In Saturday’s exchange of fire Syria scored a rare success, downing an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with an antiaircraft missile, apparently taking advantage of a vulnerability in the way the crew flew the jet. Israel however destroyed nearly half of President Bashar Assad’s air defenses, according to military estimates.
Senior Israel Defense Forces officials told Haaretz that the wide-ranging aerial operation over the weekend is considered a success and the army is aware of the risks involved in such an operation, which at times can also result in planes being hit. The strikes by Israel took out the batteries that fired missiles at its fighter jets and also hit four Iranian targets, including the drone control center and communications systems.
Syria was able to down the Israeli plane because it was flying too high. That, at least, is the initial assessment based on an Israel Air Force investigation of the incident.
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The F-16 was one of eight of the same model that took part in an attack on an Iranian command trailer at the T4 base near the city of Palmyra, deep inside Syria. It was from that trailer that members of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched the drone that penetrated Israeli airspace on Saturday, and which was intercepted over the Beit She’an Valley. Israeli army sources said Israel had tracked the aircraft in the course of its entire flight from the Palmyra area, through northern Jordan until it crossed into Israel.
From the initial investigation it appears that at least one of the Israeli jets remained at high altitude, apparently to verify that the missiles that were fired at the Iranian trailer actually hit it. At that point, Syria’s aerial defense system fired an unusually large number of missiles, more than 20, of at least two types – long-range SA-5s and shorter-range SA-17s. The volley of missiles was clearly visible to Israelis in the north and even in the center of the country.
The lead Israeli plane managed to spot the missiles and dive to evade them. The crew that was hit did not do that – and when the Syrian missile was close to their plane, the pilot and navigator abandoned it, using their ejection seat. The pilot sustained moderate injuries and the navigator was lightly injured.
Israel Air Force sources believe that a warning regarding the antiaircraft fire also reached the crew that abandoned their aircraft, but for a reason that is still not clear, the crew did not manage to take complete evasive action. It’s possible that the crew was too focused on its aerial bombardment and therefore reacted in a way that made the plane vulnerable to being hit.
The investigation is expected to address operational aspects including deployment of the electronic warfare “mantlem,” which is designed to disrupt efforts to identify and hit the planes; carrying out the necessary maneuvers; and examining whether the squadron that carried out the mission may have had a bit of excessive confidence — this, in light of the fact that the force has carried out many dozens of attacks in recent years (as prior Air Force commander Amir Eshel told Haaretz last August) without being hit.
The Israel Air Force has a long tradition of in-depth debriefings and therefore it is reasonable to anticipate that the reasons for the mishap will be clarified.