As widely reported, on 10th February an Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-16I SOUFA combat aircraft was shot down and crashed in northern Israel following the ingress of a strike package of eight such aircraft which attacked the Syrian Air Force Tiyas airbase in central Syria. The attack was mounted in retaliation for the violation of Israeli airspace by an Iranian Saegheh Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) earlier that morning, which was believed to have been testing the ability of the IAF’s integrated air defence system to detect a UAV designed with a low radar cross section.
Media reports stated that the Syrian Air Defence Force (SADF) fired upon the IAF aircraft, hitting one of the F-16Is. As to the type of weapon responsible for the jet’s destruction, the attack has been variously blamed on a Semi-Active Radar Homing (SARH) Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) fired by either an Almaz-Antey 9K317E Buk-M2E mobile SAM battery or NPO Almaz S-200V fixed SAM battery, or both.
This was not the first occasion that IAF aircraft have come under fire from Syrian S-200V batteries: On 17th March 2017 IAF aircraft attacking targets near Palmyra in central Syria came under fire from four S-200V SAMs, although three lost their target lock, one was destroyed by an Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) ARROW-2 infrared/active radar homing guided SAM. A further S-200V SAM attack against an unidentified IAF surveillance aircraft, possibly a Gulftstream G-550 Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering platform flying over Lebanon was similarly unlucky with the S-200V battery located to the east of the Syrian capital Damascus coming under attack by air-to-ground ordnance form the IAF, putting it out of action. However, the SADF’s run of bad luck ended on the 10th February, with the downing of the F-16I.
It would be tempting to draw the conclusion that the self-protection systems equipping the F-16I were somehow at fault in allowing the aircraft to be shot down, but this maybe erroneous. The F-16I is one of the best-protected F-16 types flying today. Open sources note that the aircraft maybe equipped with Elbit Systems’ SPS-3000 self-protection jamming pod located in the jet’s dorsal spine, with this self protection system perhaps enhanced by an IAI EL/L-8240 pod-mounted escort jammer alongside the aircraft’s organic missile approach warning system, radar warning receiver, and chaff and flare systems. Moreover, both the 9K317E Buk-M2E and S-200V are legacy systems, although Russian contractors have continued to offer upgrades and modifications of both systems in recent years, some of which may have been obtained by the SADF.
This raises the question as to why the F-16I was shot down? The IAF works hard to ensure that the threat libraries of its fighter’s electronic warfare systems are as up to date as possible and that regular Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) gathering missions are flown either within, or close to, Syrian airspace to ‘hoover up’ ELINT regarding that country’s ground-based air surveillance and Fire Control/Ground Controlled Interception (FC/GCI) radars. Certainly, the ability to detect and jam the plethora of ground-based air surveillance and FC/GCI radars accompanying both systems would have been well within the competencies of the F-16I’s self-defence systems. Moreover, the IAF is no stranger to these systems having lived, and flown, next door to them since they were delivered to Syria from Russia and the Soviet Union between 1986 (S-200V) and 2010 (9K317E Buk-M2E). In addition, the IAF has encountered both these systems when performing previous over-flights of Syrian territory and, in the case of the S-200V as noted above, has come under attack from this system in recent times.
Ultimately the loss of the F-16I underscores the fact that air operations remain a dangerous business. No matter how much protection, electronic or otherwise, is crammed into a combat aircraft the highly dynamic ‘split second’ and complex nature of air combat means that things can, and will, go wrong. One highly placed source with direct operational fast jet electronic warfare experienced shared his assessment with MONS of what could have gone wrong onboard the F-16I: “If there was a warning in the cockpit then why did the pilot miss it? Was it a case of information overload as they were doing another task? Were they task saturated?”
Similarly, combat aircraft self-protection is not only concerned with the radio frequency jamming performed by the aircraft’s self-defence systems. Electronic and physical countermeasures must often be deployed in a precise fashion to be effective, and accompanied by a specific set of aircraft manoeuvres to defeat the threat, the source continued. Just one of these steps not being executed in the correct way could be sufficient to lower the aircraft’s level of protection during those vital few seconds when a ground-based air surveillance radar detects the aircraft and the FC/GCI acquires the target before the SAM is launched and then homes in on its target.
In the aftermath of the incident, the Hezbollah Shia Islamist militia proclaimed the downing of the jet by the SADF as signalling a “new strategic phase.” Nevertheless, ‘one swallow does not a summer make’ and, based on the available facts, the loss of one F-16I does not represent a fundamental change in the either the course of the sad conflict in Syria, or Israel’s place within that.