Four fighter jets that Russia will sell to Syria will be used for intelligence gathering alone, Israel told.
By HERB KEINON, YAAKOV KATZ
The four MiG-31E fighter jets that Russia will deliver to Syria will be without offensive capabilities and used for intelligence gathering alone, according to reports that reached Jerusalem from Moscow this week.
According to these reports, Russia did not sell more planes to the Syrians for the simple reason that Damascus does not have the ability to pay for any more. The reports said that two of the planes would be operational, and the other two would be purchased for "cannibalization" purposes, amid a Syrian realization that Russia would not provide effective "after-sale service," and that these planes would be used for "spare parts."
Reports of a potential sale of MiG-31E fighter jets to Syria surfaced in 2007 but were quickly denied by Moscow and the official state arms-trading monopoly Rosoboronexport, which issued a statement saying "Russia has no plans to deliver fighter jets to Syria."
Earlier this year, however, the former head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt.-Gen. Michael D. Maples, confirmed in testimony before the Senate that Damascus and Moscow had finalized a deal and that the jets would be delivered to Syria in the near future.
The MiG-31, officials explained, mainly serves today as an intelligence-gathering plane. The plane is a newer version of the MiG-29, which is already operated by Syria and is also used for intelligence purposes.
"Due to its ability to fly fast and at high altitudes, it is suitable for gathering intelligence but does not maneuver well at lower altitudes," explained Yiftah Shapir, head of The Middle East Military Balance project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
The contract, Syria's first purchase of fighter jets in more than 20 years, is also the first export deal for the MiG-31E, a heavy twin-engine interceptor fighter capable of flying at nearly three times the speed of sound.
The aircraft was designed in the 1980s for intercepting low-flying American nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and remains the mainstay of Russia's air defenses. The MiG-31 was considered a key component of defenses against a possible US attack.
While Israel does not need to be concerned with the MiG-31 sale, defense officials warned on Monday about the sale of MiG-29 fighter jets to Syria, which are very similar to the F-16s operated by the Israel Air Force and can function as interceptors and bombers.
Syria is interested in the SMT model of the MiG-29, which features a significantly greater range than the older versions, has improved radar systems and is capable of carrying a broader array of weapons.
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