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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Russian Air Force at Hmeymim airbase in Latakia with 8 Su-24, 4 Su-34 and 4 Su-35 on 29 Aug 2018. an A-50, 2 An-26/30 and 3 Il-20/22 on the eastern apron. still working on aircraft shelters and refurbishing the western runway pic.twitter.com/B6kf5NKF0l
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.
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.
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.
The IDF has struck dozens of Iranian military targets in Syria in response to the Iranian rocket attack against Israel. Quds force is behind attack and has played the initial price. IDF remains ready for various scenarios but does not seek to escalate the situation. pic.twitter.com/4rC8gHK2LG
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 IDF struck an SA22 aerial interception system as part of a wide-scale attack against Iranian military sites in Syria pic.twitter.com/dFGXIwMT45
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.
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.
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.
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.
Left: footage from Military Channel's (now American Heroes Channel) "Ultimate Weapons" special on Israel featuring the #Delilah ALCM. Right: footage from last night's #IAF strike against a Syrian SA-22 system.
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).
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.
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.
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.
4. Russia blinked, they know they blinked, we know they blinked, but we will pretend they didn’t.
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.
Israeli official told me PM Netanyahu's conclusion from his phone call with Putin last week was that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria
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.
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.
“They had three buildings there [Barzah scientific research center] and a parking deck,” McKenzie said.
“Now they don’t.” via USNI.
As information about yesterday’s strikes against targets in Syria has been slowly to trickling out throughout the weekend, it is by now possible to piece together a picture of the raid. Perhaps the single most informative piece was the press briefing held by Pentagon.
Alert readers will note that the total amount given is 105 cruise missiles (36 air-launched, 63 ship-launched, and 6 sub-launched), coming in two above the 103 given by Russian sources. The missiles hit the following targets:
Barzah/Barzeh Scientific Research Center
Situated in the western parts of Damascus, the center was hit by 57 TLAM and 19 JASSM missiles.
Sputnik published a video reportedly shot at the scene, which seems to match the location below. It also matches the description given by the Pentagon, in that three large buildings have been completely destroyed.
Interestingly, the dual weapons used says something about the nature of the target. While the TLAM has a rather standard 1,000 lb (454 kg) class blast/fragmentation warhead (i.e. it explodes and creates shrapnel), the JASSM sports what Lockheed Martin calls a “2,000-pound [908 kg] class weapon with a dual-mode penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead” (i.e. it is made to penetrate hardened structures such as bunker before then exploding and creating shrapnel). Another thing to note is that the number 57 does not correspond to any possible combination of the salvos from individual ships, meaning that at least one vessel targeted two different sites.
Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage facility
The bunkers and facilities used for storing chemical weapons were hit by 22 weapons, these being 9 TLAM, 8 Storm Shadow, 2 SCALP EG, and 3 MdCN. This clearly shows the different nature of the target compared to the research center, as the number of missiles is much smaller, but also the fact that 13 out of 20 missiles were bunker-busting Storm Shadow/SCALP EG/MdCN (which are simply different local designations for the same missile, with MdCN being the ship-launched version). The Pentagon briefing described the target as ‘destroyed’, and while it is harder to verify when it comes to underground installations, significant damage is visible in the satellite imagery posted since.
The final target was a command facility associated with the Him Shinshar site. This was hit by the last 7 SCALP EG. Pentagon described the facility as having taken ‘damage’, as opposed to the two others which were rated as ‘destroyed’. It is unclear if this is a failure, or simply representative of the different nature of the target. Command facilities might be able to continue to function to some extent even if key buildings are wiped out, which is not the case with a storage facility in which the storage buildings are hit.
In any case, satellite imagery shows what looks like two larger and one smaller hardened building having been targeted and destroyed.
Despite wild claims of the majority of the missiles having been intercepted and the rest having missed, it is clear that the raid was an unequivocal success on the tactical level. The targeted sites have all suffered heavy damage. If the description of the nature of the targets is correct, it is highly possible that the use of sarin has been made harder by the strikes. Obviously, this does not stop the regime from using a whole number of other ghastly weapons and tactics, including barrel bombs, starvation through sieges, and quite possibly industry grade chlorine (which has been featured in numerous attacks in Syria).
Notable is also the fact that several of the weapons and systems used were making their combat debuts. These include the JASSM and MdCN, as well as the Virgina-class SSN. From a Finnish viewpoint, the combat launch of JASSM (albeit not in the exact version used by the Finnish Air Force) was certainly of interest. However, it should be noted that ‘damaging’ a single command facility virtually undefended by air defences required 7 missiles of the same class as the JASSM, something which puts the Finnish acquisition of (a maximum) of 70 JASSM into perspective.
When it comes to the defences, it is clear that the talk of the S-400 deployment in Syria creating an impenetrable A2/AD-bubble stopping western strikes was not correct. While many of the earlier Israeli strikes had taken place in areas which present difficulties for the S-400 (and supporting shorter-ranged systems) to see and intercept the targets, the strike waves approaching over the eastern Mediterranean would be more or less the perfect scenario for long-ranged SAM-systems, and is very similar to the setup of systems operating from Kaliningrad which often are described as being able to deny NATO access to the Baltic Sea. While it likely was political will that stopped the Russian air defence systems from being activated, the Syrians did their best, with around 40 missiles having been reported by Pentagon as fired. While it is not impossible that some of the cruise missiles were intercepted, it is clear from the pictures linked above that even this barrage of air defence missiles was unable to serious lessen the damage suffered by the Syrians. A significant issue was likely that all missiles struck their targets within an extremely short time span, leaving the individual air defence batteries saturated.
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.
IDF has targeted the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the #UAV into Israeli airspace. Massive Syrian Anti-Air fire, one F16 crashed in Israel, pilots safe. #Iran is responsible for this severe violation of Israeli sovereignty. Event ongoing, more to follow.
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.
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.
Israeli military sources are insisting that the missiles fired against IAF aircraft which shot down an F-16I was "definitely Syrian." At this point looks like they are trying to contain fallout and make clear that Russian forces weren't involved.
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.
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.
More photographs have emerged showing the remains of the missiles launched today by Syria to shoot down the Israeli F-16 jet. The photos show that the missiles were launched by SA-5 Gammon (S-200) surface to air missile systems pic.twitter.com/xtayp9LyGC
Part of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile (either an SA-5 or an SA-17) landed in Alonei Abba, a village near Haifa, during this morning’s confrontations . It does not appear to have been shot down by Israeli air defenses – perhaps out of a reluctance to endanger IAF planes overhead. pic.twitter.com/QMq9avOeGW
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.
Topias Uotila @THUotila is an active reservist and a student of warfare and security politics. Image: Excerpt with freefall aerial bombs. Original.
Accuracy of Freefall Aerial Bombing
It is said that freefall bombing is inaccurate, but that’s a very inaccurate thing to say – all pun intended.
This article estimates with two methods how accurate modern freefall aerial bombing is. The methods don’t meet scientific standards, as the intent is rather to find a good rule of thumb for, for example, defense planning. We come to a conclusion that for bombs dropped from a non-harassed modern bomber at high altitude, for example over 5000 meters, a reasonable rule of thumb for CEP is 50 meters. The article consists of a literature study and an OSINT piece verifying the former.
My interest in the subject started when I gathered a crude dataset of different air launched weapons with, for example, ranges, carrying aircraft, weather requirements and accuracy. Most of the data is listed right on Wikipedia, but the accuracy of modern freefall bombing efforts was very elusive. It was unclear whether this is due to secrecy or the complex dependencies of accuracy to multiple variables.
If you drop a stone, it will hit the point directly beneath it. But if you drop a shaped bomb from a freely moving airplane in conditions with varying wind and air pressure, calculating the point of impact becomes increasingly hard. If the wind and pressure conditions change during the flight path, calculating the trajectory beforehand becomes downright impossible. In reality there are even more sources for variance. Manually choosing the time of release is error prone, as is flying the aircraft at a constant level path and even the bombs may not be uniform or released at exactly the same moment. Sometimes dispersion is also sought after. It’s better to have eight bombs hit different parts of an area target than a single point.
To give an understanding of how much these variables affect the accuracy, let’s stop for two data points. During World War Two it was estimated that a three-degree change in heading at release lead to a 200-meter deviation at impact and a flight speed deviation from calculated of just a couple of kilometers per hour led the bombs astray for tens of meters.
Despite the complexities, I believed it has to be possible to have at least a statistical estimate of bombing accuracy or alternatively an accuracy function with a couple of the most important explaining variables, for example, drop altitude. These didn’t seem too secret, so I suspected that by asking on Twitter I would get at least mediocre sources. Naturally, I got more than I bargained for. To verify these further, I suspected I’d need to do some calculations of my own. Enter video footage from Syria, where Russia has used massive amounts of freefall bombs. I focused on a case study of two popular show reels of UAV recorded videos. The first video has likely one Su-25 run and one Su-24 run and the second video was presumably several Tu-22M3 only missions. The latter video was especially interesting as, since the plane type is a bomber, the strikes are certainly all from a relatively high altitude. My assumption is from 5.000 to 8.000 meters. By happenstance, Tu-22 is also the plane type I was most interested in to begin with.
During the past years USA has replaced almost all free fall bombs with JDAMs. The JDAM is a kit that is installed onto a conventional bomb. It makes the combination many times as expensive, but doesn’t differ in explosive or fragmentation potential. Conventional bombs cost a couple of thousands and a JDAM kit about 26.000 dollars. Thus, the JDAM has to be better in some other way. While there are a few possibilities, it’s relatively safe to assume the JDAM is more precise. With GPS the JDAM achieves a 5-meter CEP and without it a 30-meter. Thus, we get a lower boundary for the CEP of freefall bombing. If freefall bombing would be as accurate as a JDAM, JDAMs wouldn’t be used.
The Russian solution to the same need is the SVP-24, which is not an addition to the bomb, but rather a bombing computer added to the airplane. Thus, bombing with SVP-24 fulfills the definition of freefall bombing. Some Russiansources claim that they can achieve GPS guided JDAM level accuracies e.g. 3 to 7 meters with the SVP-24 in ideal conditions. They further claim, that even in battle conditions the accuracy would be on the level of 20 to 25 meters. While it is unclear if these accuracies mean the CEP, weaker accuracy measures are seldom used. Thus, these are very challenging claims to achieve. Personally, I find them hard to believe, but at least they add to our understanding and confidence of the maximum freefall bombing accuracy estimate.
Interestingly the same source estimates that bombing without such a computer has accuracies between 150 to 400 meters. Here, the high end, for a change, feels intuitively too large, as it corresponds to the maximums estimated in World War Two.
So, let’s look at that more historic data and begin from World War Two. The earliest estimate gives us a figure that only forty percent of the bombs hit a circle with radius of about 450 meters. This was before 1944 when the CEP was even introduced as the standard way of measuring accuracy in the US. When the new measure was introduced, the CEP accuracy had already improved to around 300 meters from the altitude of 5.000 meters using the B-17 and B-24 bombers.
One major invention behind accuracy improvement was likely the Norden bombsight. We can find a lot of data for it starting from testing in the 1930s. From an altitude of 1.200 meters a CEP of 11 meters was achieved in training. From higher up, they managed to achieve a 23-meter CEP. And when the set-up was moved to actual war, Air Corps achieved a 120-meter CEP from the altitude of 4.600 meters. Still zooming out and taking into account the whole attack, the bombs ended up on average 300 to 400 meters from the intended targets varying especially by unit and bombing altitude. Ending up on average 300 meters from the target is the practically the same thing as a 300-meter CEP – perfectly in line with the earlier measure for the B-17 and B-24.
The next data point that we have is a US estimate on the capabilities the Soviets could develop by the mid-60s. It’s a pretty safe assumption these are close to or slightly better compared to their own capabilities during the time of the writing. The best thing about these estimates is that they are presented as a function of bombing altitude making us able to draw that function.
To summarize, the visual bombing improves with lower altitude a lot more than radar directed bombing and the best estimated accuracy is about 122 meters from an altitude of 3.000 meters. This gives us a total estimated range for CEP of 120 to 900 meters with CEP more than doubling when the altitude doubles.
Fast forward another decade to Vietnam and the bombs dropped by the F-105s achieved a CEP of 111 meters. This was when the airplanes were not shot at. The CEP increased to 136 meters under anti-aircraft artillery fire.Another report gives the A-1 a 90-meter and the F-4 a 150-meter CEP, when bombing from 600 meters of altitude. The difference is attributed to the faster speed of the F-4. The accuracy reverts back to World War Two levels of 300 meters during the night time or during adverse weather conditions. Yet another source states both this huge variance and my research problem painstakingly clearly by saying that the daily accuracy average ranges from 30 to 300 meters depending on tactics, target and weather. With radar bombing they managed to control some of the variance and get the accuracy to about 150 meters. The surprising thing is that this was considered as good as dive bombing accuracy, although the figures from World War Two for dive bombing already looked better.
Finally, the book “The Precision Revolution” gives a direct estimate of 61 meters for the CEP of US freefall bombing in 1990. Haven’t personally read the book, but Tuomo Rusila pointed this out in the previously mentioned Twitter discussion. It is good to keep in mind how dominant the US was in Iraq. However, it is quite probable, that the technology and techniques did improve dramatically from the Vietnam era. The rate of improvement has probably slowed down since the 90’s. Both due to diminishing marginal returns, but also due to the diminishing importance of freefall bombing.
In conclusion, it’s difficult to believe any modern freefall bombing would achieve a lower than 25-meter CEP and on the other hand it seems quite proven that a 60-meter CEP can be achieved. Everything is naturally highly dependent on the conditions, skill and technology used.
For the first strike, that I’m presuming to be done by a Su-25, we can identify three points of impact. The distances between the points range from 102 to 257 pixels in my original. At the same time, what I believe is a truck, is about 18 pixels long. If the truck is 8 meters in reality, the distances between the impacts are 45 and 114 meters. Calculating an exact CEP is not very fruitful with only three impact points. This is the only one of the strikes that I have currently geolocated and it’s at 36.407257°, 37.153259°. Looking at the distances Google gives, we get a rough validation for my estimates and subsequently proof that the truck is quite close to 8 meters.
In the second strike we can identify six points of impact. Using the road width as a reference point with presumably approximately 6 meters of width, we get a 68-meter distance between the furthest separated points of impact. However, looking at the location of the buildings, it’s likely that the aim point is close to the center of the frame or to the left from it, so all of the impacts are to the right and up from the aim point. I’m assuming this strike was carried out by a Su-24.
In the third strike, we finally see that in reality the CEP doesn’t describe how several freefall bombs behave, if dropped from the same airplane. Naturally, they do not disperse circularly, but elliptically. Before jumping to conclusions, it’s good to note that the second highest impact point is struck the last and noticeably later than the others. This is also why you can’t yet see an explosion in the still frame. Thus, it isn’t clear that the bombs would disperse a little, but are just spread out due to the movement of the dropping airplane and sequential release from the bombing shaft of the Tu-22.
Unfortunately, this image has no terrain features I could recognize and measure against. But since the explosions looks comparably the same size as in the other strikes and the different freefall bombs used by Russia shouldn’t differ much in that sense, I’m inclined to believe this strike has about the same dispersion as the others.
The next two images are from a large strike against an area target. Since the images are from two different segments of the video, it’s possible they are not even from the same day. At least one can’t see some of the smoke from the first segment in the following one. In addition to these images, there were several other runs on the target. While in the case of an area target, dispersion might be sought after, it’s notable how large the dispersion is. The building marked with the red line in both images is in fact quite huge. This can be seen from the following zoom in.
My estimate is that it should be at least 40 meters in length, which makes the distances between the individual explosions in each of the bombings to be at least 100 meters and up to 300 meters.
Fifth strike is again hard to measure due to lack of measurable features. The lines might be trenches making them about 1 meter wide. Again, the dispersion feels to be on a familiar level. The actual target of the strike might be some pillboxes or sandbag fortifications.
In the final strike we have another area target with low accuracy. Again, this may be intentional. However, the building in the middle looks like some kind of an industrial hall, which should be at least 20 meters in length. In the image it is 55 pixels long. As the maximum distance between two impact points is 629 pixels, these are then approximately 229 meters apart. As we have at least eight impact points, it’s finally somewhat meaningful to also approximate the CEP for this particular strike. We can fit half, i.e. four of the impact points, within about 80 meters of an imaginary aim point somewhere in the average of these impacts.
Conclusion and Discussion on Errors and Further Studies
Looks like in the videos the Russians aren’t quite achieving the 61-meter CEP USA claims to have achieved in 1990. The equipment may be worse, the dispersion may be intentional or USA might have inflated their accuracies. However, it’s clear there’s no magical 3-meter accurate SVP-24 in play. I’m still inclined to believe that the Americans’ achievement could be surpassed now almost 30 years after. Also, as it is better to be safe than sorry in the context of defense planning, I’m advocating a 50-meter CEP as a good rule of thumb for freefall aerial bombings.
Whole different question is then how accurate you need to be? Depends not just on the bomb, but also on the target. If you don’t score a direct hit on a tank, it’s going to be very difficult to harm it. If you get within tens of meters from an unarmored fellow standing upright, he’s pretty much dead. Fragments from a modern bomb can fly for hundreds of meters, but it’s always also random whether you get hit by one. Then again, the attacker might deploy a cluster or an incendiary bomb, making the calculation totally different.
There were several sources of error and inaccuracies in this study that would need to be eliminated for a scientific article. The sources in the literature study may be motivated to lie in either direction, but especially the OSINT-part would benefit from more analysis. First of all, the Russians are certainly selecting only successful mission videos to publish. Second, several of the frames are so tight that far away misses are outside the camera angle. Like mentioned, we’d need to know the aim point to estimate not just the relative dispersion but the actual deviation and CEP from the target. I’m pretty sure, we can’t assume the UAV camera crosshairs are pointed at the target point. These errors mostly make the strikes look more accurate in this study than they are in reality.
Third area of errors is the level of effort I personally put into the analysis. In many of the strikes it looks like there are more impacts close to each other that might be discerned with a frame by frame analysis. Taking these into account would generally improve the CEP. Also, I could’ve used real math in finding out the weighted averages of the impact points instead of just measuring the maximum distances between them. Similarly, real OSINT geolocation could’ve been used in finding out the real dimensions of the distance reference features. These errors could change the end result in either direction. Unfortunately, I could find only one of the strikes from the Bellingcat database of geolocated Russian strikes in Syria. Also I didn’t quickly find anything on Google Maps around Palmyra matching the second video.
In conclusion, I suggest using the mentioned 50-meter CEP in your work as a rule of thumb. It’s a conservative estimate from the defender’s viewpoint. However, if you still need more accuracy in accuracy estimates, please go on with the research and let me know of your results, too!