Another First for the Israeli Military: Risks and Opportunities

On March 17, a flight of Israeli F-15s screamed low over the eastern Mediterranean into Lebanon and continued to Syria, where they apparently bombed an Iranian weapons shipment destined for Hezb'allah.  Israel has made such strikes many times in the past without ever formally admitting it, but this time was different.  The Israelis not only acknowledged the raid, but made a bit of military history.  The raid's aftermath may present challenges and opportunities for Israel and the United States just as we ramp up our campaign against ISIS.

Unlike previous raids into Syria, this time, Israeli jets penetrated deep into the country, hitting the T-4 airbase near Palmyra.  Usually, Israeli raids focused on airfields around Damascus, but the successful recapture of Palmyra from ISIS evidently prompted the Iranians to switch their weapon supply fights to the more remote base, wagering that the Israelis would not change the rules of the game and expose their aircraft to both Syrian and Russian air defenses.  That bet came a cropper.

Syrian air defenses did try to down the jets, firing at least three powerful long-range SA-5 anti-aircraft missiles at the F-15s.  This also appears to have broken understandings, with Assad acting with greater confidence and aggression toward Israel now that Russian, Iranian, and Hezb'allah forces have secured his regime.  The jets evaded the missiles, but one SA-5 continued to fly toward the Israeli frontier, provoking a ballistic missile alert in the country and prompting its air defenses to launch an Arrow theater anti-missile missile at the errant SA-5, which the Arrow successfully intercepted and destroyed.  While Patriot missiles engaged Iraqi ballistic missiles with mixed success during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, this appears to mark the first successful operational missile interception by a purpose-designed theater defense missile.   

Typical of the Israelis, this successful showing of offensive and defensive strength prompted almost as much internal disputation as it did pride.  Some defense experts and politicians questioned why and how the Arrow would down an errant SAM when it was designed to intercept ballistic missiles.  This led to speculation that the Syrians had launched a ballistic missile against the Israeli homeland in retaliation for the attack, which would have presented a much more serious situation.

To tamp down such speculation, Israel officials broke precedent, admitting to the raid and explaining that the large Cold War-era SA-5 carried a 400-plus-pound warhead, which might have done substantial damage had it struck a populated area.  While this explanation is plausible, it is not entirely satisfying.  The chances that the completely unguided SAM would have struck something other than ocean or desert are rather low, and by launching the Arrow, the Israelis may have reassured the public, but also likely given the Iranians valuable intelligence as to the operation of the defense system. 

The Iranians' best tactic for defeating the Arrow system in a potential nuclear strike on Israel is to flood the airspace with conventional missiles, force the Israelis to expend defensive missiles, and then slip in the nuclear-tipped weapons.  Iran may have just learned that cheap, obsolescent SA-5s are a good way to go.  The Israelis certainly know this but decided to fire the Arrow anyway.  Why?

It might be as simple as Israel's spokesmen suggest, but most likely they were up to more.  The chance to operationally use and test the Arrow might well have been too much to resist, even if it gave Israel's enemies some useful intelligence.  It also demonstrated Israeli deterrence, pointedly showing that it is the world's only nation comprehensively and operationally protected against ballistic missile threats.  And it is a great marketing angle for such systems, for countries like India, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan that have similar fears. 

Coincidentally, the shoot-down comes at a time of increasing North Korean belligerence, with the U.S. and China at odds over the deployment of a similar American system, the THAAD, to South Korea.  The U.S. is proceeding to deploy the missile despite Chinese protests, but in the unlikely event that the Trump administration backs down, the Koreans might solve their problems by buying the Israeli system (though that would presumably require U.S. approval, since the Arrow is technically a joint Israeli-American project).

The Russian reaction to the contretemps between Syria and Israel was mild, despite the fact that the Russians have military assets of their own at the T-4 base.  The Israeli ambassador received a pro forma dressing down in Moscow, but Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unapologetic, and Israel's defense minister promised to destroy the Syrian SAM system if Israeli planes are fired on again.  The Putin government appears otherwise complacent.  This suggests that Putin, having already achieved most of his aims in Syria, is not anxious to have Russia's clients (Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran) rock the Israeli boat. 

Netanyahu's evidently amenable relations with Putin mirror to some extent Trump's.  So the Israeli prime minister appears to have good relations with both the American and Russian leaders, which is unusual for an Israeli government.  It also comes at a time when the Israelis also maintain good sub rosa relations with many Arab states and have mended fences with the Turks. 

This suggest that it might be time for the U.S. to stop treating Israel as a diplomatic and militarily destabilizing element when American forces are involved in the Middle East, as during the Gulf War.  The only American troops (or foreign troops of any kind) ever to be stationed on Israeli soil (with the exception of some Patriot batteries temporarily sent mostly for show during the Gulf War) are U.S. personnel who man a powerful X-Band radar station in the Negev desert.  The X-Band radar, which is the radar associated with the THAAD missile – effectively the American version of the Arrow – monitors ballistic missile threats from Iran and almost certainly was involved in the detection and tracking of the Syrian SA-5, which means that the shoot-down was probably something of a joint U.S.-Israeli effort.

President Trump has shown a willingness to re-evaluate longstanding American diplomatic positions and relationships with allies and enemies alike.  The close cooperation this intercept required and the messages it sent not only to Israel's allies and enemies, but to America's, too, may mean that the U.S. should more closely and openly embrace and use our Israeli ally as American forces once again wade deeper into the Middle East's quagmires.

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