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Was the decision to directly attack an Iranian target planned and made in advance? Why was the ground control trailer of the Iranian drone attacked by fighter aircraft rather than by stand-off high-precision missiles? Is the peak of this period of tension already behind us? Amir Rapaport attempts to provide answers in his weekly column
Last Saturday could have been less dramatic: if Israel had settled for just shooting down the Iranian drone (along with the photographs and a massive press conference), the first-ever combat encounter between Iran and Israel could have been avoided.
Evidently, however, things developed differently and established even more precedents: the loss of an F-16I "Sufa" fighter and the closing of the Ben-Gurion international airport, admittedly only for a few minutes – but a total closure nevertheless.
As we approach the weekend, quite a few questions regarding that encounter, as well as regarding likely future developments vis-à-vis Iran, remain unanswered. Not all of these questions can be provided with full, definite answers.
Q: Was the highly significant strategic decision to directly attack an Iranian target (and subsequently a considerable portion of the Syrian air-defense setup) in response to the shooting down of the IAF fighter, planned in advance and sanctioned by the national security cabinet?
Hard to tell. The tension vis-à-vis Iran in view of the Iranian consolidation in Syria did not start last Saturday, and it is reasonable to assume that different scenarios had been taken into consideration, including a scenario such as the one that actually developed last Saturday.
Regarding the massive attack against the Syrian air-defense setup – the actual events evolved very rapidly. The Prime Minister and Minister of Defense assembled at the Kirya compound along with the supreme command of the IDF only after the shooting down of the IAF F-16I "Sufa" fighter. All of those senior officials sat together in the "Pit" (IDF command center) and made a joint decision to take advantage of the shooting down of the IAF fighter as an "opportunity" to attack 12 Syrian objectives regarded as strategic.
Q: Why attack Iranian targets in Syria and not punish Iran on its own soil?
A very good question. Apparently, Israel currently operates subject to a set of rules that is very convenient to the Iranians: they have opened a direct front opposite Israel, right next to Israel's border, and dispatched a drone into Israeli territory without risking a response against Iran proper. If the situation vis-à-vis Iran continues to deteriorate, however, Israel will have to consider new rules, as otherwise, it will have a hard time achieving effective deterrence opposite the Iranians.
Q: Why was the ground control trailer of the Iranian drone attacked by fighter aircraft rather than by a stand-off precision missile?
Another excellent question. For decades, the Israeli Air Force maintained a monopoly on deep-penetration strikes, based on the assumption that it enjoys the privilege of complete freedom of operation. Meanwhile, the IDF has not acquired surface-to-surface missiles that offer total precision at ranges exceeding a few dozen kilometers, despite the fact that the Israeli defense industries actually sold such resources to various countries around the world. Only belatedly has the IDF started to upgrade their capabilities in this field, but attacks against depth targets are still a part of the exclusive "mandate" of the IAF.
Q: Was the shooting down of the IAF F-16I "Sufa" fighter the result of complacency, technical failure or poor professional performance?
Apparently, it stemmed from a combination of all of these factors. The IAF is thoroughly familiar with the threat of the Russian missiles operated by Syrian troopers (the first launch of such a missile at an Israeli fighter during a sortie over Syria was reported for the first time in this column about eighteen months ago). Nevertheless, it appears that the pilots relied too heavily on their electronic countermeasures in the hope of avoiding a hit.
Presumably, the best minds of the IAF and the Israeli defense industries are currently attempting to figure out how and why those systems failed to neutralize an outdated Russian-made missile and prevent it from hitting the aircraft whose cost (including the systems fitted to it) is more than half a billion ILS.
Apparently, the pilots could have flown at a less risky altitude (it is more difficult to engage low-flying aircraft than it is to hit high-flying aircraft), or to respond more effectively to the salvo launched at the formation, which consisted of more than 20 missiles (probably SA-5 and SA-17). At the same time, the primary difficulty appears to have been coping with the massive salvo.
In the professional jargon, the simultaneous launching of multiple missiles is known as a "salvo" (during Operation Protective Edge, Hamas launched a salvo of not less than 30 rockets at one time, to challenge the Radar elements of the Iron Dome system). In this case, the other side may have assumed that in a state of saturation, the electronic systems would fail to address a missile or two.
Q: Did the IAF destroy the SAM battery that had shot down the F-16I fighter?
Very doubtful. For some reason, the IAF has not publicized any photographs of the results of that strike (as it did in the case of the attack against the ground control trailer, for example). It is very reasonable to assume that some of the targets attacked were, in fact, dummy targets (a very common Russian tactic). In any case, SA-17 batteries are small, highly mobile and evasive.
Q: Why was Ben-Gurion Airport closed on Saturday morning?
The order to close the international airport came from the IDF in response to the missile salvo that resulted in the shooting down of the F-16I fighter. Apparently, the IDF authorities were concerned about the "Ukrainian Precedent" – the incident a few years ago where a missile launched at a Russian military aircraft shot down a Malaysian passenger aircraft by mistake.
Q: Is Israel attempting to prevent the Iranian consolidation in Syria by using military measures exclusively?
Definitely not. The military effort is accompanied by a diplomatic effort extending from Moscow to Washington. The major problem is the fact that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who is the true ruler of Syria after the end of the civil war there, has himself (and Russia) in mind first and foremost, rather than Israel's interests.
Q: Is the peak of this period of tension already behind us?
No again. The Minister of Defense has stated this week, in several forums that the next direct round against Iran is only a matter of time, as both the Iranians and us are determinedly entrenched in our opposing positions. The Iranian determination to advance their military and economic interests in Syria is total, so Defense Minister Lieberman is probably right.