An errant Syrian surface-to-air missile caused alarm inside of Israel last night when it missed its intended target (an Israeli warplane apparently) and continued flying south into Israel and approached Dimona, the location of Israel’s nuclear reactor. The missile, an SA-5 Gammon did not damage the reactor and exploded 30 km away. Israeli air and anti-missile defenses attempted to engage the missile but were unsuccessful. Air raid sirens were heard across southern Israel. Shortly after the missile landed, Israel launched attacks against the SA-5 sites around Damascus. Syria’s state news agency claimed Syrian air defense forces intercepted Israeli rockets over the suburbs of Damascus “and downed most of them.” The incident has sparked the most significant round of violence between Israel and Syria in years. The initial Israeli air attacks, which triggered the SA-5 launch, were targeting Iranian assets which could be used for a potential attack against Israel.
The incident comes at a point of considerable tension between Israel and Iran, who are in the midst of a tit-for-tat shadow war. As negotiations aimed at bringing the United States back on board the JCPOA continue, there is concern that last night’s event will have an adverse effect on that effort. Most likely it will not. Sources close to those negotiations claim the US and Iran are nearing a diplomatic breakthrough.
As for the matter of the SA-5, there was initial concern that Iran had played a hand in it somehow. More than likely this isn’t the case. The missile is a long-range SAM, perfectly capable of reaching the area around Dimona from southern Syria. Israel does take the possibility of Iranian action against its reactor seriously though. It has recently bolstered the air defenses around Dimona to better protect the area from an Iranian drone or missile attack.
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*