By deploying F-35s, Israel steps up air war against Iran in Syria
BEIRUT - Israel’s introduction of the US-built F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jet likely means it plans to intensify its air assault on Iranian targets in Syria and bring closer the possibility — some would say inevitability — of a major conflict in a region already ravaged by wars.
There are indications that the Israelis have flung the first nine of the 50 F-35s they ordered from US defence contractor Lockheed Martin into action against Iranian forces in southern Syria in recent weeks.
The commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Major-General Amikam Norkin, disclosed that the F-35s had conducted air operations “on two different fronts,” though he gave no details of when or where the F-35s struck.
The enhanced capabilities of the F-35I provide the Israelis with what is known in military speak as a “force multiplier” — its advanced integrated electronic systems mean that as well as conducting attacks, the F-35 can “manage” operations by other less-capable, non-stealthy aircraft.
The Israelis did this with an earlier generation of combat jets, F-15 Eagles they received from the United States in the late 1970s, most notably in the Battle of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon on June 6, 1982.
In that clash, Israeli fighters, using unmanned aircraft as decoys to entice the Syrians to switch on their camouflaged radars, a move that gave away their positions, destroyed 19 of Syria’s Soviet-supplied SA-6 air-defence missile batteries and shot down 85 Syrian MiGs on the first day of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
That 3-hour action, in which the Israelis suffered no losses, was hailed by the US Air Force at the time as “one of the largest and most lopsided air battles in modern aviation history.”
The Israelis used the F-15s — the most advanced fighter of its day, just as the F-35 is now — as “mini-battle managers” to direct Israeli jets onto the Syrian MiGs electronically blinded by Israeli E-2C command-and-control aircraft circling high above the dogfights.
“This innovative use of the F-15 prevented the Syrians from effectively overloading and confusing the E-2C controllers with masses of enemy fighters,” the US Air Force study of the battle observed.
Israel began taking delivery of the fifth-generation F-35I, which it has dubbed the “Adir,” Hebrew for “Mighty,” in December 2016 and has so far received nine, which were declared fully operational on December 6, 2017. These are operated by Squadron 140, the Golden Eagles, deployed at the Nevatim desert base in central Israel. Each jet costs around $100 million. Another nine are expected by the end of this year.
Kuwait’s Al-Jarida newspaper reported in early May that two Israeli F-35s flew undetected over Syria and Iraq and entered Iranian airspace in reconnaissance missions over Bandar Abbas, an important Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base on the Arabian Gulf, and the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz.
Al-Jarida, which often publishes unsubstantiated reports of Israeli military and intelligence activities, said Syria’s Russia-built radar system failed to detect the jets.
An operation like that would be highly sensitive in the current tense climate in the region as Israel becomes increasingly alarmed about Iran establishing a major military presence in the southern Golan Heights overlooking Israel.
Military sources said it was unlikely the Israelis would risk escalating its confrontation with Iran in Syria through such a provocative mission. The Israelis have made no mention of such an operation.
US aviation expert David Cenciotti reported it was unlikely that the F-35s would avoid detection on such a long flight because they would need external fuel tanks, which would negate the aircraft’s radar-evading capabilities and mean that it would have to undergo detectable in-flight refuelling by the Israeli Air Force.
“Although the IAF has a long history of pioneering new aircraft and new weapons systems in real combat pretty early, this has usually happened for quite complex and daring missions with a real strategic value,” Cenciotti observed in the US journal the Aviationist.
“In this case, flying a couple of its new F-35s for a ‘simple’ reconnaissance mission over Iran would not be worth the risk.”
The consensus then is that for now at least, the Israelis may use the F-35s’ unique capabilities to significantly upgrade fourth-generation aircraft, such as F-16s, by directing packages of them for specific missions. This is how the IAF integrated the first F-16A jets it received in the early 1980s.
On June 7, 1981, the Israelis employed the F-16I’s special capabilities to mount Operation Opera — also known as Operation Babylon — in which eight of the jets flew at rooftop level over Baghdad to bomb Saddam Hussein’s French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak, ending his nuclear ambitions.
Now, Israel has continued air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria to prevent it from installing missile bases capable of hitting the Jewish state.
These Israeli raids are often quite ferocious. On April 29, Israeli jets hit the Syrian Army’s 47th Brigade base and an arms depot at Salhab, near the central Syrian city of Hama. These were being used by the IRGC to store hundreds of surface-to-surface and other missiles.
The resulting explosions were so intense that the European Seismological Survey recorded tremors registering magnitude 2.6 in the area.
The attacks apparently took the Syrian air defences by surprise and, unusually, the Damascus regime did not claim to have shot down any of the intruders.
On May 1, NBC News reported that Israeli F-15Is participated in the Salhab raids by mimicking transponder codes used by US Air Force F-15E multirole jets and by flying a circuitous route through Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. There has been no independent verification of that.
On April 24, the Israelis mounted a little-reported air mission against a Hezbollah base near the war-ruined city of Aleppo that some analysts saw as intended to be a further demonstration of Israel’s ability to strike Syria wherever and whenever it chooses and possibly to test the capabilities of the F-35I.
There are complications to the Israeli strategy. “Successful Israeli raids, whatever they target, only serve to potentially embarrass Russia, which has officially linked its own air defences in the country with Assad’s and is the primary supplier of surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian government,” observed Joseph Trevithick of the War Zone, a US military analysis website.
The Syrians initially said their SA-6s drove the marauders away on April 24 and intercepted several Israeli missiles but later reported there had been no incoming threats at all.
This unusual volte face raised the suggestion that the Israelis had mounted a cyber or electronic attack to blind Syrian air defences, as they did in September 2007 when the IAF destroyed a nuclear reactor in eastern Syria.
“It is difficult to imagine the Israelis going through all that effort without it being in support of additional objectives,” Trevithick wrote. “At the same time… it is increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to sit idly by ignoring these strikes, even though its forces and interests are not directly under threat.”
There have been reports the Russians may bolster Syria’s air defences with long-range S-300 missiles but there has been no hard evidence of any such deployment. The Russians have, however, provided additional Pantsir-S1 missiles capable of knocking out stand-off weapons.