It was a calculated risk. Cutting edge Russian interceptors could have blocked their way, risking the fight everyone fears: a dogfight between Israeli and Russian fighters.
With skies in the Middle East more crowded than ever, due to the ongoing conflict in Syria, the Israel Air Force is facing challenges it has never faced before.
While there are few doubts about IAF ability in such circumstances, equipment is another story. Many aircraft are up to 30 years old, whereas Russian planes are likely brand new, or at least close to it.
Israel is keen on maintaining its qualitative edge and increasing its offensive capabilities. The purchase of 50 F35s from the United States is expected – according to military officials – to give Israel complete air superiority in the Middle East for the next 40 years.
The plane, Israel’s first stealth fighter, is an advanced machine, a supercomputer with a pilot. It is said to be able to evade advanced missile defense systems, such as the S-300s and S-400s that Russia deployed to Syria. But unlike F15s and F16s, the F35s are unlikely to be sent out on operations over Syria, or even Gaza, which constitute the bulk of the older planes’ missions.
And while the air force will receive the first F35 in the coming days, there remains the strategic problem of having to fight asymmetric conflicts against unconventional forces armed with advanced technology.
Islamic State and Hezbollah ride a fine line between asymmetric and conventional forces, and continue to fight against Western air and ground forces with relative success, as shown by Islamic State downing aircraft over Syria and Iraq.
Hezbollah is known to have a massive arsenal of advanced weaponry from their Iranian patrons. Those technological advances, along with battlefield experience gained by the group in Syria, have made it a most dangerous enemy, even more so than Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The next conflict with Hamas or Hezbollah will not likely be a full-fledged war, Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Abraham Assael told The Jerusalem Post.
He added that “the threats of cyber attacks are a real challenge, our systems are well protected, but it is a serious threat which can damage or hurt our system. It’s a race between our system and our adversary.”
While Israel has advanced anti-missile systems such as the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow, those systems have difficulties shooting down small, but potentially dangerous, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can infiltrate Israeli airspace.
The threat posed by UAVs is not new. Hezbollah used Iranian-made Ababil drones during the Second Lebanon War and during Operation Protective Edge; Hamas tried to send their drones to Tel Aviv.
And while the drones sent by Hezbollah and Hamas were all downed by the IAF, Hassan al-Laqis, one of Hezbollah’s top innovators and logistics experts, is said to have upgraded the group’s UAVs for both offensive operations and intelligence gathering. He is also said to have worked on making Hezbollah’s internal telecommunication systems difficult to breach.
Israel is known to be a world leader in heavy electronic warfare, especially in the air force, which according to the senior IAF officer, has several systems in place to counter the threat of hostile UAVs. In November, Elbit Systems introduced systems to counter that threat.
According to Elbit, the ReDrone system is “designed to detect, identify, track and neutralize different types of drones that are flown within a range of radio frequency communication protocols.”
The system, which is able to deal with a number of UAVs simultaneously, is also able to separate the UAV’s “signals from its operator’s remote control signals, as well as pinpointing both the drone and the operator’s directions,” disrupting the UAV’s communication with its operator, blocking radio and video signals and it’s GPS, preventing the UAV from carrying out an attack or gathering intelligence.
And while Israel continuously improves the technology behind anti-missile systems, such as upgrading the Iron Dome in 2015, “to expand and improve the performance capabilities of the system in the face of an unprecedented range of threats,” it still lacks a system to counter the threat of short-range mortars.
The Green-Rock, or Wind Shield system, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary ELTA, was delivered in 2014 to warn of incoming fire – such as rockets, artillery and mortars – locate the source of the fire and predict the expected impact location. But while it is able to provide a “rapid response solution for tactical forces,” it cannot intercept incoming fire.
Towards the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Hamas focused on short-range mortar fire, with deadly results. Iron Dome intercepted 799 missiles out of a total of 4,594 rockets fired towards Israel.
It is believed that Israel faces the threat of thousands of rockets pounding the home front in the next war with Hezbollah. Despite all of the army’s advanced air defense systems, it is ill-prepared to face that threat. If the IAF is to prevail in its next round against Hezbollah and Hamas, it must be ready to fight closer to the ground.