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Israel’s F-15I Strike Fighters Mimic U.S. Jets, Use Complex Manoeuvres to Target Blind Spot in Syrian Air Defences

May 12th - 2018

With the Israeli Air Force facing a fast improving Syrian air defence missile network, making strikes on its Arab neighbour increasingly difficult, the military has been forced to adapt its tactics to exploit weaknesses in its neighbour's defences to minimise its losses. Following the successful targeting of a number of its combat aircraft over Syrian territory, Israeli aircraft took to launching missile strikes from beyond Syrian territory at ranges from which Syrian air defence missile batteries were unable to retaliate. This allowed the fighters to best take advantage of the longer range of their air to ground missiles, which surpassed those of Syrian surface to air missiles. Israeli fighters would also frequently launch strikes from the territory of neighbouring Lebanon, where Syrian air defences were less concentrated than those facing the Israeli border. While a significant proportion of the Israeli air launched missiles, very often the majority, were neutralised in the air after entering Syrian territory, this approach kept Israeli’s combat aircraft out of harm’s way and thus seriously reduced the risk of strike operations.

Syria’s Air Force today remains in a poor state to engage hostile combat aircraft, and the country lacks advanced heavy air superiority fighters to match the Israeli F-15C. The country is expected to acquire advanced Russian MiG-29SMT fighters and possibly even a small contingent of elite MiG-31 interceptors  which would considerably strengthen its aerial warfare capabilities in future. Russia has also pledged to provide the country with S-300 PMU-2 long range surface to air missile batteries free of charge, though when this delivery will be made remains to be seen. At present however, Syria is forced to rely on Cold War era air defence systems such as the S-125 and S-200 platforms which have been kept viable as a result of North Korean assistance, with Korean specialists upgrading them to be able to target modern combat aircraft. These missile systems have proven highly capable of intercepting enemy missiles and pose a significant threat to combat aircraft operating in close proximity, hence why hostile combat aircraft from Israel and Western nations have given them a wide berth.

As the stakes in Syria’s conflict grow higher, with Iranian aligned forces taking advantage of the power vacuum in the country to deploy ever greater numbers of military assets near Israel’s borders, Israeli forces have grown increasingly desperate to undermine the growing hostile military presence in Syria. As the importance of launching strikes grows ever greater however, Syria’s growing air defence capabilities make the launching of such strikes ever more difficult and increase the risks substantially. The Israeli Air Force has as a result turned to a number of new and highly creative strategies to get past Syria’s missile network.

Israel’s elite F-15I Ra’am strike fighters, the country’s only dedicated strike platforms of which it fields just 25, were reportedly withdrawn from joint wargames to be held in the United States shortly before carrying out the operation in Syria. The strike platforms were used to attack targets in Syria’s Hama and Aleppo by evading the its dense missile deployments facing Israel and attacking the targets from the poorly defended east rather than the heavily fortified south and west as per usual. Reports indicated that the Israeli fighters did so by pioneering a new strategy - copying the transponder codes of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles to cross Iranian and Jordanian territory and Syrian targets from an unexpected direction. While U.S. aircraft regularly fly across Jordan and Iraq, the F-15I is externally identical to the F-15E on which it is heavily based allowing Israel passage where it would otherwise likely be denied - with Iraq in particular almost certain to have warned Syria had it been aware of Israeli fighters transiting through its territory. Israel’s use of U.S. transponder codes was confirmed in recent American media reports, with three U.S. officials supporting the claim that Israeli F-15I strike fighters had adopted to this tactic. Whether it will have consequences for Jordanian or Iraqi relations with the U.S. and lead the two Arab states to take further precautions in future remains to be seen.

Flying over Eastern Syria, a region where U.S. combat aircraft have regularly deployed since the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014, Israeli aircraft were also reportedly able to disguise themselves as U.S. fighters to avoid revealing themselves to Syrian forces. With U.S. aircraft rarely acting in an openly hostile manner to Syrian forces, and with the potential repercussions from downing American aircraft too great for the embattled Syrian government to risk, American overflights have largely been tolerated. Israeli F-15 fighters appeared able to exploit this, almost certainly with U.S. consent given that the fighters would have been easily detected by American radars operating in the area, and in doing so carried out one of their most successful strikes on Syria in recent years.

With the F-15I flying at high altitudes, equipped with a high weapons payload and fuel tanks for an extended range, and able to deploy defensive air to air weapons incase of attack by Syrian aircraft, however unlikely, they were ideally suited for the strike mission. Israel's more numerous but far less capable light fighters such as the F-16 and F-35 were incapable of carrying out such a mission, which only the elite strike platform could be relied on to carry out. The Israeli attack reportedly levelled over a dozen buildings and destroyed numerous missile sites, which Israel alleged belonged to Iranian aligned forces operating in Syria. The Israeli aircraft, striking their targets from much shorter ranges than usual due to the weak Syrian west facing air defences , were able to launch shorter ranged but higher payload air to ground munitions - relying on highly destructive GPS guided GBU-39/B small diameter glide bombs rather than lower payload long ranged missiles. Whether Syrian forces will move to strengthen their air defences facing eastwards, or else strengthen their already growing cooperation with Iraq to avoid recurrences of such incidences and provide some warning of future Israeli attacks, remains to be seen. 

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