- The Israeli defense force shot down a drone flying from Syrian airspace, launched from a base staffed with Iranian military, which the IDF says crossed into Israeli airspace.
- Syrian counter-fire damaged one of Israel's F-16s, forcing both occupants to eject.
- Israel responded with a "large-scale attack" against Syrian air defenses.
The wedge-shaped drone looks like a flying saucer when seen in the black and white hues of a thermal scope. The Israeli helicopter pilot is tracking its smooth, steady path from the cockpit of an Apache.
It's not hard to ID the model and owner of the unmanned aircraft. It’s flying from Syrian airspace and from a base staffed with Iranian military. The shape and size of the drone pegs it as a Simorgh, a pilotless jet with a stealthy shape.
The name means Phoenix, as in the mythical bird that fell from the sky but was reborn. The irony is rich, since even the Iranians say the version they fly has been reverse-engineered from a once-secret U.S. aircraft, the RQ-170, that crashed (some say it was hacked) while snooping on Iranian nuclear program.
Some reports call the Iranian drone Saeqeh, or “Thunderbolt.” Here’s the drone, as per the state-run Iranian media:
Watch the Iranian version of the US RQ-170 Sentinel stealth aircraft pic.twitter.com/eWxKwXrt45- Press TV (@PressTV) October 1, 2016
There’s one other thing the Israeli Apache pilot knows: The Simorgh can carry precision-guided missiles. That means a possibly-armed warplane is heading into Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights, one of the most contentious pieces of real estate in the world. (Israel is technically at war with Syria and annexed part of the Golan Heights that it seized in the Six-Day War of 1967.)
Later, the Israelis will say, the drone crossed into their airspace for two minutes. The Iranians and Syrians deny it. Both sides agree on what happens to the drone: The Apache (Justice-3) is given permission to blow the aircraft from the sky. The video doesn’t dwell on details, but the results are clear. “Confirming positive result on target,” the pilot says as the aircraft detonates and falls to the ground in flaming pieces.
The skirmish starts and ends at 4:25 A.M. local time. Over the next five, hours the situation will continue to escalate, with missiles flying, people dying, and aircraft targeted by anti-aircraft missiles. The flight of a single drone this weekend will spark the biggest Israeli air battle with Syria in more than 20 years.
Israel takes an aggressively defensive posture following the drone incursion. Commanders decide shooting down the drone is not enough to punish the Iranians who operate it. They want to degrade their enemy's ability to fly drones from Syria into Israel.
Israel's attacking tools of choice are F-16 fighters that can drop bombs and, if need be, win in a dogfight. The IDF target is a command-and-control vehicle containing the crew that operates the Simorgh drone. The F-16s carry Spike air-to-ground missiles that are comparable to the more famous American Hellfire and designed to destroy vehicles in pinprick strikes. Which is exactly what happens in the video above.
Syrian air defense crews don't take the raid lying down. Israel's bombing of Hezbollah, even inside Syrian airspace, is one thing. Killing the troops of the Syrian regime’s Iranian allies is something else, and fighting back, even if it fails, is important to save face.
Syria's attempts to shoot down Israeli planes over its airspace have not been successful. Shots by anti-aircraft missile batteries on multiple occasions in 2016 and 2017 failed - and resulted in retaliatory attacks on the batteries that fired them. No Israeli warplane has been shot down by a foe since the early 1980s. Reuters calculates that the Israeli air force has targeted the Syrian military and Hezbollah about 100 times since 2011.
However, those stats become unimportant for the Israeli F-16s as the sky swarms with anti-aircraft missiles, all seeking to kill a warplane before it crosses back into the safety of Israeli airspace.
There is more than one kind of missile coming at the F-16s. The sky is filled with all kinds of Syrian arms dating back to Cold War.
There is the S-200 (called the SA-5 by NATO), which Syria first bought from Russia in the 1980s. The S-200s have stuck around thanks to upgrades to the systems, most notably by Russia in 2015 as part of its ongoing effort to prop up the Assad regime. Long-range radar detects targets, but the missile uses its own radar to close the range for the final attack. Each missile carries about 500 pounds of explosives in its warhead.
The S-200, even upgraded, doesn’t have a great track record against F-16s. An attempt in March 2017 ended with the missile losing its target and falling into Israel, where ballistic defense weapons destroyed the errant weapon before it hit the ground.
There’s another system on the ground looking to knock down the F-16. The Buk missile system is mobile, with radar and missiles mounted on vehicles. Called the SA-17 by NATO, this weapons system has been upgraded since its debut in 1979. They also use radar to close in on targets and are tipped with high explosive, fragment-spewing warheads.
An Israeli F-16 has two seats, one for the pilot and the other for a Weapons Systems Officer. The one in the front is responsible for handling the incoming missiles. It only takes one to get close to put them both in mortal peril. Suddenly, one with a proximity fuse detonates nearby, peppering the F-16 with whirling metal. They’ve been hit.
The F-16 is damaged, and the pilots have to eject. The aircraft has enough life to make it to Galilee, back in Israeli territory. Unlike most combat airplanes, the narrow cockpit of the F-16 doesn’t have a two ejection handles on each side of the seat, but only one between the knees. The airplane’s canopy falls away and the pair burst into the roaring air, propelled by the small rockets in the seats. The two-seat airplane staggers the ejections to avoid collisions. Reports later claim injury to the pilots. As usual the likely culprit is the violence of this ejection.
News of the shootdown quickly spreads. One Syrian media outlet shows pro-regime Syrian Arab Army troops stopping cars to give out candy to celebrate.
SAA soldiers distribute sweets to citizens to celebrate the shot down of the Israeli F-16 plane. pic.twitter.com/ely5i98Sa8- Yusha Yuseef (@MIG29_) February 10, 2018
A member of Syrian parliament, Shehabi Fares put out a statement declaring it “a sad day in Israel and a happy one in Syria.” The Iranian government says the drone was tracking ISIS terrorists and was not in Israeli airspace.
The latest: The Syrian army used ten missiles to shoot down two Israeli planes (F16 & Apache) and five Israeli rockets. A sad day in Israel and a happy one in Syria.- Fares Shehabi (@ShehabiFares) February 10, 2018
Hezbollah also chimes in, claiming the “start of a new strategic phase” and that “today's developments mean the old equations have categorically ended.”
By 8 A.M. the Israelis are ready to respond to the shootdown. The government calls it “a large-scale attack” against the Syrian air defenses and says it’s the biggest operation against Syria since 1982’s war over Lebanon.
Israel targets SA-5 and SA-17 sites, apparently able to track the mobile batteries. The government claims 12 separate locations for airstrikes, and make sure to target Iranian installations as well as Syrian military sites. The raid is one of the largest taken against Syria in recent years. Casualties are not known but early reports from human rights groups cite six killed and many more wounded.
The Israeli warplanes are again met with volleys of anti-aircraft missiles. None touch an Israeli airplane. The biggest threat they pose is caused when missiles, unable to find targets, fall back to ground across Israeli’s northern border. There, air raid alarms chime but no damage is reported. “New strategic phase” or no, this air raid unfolds much as the ones previous and in line with Israelis typical performance.
The events of this weekend do show one thing That the increase in air attacks almost always results in downed airplanes and captured or killed pilots. It’s a lesson for all the powers flying combat missions in Syria. In the past week, Russia and Turkey suffered helicopter shootdowns.
The other thing of note is what sparked this weekend's air war - an unmanned drone mission. The rise of unmanned aircraft make risky, provocative flights more tempting. But the results of these missions can quickly escalate to take the lives of the people on the frontline. Unmanned warfare doesn’t stay that way very long, as the drone crew and Israeli pilots found out.