Tensions in the Middle East are heightened this Saturday after Israel launched air strikes against Syrian air defense sites, and Iranian targets inside of Syria following an earlier incident when an Iranian UAV entered Israeli air space and was shot down. During the Israeli raids one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel. The pilots ejected safely, however, one sustained serious injuries according to reports. The incident marks the first time since the 1980s that an Israeli warplane has been shot down as a result of enemy action. Even more disconcerting is the fact that drone incident, and air strikes mark the first direct clash between Israeli and Iranian forces inside of Syria.
Israeli fighters struck the site where the drone was launched first. Subsequent strikes were made against other Iranian military targets in Syria, as well as Syrian air defense batteries. IDF reports do not indicate whether the F-16 was downed by AAA fire, or a SAM. The fighter carried a two man crew, indicating that was likely a type of F-16 that Israel uses in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, leading to the conclusion that the Israelis were probably targeting SAM batteries. (note: Right before posting I learned the aircraft was in fact struck by an SA-5 SAM)
Today’s shootdown is the third one to take place in the Syrian skies this week. A Russian Su-25 Frogfoot was downed by FSA forces last Saturday, and earlier today it was confirmed that a Turkish helicopter over northern Syria was attacked and destroyed by Kurdish forces sometime in the past 24 hours.
The consequences of the action in Syria and northern Israel remain to be seen. There is a strong possibility that Israel’s response could be heavier air strikes against targets in Syria, possibly as part of a bigger effort to put more pressure on Iran.
Although the Olympic games are supposed to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, it would appear somebody forgot to tell that to Iran and Syria.
The People’s Republic of China is continuing its buildup of military power on contested islands in the South China Sea. Today, Fox News reported that two batteries of the HQ-9 Surface-to-Air missile system, and accompanying radar sets have been placed on Woody Island, which is in the Parcel Island chain. The source Fox News used was imagery from a civilian satellite. The Parcels have been in the news of late. In January, 2015, a US destroyer sailed close to another contested island, prompting China to vow there would be “consequences” for the action. Taiwan and Vietnam also have a claim on the island.
The report comes as the US-ASEAN summit in Palm Springs comes to a close. The South China Sea was the priority issue at the summit. The Obama administration ideally wants ASEAN to call for the territorial disputes to be resolved through peaceful means. China continues to claim a historic right to virtually all of the South China Sea area and has ramped up its militarization of some islands in recent months. While the US strives to find ways to ease the tension, it has not taken a firm enough stance itself in the dispute.
The HQ-9 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Sa-10 (S-300) missile system. It is an effective missile with a range of 125 miles. Placing two batteries on Woody Island is probably intended to deter the US from flying patrol or combat aircraft in close proximity to the island. A US Defense official confirmed the authenticity of the photos that Fox News aired and posted on its website.
Although Syria, Oil Prices, Russia and Chinese economic difficulties have received the lion’s share of media attention this year, things are happening in the South China Sea. By all indications, the tempo of Chinese operations there is not going to slow down soon.
With international sanctions on Iran now lifted, it was a matter of time before Russia and Iran came to terms on a new contract for SA-10 (S-300) surface to air missiles. A contract worth $800 million had been signed by the two nations in 2007 but Russia froze it in 2010 after sanctions were applied to Iran. It is not yet clear which variant of the SA-10 that Iran will purchase. For months the US, Israel and the Gulf States have been worried that the lifting of sanctions against Iran would trigger a massive re-armament program by Tehran. It appears that the first phase is underway now.
The aforementioned nations are also alarmed by the quality of the weapons systems that Iran is beginning to purchase. Iranian and Russian officials have downplayed the SA-10 sale, stating that the system is defensive in nature and cannot be used to threaten other nations in the region. On the surface, this is somewhat correct. SAMs are not offensive weapons per se, but the newer variants of the SA-10 have extended ranges. If Iran decided to position SA-10 batteries close to its coastline it could effectively shut down the airspace over the Persian Gulf, and sections of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia has asked Russia more than once to shelve the deal with no success.
For the United States and Israel, the SA-10 purchase presents a unique dilemma. Iran is quite likely bolstering its air defenses to deter possible air strikes against its nuclear facilities should the nuclear deal fall apart. If that day ever comes, US or Israeli aircrews will have to fight their way past an increasingly effective and modern integrated air defense system in order to reach their targets.
*Note-I originally planned to post the first part of First Strike tonight, followed by this update tomorrow. At the last minute I decided to change the order. First Strike will be posted tomorrow evening*