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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

How Israel's Air Superiority Advantage Has Been Seriously Undermined by the Modernisation of Syria's Air Defence Network; An Analysis from Operation Mole Cricket in 1982 to Skirmishes in the 2010s

February 17th - 2018

Image Credit : Wikimedia Commons

In 1982 one of the most prolific battles of the Cold War pitted the Israeli Air Force against Syrian air and air defence forces in what today remains the largest air battle since the Korean War. Taking place three days after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli Air Force launched Operation Mole Cricket 19 to undermine the Syrian military's ability to intervene in the war, thus asserting Israeli air superiority over both Syria and Lebanon. Syria's air fleet consisted primarily of MiG-21 and MiG-23 second and third generation fighters supported by S-125 ground based anti aircraft missile systems. Israel's attack meanwhile was spearheaded by new U.S. built F-15A heavy air superiority fighters supported by lighter F-16 platforms - fourth generation fighters well in advance of anything Syria or any other Soviet aligned power had ever faced in combat. The result was an overwhelming Israeli victory, and the most successful attack on a Soviet or Russian built air defence network in history. Syria's air defences were all but destroyed and its Air Force suffered heavy losses, while Israeli's own losses were negligible by comparison and though two F-15s did sustain damage not a single fighter was lost. 

In February 2018, with the Syrian military's war against Western backed insurgent groups coming to a close and growing concerns in Tel Aviv of a growing Iranian military presence in Syria, the Israeli Air Force launched its largest operation against Syrian forces since 1982. This came amid a series of Israeli attacks on Syrian air defence systems over the preceding several months, in which according to Syrian military claims several Israeli fighters had been lost. What was notable about clashes between the Israeli Air Force and Syrian Air Defence Force was that they were carried out using almost the exact same weapons systems used in the 1980s. Israel's Air Force again made extensive use of F-16 and F-15 fighters, while Syrian air defences continued to rely on the S-125 and S-200 - the latter which was acquired in the immediate aftermath of operation Mole Cricket and has been in service since 1983.

While Syria and Israel have extensively modernised their air defence and air forces respectively, Syrian surface to air missiles appear to have come further than Israeli fighters in their ability to incorporate modernisations. This is strongly indicated by the Israeli Air Force's losses when operating over Syria, as while it was near invulnerable to Syrian SAMs in 1982 and not a single fighter was lost during operation Mole Cricket despite the scale of the forced deployed, Syrian S-125 and S-200 platforms have taken a significant toll on Israeli aircraft in recent years. Syria has claimed on several occasions to have shot down Israeli fighters with both S-200 and S-125 systems, including on September 12th 2016, March 17th 2017, October 16th 2017 and February 10th 2018. The Israeli Air Force on the other hand, while it was previously able to crippled Syrian air defences in a single strike, has struggled to significantly undermine the network after several years of attacks - demonstrating a far more resilient and survivable network defending Syrian airspace. Indeed, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011 in particular the country has received extensive support from both Russia and North Korea, two of the most capable forces in the field, to upgrade and modernise its surface to air missile network and increase the capabilities of its older missiles to be able to better target modern aircraft. Ultimately this leaves Israel is a poor position, as not only does has it struggled to obtain more capable aircraft from the United States and as a result taken losses against dated air defence platforms, as well as suffering from the cancellation of its own highly promising indigenous fighter program, but the vulnerability of its aircraft is set only to increase as Syria deploys more modern and capable air defence systems. Acquisition of the S-300 and possibly the S-400, as well as complementary shorter ranged platforms, remains a possibility, and such weapons systems have already proliferated widely throughout the Middle East, seriously threatening the ability of Israel and its Western partners to project power. Should Syria move to fortify its SAM and radar emplacements, a move North Korea and to a lesser extent Russia have themselves taken to drastically increase their survivability, it would further complicate Israeli operations and undermine its critical air superiority advantage.

The Israeli military has seen its position decline significantly, largely through no fault of its own but due to a combination of both the United States' inability to provide it with more advanced fighters as well as Russia and North Korea's provision of state of the art upgrades to enhance Syrian air defences and deny Israel's increasingly dated U.S. made fighters access to its airspace. Indeed, had Israel not take steps to upgrade its fourth generation U.S. made fighter with advanced indigenous electronic warfare systems, they would be far more vulnerable than they are today. With Syria's air defences able to cover the territory of neighbouring Lebanon and the military increasingly strengthening cooperation with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the strength of their air defence forces could well deny Israel's military air superiority in future conflicts in Lebanon against the Iranian backed militia - a disastrous outcome for Israeli security interests.

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