI was issued, which was followed up with an RFQ to five companies in 2020. The plan at that stage was to finalise the procurement before the end of 2022, but that schedule was adjusted last year – partly due to the pandemic having caused issues.

A Stunner-missile shooting away towards the clouds that are hanging over Palmachim Air Base in Israel. The Stunner is perhaps the best endoatmospheric interceptor in the world, and a surprise top-two in the race for a new Finnish GBAD-system. Source: United States Missile Defense Agency via Wikimedia Commons

However, last week we were treated to a surprise down-select, and it provided a rather surprising outcome. Gone were not only Diehl and always-bridesmaid-never-the-bride MBDA who keeps having a hard time securing Finnish contracts, but also favourite Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace and their NASAMS-ER. Instead we were left with two offers, both from Israel: the David’s Sling of Rafael and the BARAK MX of IAI. Neither system is bad, in fact they are both extremely competent according to all available public sources, but for the Finnish procurement there has been a feeling that they are simply too competent – and by extension too costly. An outspoken goal with the current procurement has been to get enough batteries to provide geographical coverage (it is easy to imagine coverage increasing through increased range, but for air defence that is to some extent a faulty line of reasoning as the difference in effective area coverage between two batteries with differently ranged missiles is rather small compared to what can be achieved through the ability to place more batteries in different key locations – remember that as opposed to e.g. anti-tank weapons the targets for the air defences are also constantly moving around and covering significant distances, at any point in time during which they can run into your air defences).

However, it is now evident that the FDF was more ambitious than just getting an average solution. Considering the timing, you would be forgiven to imagine the FDF having changed the scope somewhat following the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The force however denies that that would be case, and states that throughout the program capability has been the primary concern, which do makes you feel a bit sad for Diehl who tried to take on missile systems that sport some of the most advanced endoatmospheric interceptors on the market with their IRIST-T SLM.

Indian destroyer INS Kolkata firing a Barak 8 missile during the initial trials of the system back in 2015. Source: Indian Navy via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned the two systems left in the running are the BARAK MX from IAI and the David’s Sling of Rafael. The BARAK MX traces its roots to the ship-based family of BARAK 8-missiles. These originally kicked off as a joint Israeli-Indian project, though nowadays the missile family has forked off into two distinct national lines of Israeli and Indian versions respectively. The BARAK MX (with MX standing for ‘Mix’) is the Israeli land-based version and can hold a number of different missiles. While in Israeli service the BARAK is only used as a shipboard weapon, the weapon has been exported in land-based versions to a limited number of countries, best known of which is Azerbaijan.

The Azeri setup comes with both truck-mounted TELs and palletized firing units, truck-mounted BMCs (BARAK Management Centre, the solution is possibly containerised but I’m unsure based on the available pictures. Both container and truck-mounted versions are offered), and ELTA’s palletized ELM-2288 AD-STAR radars. There are also reports that Azerbaijan have acquired the ELM-2080 Green Pine radar (which sports one of the cooler code names around, more on this one shortly). The layout is rather conventional for a modern system. Everything goes on wheeled trucks (unless you want a hardened BMC), and when you arrive at your preferred location the trucks either point their missiles towards the sky or deploy their palletized missiles racks, both setups of which can handle eight missiles ready to fire. The radar is set up and everything is connected to the BMC which is the brains of the systems. Here it is also possible to connect the system to other sensors, to ensure that you have a situational picture that is up to date and allowing e.g. for ambushing enemy aircraft by turning on the fire-control radar only once the enemy target is within range.

The BARAK MX TELs used by the Azerbaijani forces during a parade in Baku. Source: Azerbaijan presidential office via Wikimedia Commons

There are no details about the Finnish offer besides the MX being paired with an ELTA-radar. The ELM-2288 AD-STAR in some version is certainly the expected candidate, though other details are likely to differ compared to the Azeri setup. When contacted, IAI kindly declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the acquisition program, so there is some guesswork involved here. An interesting detail is that the Finnish Defence Forces refer to the missile on offer as the LRAD ER. IAI in turn talk about having three different missiles: the point-defence MRAD (30 km range), the medium-range LRAD (70 km), and the booster-equipped ER (150 km range). The missiles are hot-launched, but still described as having a “low launch signature” – YMMV. When I contacted FDF they confirmed that LRAD ER is one missile and not an offer that include both LRAD- and ER-missiles. I tried to ask IAI if they have more than three missiles integrated – i.e. if the LRAD ER would be a new-version of the LRAD – but they referred only to three above. As the ER is an LRAD with a booster (think they same principle as the Aster-family), I tend to believe that the Finnish designation refer to the ER. This performance is more or less on par with the 160 km range PAC-2 GEM-T missile of the Patriot system (Robot 103A in Swedish service). However, there are two key difference in that the BARAK is equipped with an active radar seeker (i.e. the missile carries its own radar and will continue to home on to the target even if the main radar goes silent) while the PAC-2 is a semi-active radar homing missile (i.e. it relies on the ground radar lighting up the target). The second important difference is that while the PAC-2 is a single-stage missile (i.e. it burns until it no longer does so, and then it coasts along until running out of speed), the BARAK ER is in effect a two-stage three-pulse missile in that we first have the booster kicking off the whole thing, and the LRAD missile mounted on top of the booster then has a dubble-pulse engine, giving significantly more energy during the later stages of the interception compared to traditional missiles. The BARAK also has a vertical launch which gives the ability to cover 360°, though in practice the Patriot batteries are usually deployed so as to minimize the impact of their ‘blind’ sector – it is rare to find locations where you can be jumped on from any direction, unless you deploy on top of the highest hill in the area, and then everyone will see you.

There are reports that the BARAK MX took part in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Few Armenien air losses were documented during the conflict, none of which are attributed to the system. However, there are persistent reporting that during the final stage of the conflict Armenia would have fired a single 9M723 Iskander against the Azeri capital of Baku, and this would have been intercepted by a BARAK. The claims are rightly questioned, as to the best of my knowledge all reporting of the incident go back to a single story by a Turkish journalist, and there have been no independent verification. Verification of successful intercepts of ballistic missiles are also notoriously hard to make even in the best of conditions, and it is unclear whether Azerbaijan actually has the ER with its enhanced theatre-ballistic missile defence (TBMD or BMD for short) capability in service or whether it is relying on the shorter-legged missiles. As such, I would be careful with the ‘Combat Proven’ label for now, though the missile has since successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in trials.

But wait a minute, readers of the blog will say. Finland wasn’t supposed to get a BMD capability!

The answer is “Yes” (and just wait until you see the other guy).

Back in 2019, Finnish Chief of Defence general Timo Kivinen gave the following statement to the Finnish newspaper Kaleva:

No minor country has the resources to develop and maintain an active missile defence system. […] Finland has a passive missile defence system, based on an analysed and identified threat. The concept is based on protection, movement, and decentralized operations.

This statement was by no means unique, but rather one in the line of statements to media and in press releases where the same principle has been stated time and time again. Finland does not have any interest in ballistic missile defence through shooting down incoming missiles. So what is up with that, has the FDF changed priorities now under influence from the war in Ukraine and the liberal amount of missiles fired?

(Note that while that’s a serious number of missiles quoted in the tweet below, there has also been a serious number of airstrikes during the war, and of the ones mentioned only the Iskanders and Tochkas are ballistic missiles)

The short answer is “No”. The longer answer is still the same as it always has been:

The ability to defeat ballistic missiles has not been one of the project’s objectives. We have compared the performance of different systems against traditional targets.

In short, the BARAK ER and David’s Sling with its Stunner missile are simply better at killing aircraft and cruise missiles than the competition, and that’s why they are shortlisted.

But there will be an Iskander-killing capability, right?

Not necessarily. Having a missile capable of hitting the incoming ballistic missile is an important step, but only part of the equation. Since the target is ridiculously quick, getting pre-warning is key (remember the Green Pine-radar rumoured to have gone to Azerbaijan? That’s a radar that is dedicated to long range detection and acquisition of TBMs, exactly the kind of additional – and very expensive – sensor you need if you want to enter the BMD-game for real). That in turn means you want to know where it comes from so you can set up you sensors to detect it at optimal range (see excellent linked thread below by Simon Petersen, who as opposed to yours truly actually is a professional when it comes to these kinds of things), and that is a very different setup of sensors and deployment patterns compared to if you are planning on taking on aircraft or helicopters. This is also a key reason why BMD makes more sense for Sweden than for Finland, as the obvious firing location for Iskanders heading toward Sweden is from the rather limited direction of Kaliningrad, while Finland has a rather large sector of potential enemy TBM firing locations.

So, when the FDF is buying a BMD-capable system and still says they aren’t aiming for a BMD-capability, that’s what they mean. The missile might be there, and if someone is dropping an Iskander on their block they might be able to kill it. But if it is headed to the next district you are probably out of luck.

But if you were impressed by the BARAK MX (and you probably should be), wait until you see what Rafael brings to the table.

David’s Sling is system that resemble a Patriot battery that has decided to enter the near-vertical launch game. It is jointly developed with Raytheon, and is very different from, well, most everything found on the market.

The two-stage missile called Stunner has a distinct ‘dolphin-nose’ look, using the asymmetry to manoeuvre and to fit several sensors. Good manoeuvrability is a must, since the missile is a hit-to-kill one. This means that as opposed to most air defence missiles which flies close to their targets and then detonate to create a cloud of shrapnel, the Stunner will ram into whatever it is targeting at high speed. This is obviously a sure-fire way to bring down most everything, but also a very unforgiving way of operating in that a near-miss doesn’t give you much except disturbed air. To achieve the desired accuracy, the Stunner is a two-stage three-pulse missile as well, with the third pulse providing the speed needed to manoeuvre at the final stages of the intercept. The guidance is provided by several different modes of tracking, including an active radar seeker as well as a multi-function electro-optical sensor sporting IIR-capability. The batteries in Israeli service feature the ELM-2084 MMR S-band radar, which is a step up in capability from the ELM-2288 AD-STAR of the BARAK MX. Of interest, one of the smaller members of the MMR-family is the Compact-Multi Mission Radar ELM-2311 C-MMR which Finland bought and received last year for the counter-artillery role (though they do offer a secondary air-surveillance capability as well). The missiles are transported around on a trailer-type TEL (which might or might not be called a MEL, depending on your level of geekiness), which apparently sports twelve missiles ready to launch. During the test firings the combat management centre seemed to be a containerised solution, and while it certainly seems likely there’s really no telling for sure whether that is the solution used for operational batteries.

As opposed to the BARAK MX, David’s Sling is in Israeli service. The primary purpose is as the mid-tire defence against incoming missiles and heavy rockets, sorting between the short-range Iron Dome and the larger Arrow. Despite the original design purpose being solidly in the BMD-role, the weapon is obviously more than capable of bringing down more conventional targets as well. The performance is largely classified, with some sources stating the range at 160+ km (note that corresponds to a very round “above 100 miles”) while others give 300 km as the maximum. In any case, it is safe to say the range is longer than BARAK ER. An interesting detail is that the missile is being looked at as a possible replacement for/alternative to PAC-3 missiles for the Patriot under the PAAC-4 program, where the additional ‘A’ stands for ‘Affordable’. That is an interesting notion, as while the batteries themselves certainly cost, the munitions add up as well. It would be easy to imagine the Stunner as being a prohibitively expensive missile due to its performance, highly specialised role, and fancy sensors, but apparently that isn’t the case (though in air defence, “cheap” doesn’t equal “small amounts of money”). An interesting detail is that the US so far has been reluctant to let Israel export it directly, meaning that this offer certainly shows the trust and importance Washington places in Finland and the FDF. So far the only almost-confirmed export customer is Poland, which is planning to acquire it for their Wisła-program. The initial package will however sport the PAC-3 MSE, and the program has ran into some issues as the cost of integration into the Polish C3-system has caused the budget to expand considerably compared to e.g. the Swedish Patriot-order.

A really interesting side-track is that Israel, who by the way also happens to be a serious F-35-user, has test-flown the Stunner without the booster on an F-16. The possibility of having a highly-manoeuvrable air-to-air missile with multi-seeker capability is certainly interesting when going after small and/or stealthy targets such as cruise missiles, drones, and Su-57s. While so far no decision has been made  to integrate the Stunner on the F-35 and the FDF is currently not looking at the possibility of acquiring a joint-use GBAD/A2A-missile in the same way as the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently is being operated, it is certainly not something that is a negative in the books for Rafael’s offering. It certainly would be an interesting development, and let’s remember that the decision on what to get after the AIM-120C-8 AMRAAM is still open for the FinAF.

So where does that leave us? Both systems are reportedly easy to integrate into legacy systems, are already in operational service, and sport performance that would propel FDF GBAD into a world-class integrated air defence system on all altitudes and against all conventional targets (drones, cruise missiles, helicopters, aircraft). The big question is whether there is the budget to acquire enough batteries and missiles? So far the FDF isn’t telling, but in an interview the budget is described as “significant but below the threshold of strategic acquisitions”. Considering the Squadron 2020 program was a strategic program and came in at an original budget of 1.2 Bn EUR, a safe guess is that we are talking about several hundred million euros, but below a billion. As a comparison, that would be below the Swedish Patriot-acquisition which is valued at approximately 1.1 Bn EUR, though that did include modernisations to the general sensors and C3-networks. The Swedish program include two battalions of two batteries each, both capable of independent operations but mainly used together to protect a single area. Depending on the Finnish doctrine and pairings with other air defence systems, something similar might be able to fit inside the Finnish budget, but that is largely down to how much other stuff will have to be paid for. As is well-known, the so-called ITSUKO which deals with the high-altitude capability is part of the larger air-defence framework that include a number of other projects, and as such the budget for the batteries themselves might be surprisingly similar for Finland and Sweden. If I had to guess, we will see the BARAK MX take home this one based on the versatility and the smaller footprint leading to greater mobility, but David’s Sling is certainly an impressive system and as we have seen performance matters in this one. It will be highly interesting to see what the next year brings for ITSUKO.

Another Syrian Pantsir lost

Yesterday Sunday 20 January Israel again struck targets close to Damascus International Airport. Much is still unconfirmed about the raid, but it is clear that it included significant numbers of Syrian missiles fired in response, at least one of which led to two Iron Dome-missiles being fired from an Israeli battery close to Mt Hermon as it was on track to enter Israeli airspace (the missiles are usually fired in pairs to ensure intercept). It is not confirmed whether the missile was intercepted or not.


https://twitter.com/NTarnopolsky/status/1087082330047410176

A video has also surfaced of a single Buk being fired from a confirmed SAM-site close to the airport, but while the Russians and Syrians were their usual bombastic selves, ” strike on airport in Damascus caused no damage, seven missiles intercepted by Buk, Pantsir systems“, reality once again seems to be in poor agreement.


The Israeli Defense Forces has released a new video showing SAM-sites being targeted. The most interesting part of the clip shows a Pantsir-S1 (likely the S1E-version) being intercepted by what looks like a Delilah cruise missile.
Keen Syria-watchers will recognise  that this isn’t the first encounter between the Pantsir-S1 and the Delilah. For details how to recognise the Pantsir-S1 and Delilah footage, see the post from last time. While the Israeli modus operandi hasn’t seemingly changed, neither has the incompetence of the Syrian air defence crews. The radar is raised, but not rotating and pointing in the wrong direction, while the missiles are in the transport-position and not ready to be fired. Despite the vehicle being an obvious high-value target, it is left sitting out in the open with no attempt at camouflage or anyone trying to move it into cover.

Still showing the Buk shortly before it fires a single missile in a western direction.

The bottom line is that we still lack any proof of the Pantsir-S1 being of much use. It is possible that the missiles were used (successfully?) to intercept decoys launched before the strike itself, there are rumours of the Israelis using this tactic dating back to Operation Mole Cricket 19, though as with many aspects of these raids confirmed information is scarce.

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.

F-16I
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.

flickr_-_israel_defense_forces_-_chief_of_staff_visits_navy2c_jan_2011_28229
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.

Screenshot 2018-07-15 at 20.15.37
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.

rss_intrepid_286929_at_imdex_20152c_singapore
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.

Screenshot 2018-07-06 at 10.10.03
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.

IMG_7385
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.

Gabriel
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.

Screenshot 2018-07-06 at 10.02.44
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.

pikiwiki_israel_29171_missle_firing
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.

2011_moscow_victory_day_parade_28360-3329
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.

Screenshot 2018-05-14 at 21.47.41.png

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.

Screenshot 2018-05-14 at 21.46.59.png

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).

2008_moscow_victory_day_parade_2858-2529
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.

2008_moscow_victory_day_parade_2858-2529
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.

F-16I 1
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.

lockheed_martin_f-16d_barak2c_israel_-_air_force_jp7236319
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.

The Attack on Swift

During the night of 1 October, the UAE operated vessel Swift was attacked outside the Yemeni coast. News of the attack quickly spread on social media, and the first indication was that the vessel had been attacked by an anti-ship missile launched from land, which struck the ship and caused a fire, with some reporting the vessel to have sunk.

The official reports downplayed the incident, referring to it as an “accident“, and claiming that the attack on a civilian MEDEVAC ship caused no casualties. Later this was reclassified as a terrorist attack, but that the naval and air units operating in the area had chased away the terrorists boats without own losses.

The vessel in question was the 98 m long wave-piercing catamaran Swift, built by Incat Tasmania in 2003. Together with a number of other vessels, she was built as a proof of concept for the US Joint High Speed Vessel-program, which eventually became the Spearhead-class. The vessel is based on the yard’s civilian fast ferries, and built to civilian standards. This is important to remember when assessing the damage done, as the damage control requirements differ between civilian and military vessels, especially with regards to external sources such as battle damage. The Swift was owned by Sealift Inc. and chartered to the US Military Sealift Command for a number of years with the pennant HSV-2 (High-speed vessel). After this the vessel spent some time back at the yard, presumably for a refit, before heading to UAE where the National Marine Dredging Company leased the vessel.

The vessel has since been a frequent visitor to Yemeni waters, where she has been making round trips between the Ethiopian port Assab and the Yemeni ports of Aden and Al-Mukalla, the later which have been a key battleground during the ongoing war. The exact nature of the operation is uncertain, as is the question whether or not she is operated as a naval vessel or simply chartered as a civilian transport. It is however crucial to note that regardless of whether the crew is consisting of civilian or naval sailors, the vessel is in essence a grey-painted fast ferry. According to coalition press releases, she has operated in the humanitarian role, bringing food and supplies to Yemen and evacuating wounded and sick people on the return trip. This is to the best of my knowledge neither confirmed nor disproved by independent observers.

Apparently the rebel forces/Houthis/Ansar Allah have kept their eyes on the vessel for quite some time, as evident by the opening shot of the Swift in daylight and the close shot of the missile striking the Swift. After nightfall they then tracked it by radar after nightfall, until firing what seems to have been a single C-802 anti-ship missile. The C-802 is a Chinese radar-seeking missile, the first of which where developed with some help from France in the mid-80’s. Production has since switched away from foreign components, including the original French TRI-60 engine (the same one used by e.g. Saab’s RBS-15/MTO-85), and to Chinese equivalents. The missile is roughly corresponding to the Exocet when it comes to behaviour, size, and performance. Crucially, the Iranians have developed their own version called the Noor.

firing_noor_missile_from_a_truck_launcher
A Noor being fired from a truck mounted launcher during an Iranian exercise. Note the search radar. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Mohammad Sadegh Heydari

The Noor has seen action in the Middle East earlier as well, most famously during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when two or three missiles where fired at Israeli vessels outside of Beirut. The target was the corvette/light frigate INS Hanit, which was hit by a single missile. The other missile sank the small Egyptian/Kampuchean freighter MV Moonlight, while a third missile apparently exploded upon or shortly after launch. It seems highly likely that the missiles where operated by Iranian forces, and not Hezbollah themselves. The attack gives valuable clues to how the attack on Swift was conducted. The following is based largely on Commander Ville Vänskä’s Merisota and Christopher Carlson’s Attack on INS Hanit.

14saar5helopad
Sa’ar 5-class vessel. Note the white ‘R2-D2’ dome in front of the bridge, housing the CIWS. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Israeli Navy Spokesperson

At the time of the attack, INS Hanit was stationed approximately 10 nautical miles of the Lebanese coast (~18.5 km), and her movements had been followed for quite some time by the Iranian/Hezbollah forces operating the missiles. The INS Hanit is equipped with an automatic CIWS system, but due to unconfirmed reasons it did not intercept the missile. One reason is that the missile struck straight from the rear, another that it seems that Israeli intelligence was not aware of the fact that the enemy had anti-ship missiles in the area. It also seems that the system was not operating in automatic mode, due to the INS Hanit conducting air operations at the time of the attack. In fact, it seems like the spotters had observed the vessel for a long time, and waited for air operations to take place before launching. The missiles received targeting data from an commercial off-the-shelf navigational radar mounted on the truck functioning as the TEL, as such not alerting the electronic warfare personnel on the INS Hanit to its sinister nature. The missiles where then launched in sequence, apparently with different flight profiles and seeker settings to maximise the probability of scoring a hit. It seems the missile that hit actually hit a robust steel crane situated on the flight deck behind the superstructure (not mounted in the picture above), which saved the vessel from far worse damage that would have been the case if the missile had been able to penetrate the aluminium hull or superstructure and detonat its 165 kg warhead inside. In the end, INS Hanit came away relatively lightly, suffering moderate damage but still being able to continue under own power and return to service in only 10-20 days after the attack. Four Israelis died as a result of the attack. The missile that hit was the second of the salvo, with the first said to have overflown the INS Hanit before locking onto the unfortunate MV Moonlight, which sank within minutes of being hit, but luckily without any loss of life.

The attack against Swift is likely to have followed the same pattern, with the spotters tracking it visually and with the help of a standard navigational radar. It seems that it was more or less ambushed near the straits of Bab el-Mandab, where the southern Red Sea is at its narrowest. As the vessel lacked any kind of self-defense systems, and most likely any specialised electronic countermeasures or early warning systems, detecting the missile visually in darkness must have been virtually impossible. Most likely the first indication that something was wrong was when the missile impacted in the starboard side of the bow.

The detonation caused a fire, which rapidly engulfed the bridge. Unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, the vessel was put out of action, and despite the preliminary report of no fatalities, it seems likely that the missile and fire would have caused considerable loss of life, especially if the vessel was serving in a MEDEVAC-role. It is a testimony to the seamanship of the crew that they were able to extinguish the fire and save the ship. However, this is also an indication that the warhead of a modern anti-ship missile isn’t necessarily large enough to sink even a moderately sized vessel. As noted earlier, the vessel is aluminium built to civilian specifications, and as such fires are notoriously difficult to put out. That the fire is a greater danger the warhead themselves is also evident in the case of the HMS Sheffield (D80), probably the most famous instance of a warship being hit by an anti-ship missile. The HMS Sheffield was sunk after a single Exocet hit it during the Falkland’s War, and while it seems the warhead failed to detonate, the engine caused a fire that eventually sank the ship. Modern warships are often built of aluminium due to the weight savings it brings, but in case of fire this causes additional problems compared to steel. Of note is that the Royal Navy as a rule require aluminium used to be in annealed condition (O-temper), giving it lower strength but the highest ductility possible, giving  a better ability to withstand battle damage compared to the more usual higher strengths grades used in the civilian sector.

The long-term effect of the attack remains to be seen, but as said, it seems that unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, only a single missile was fired. Quite possibly there are two missiles left on the TEL, and a battle-proven crew waiting for the opportunity to strike again.