This comment was chosen by moderator FK from the post “What happened and why”. This is an abridged version of a very long and detailed comment on military technical aspects of Israeli raids into Syria and historical comparisons. The unabridged version is here
Comment by Anonymous

Ok – so the issue of Israeli raids into Syria has a military technical dimension as well as political. I see a lot of comments on this site and others where people wonder if Israel is really able to knock out Syrian air defenses. Why doesn’t Russia give the Syrians S300s or even S400s and even whether these latest Russian SAM weapons could even defeat the Israeli air force?  Well the short answer is that Israeli jets or anyone else’s for that matter stand no chance against Russian air defenses in Syria the long answer is a bit more involved and interesting. The question of SAMs vs air power is one that is of utmost importance in modern warfare and which has a long history reviewing that history is quite useful.

The first place to start is with a general comment about popular conceptions and misconceptions. The people of the West have been literally bombarded over the last several decades about the technological superiority of Western air power to the point that many believe it is invincible. But the lessons of history paint a very different picture. It is instructive to start with the Vietnam war as this was the first mighty test of modern air power [US] vs modern air defenses [Soviet].

I think it would come as a surprise to many that the United States lost as many as 10,000 aircraft in Vietnam against 150 to 200 aircraft lost by the North Vietnamese. Note that the North downed no less than 17 B52 heavy bombers with SAM shots. Here is a good recent article by Carlo Kopp (see full comment for all links). Kopp gives a good historical overview of the SAM vs air power dance starting with SE Asia [Vietnam] then on to the ME and the various Arab-Israeli conflicts on to Desert Storm [the first Iraq war and finally closing the loop with the Nato air war against Serbia in 1999. In brief the Vietnam war scorecard was that US airpower was not a match for Soviet air defense.

Let us now examine the 1973 Arab-Israeli war specifically the aspect of Soviet-supplied SAMs vs Western-supplied Israeli aircraft. As in all conflicts arriving at precise figures is something of an inexact science since neither side is open or truthful about its losses incidentally the US is one of the biggest historical liars when it comes to acknowledging its losses only doing so when the evidence is unassailable.

Kopp notes ‘….It is widely acknowledged that the Israelis suffered heavy losses of aircraft during the fighting in 1973. Exactly how many were lost to SAMs, and to which type of SAM, has been less well documented. Israeli public claims are that 303 aircraft were lost in combat…’

We have a now declassified memo from one Henry A. Kissinger dated Oct. 22, 1973 which summarizes a discussion with top Israeli officials while the 1973 October War was raging the participants included PM Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

Again as in Vietnam the Soviet air defense equipment proved formidable while the Israelis did eventually win the war the Soviet SAMs were seen as a huge problem by US military planners.‘…The losses suffered by Israel in the 1973 war were so high that it indirectly spawned the United States stealth aircraft program, Project HAVE BLUE. The U.S. estimated that without a solution to the SAM problem, even the United States would suffer depletion of its Air Force within two weeks of a conflict erupting between the U.S. and Soviet Union. The Israelis had lost 109 aircraft in 18 days…’

The next ME conflict was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the subsequent Israeli air war against Syria in which they decimated the same Syrian air defenses that had proved so formidable in 1973.

Now there is no other way to say this but this is complete nonsense and wishful thinking by 1979 the USSR had already fielded the potent S300 and fourth generation air superiority jets like the Sukhoi Su27 were well into their flight test programs. To think that the Syrian debacle of 1982 caused serious consternation among Soviet military men is insane as we shall see there was nothing wrong with the Soviet equipment used by the Syrians problem was the way the Syrians used it. The Syrians in 1982 and the Iraqis in 1991 did have good Soviet air defense equipment and were routed nonetheless but here is the important point when it comes to any kind of military conflict whether on land, sea or air the hardware and equipment is just one part of the equation equally important are things like discipline, training, tactics and strategy. As noted by Lt Gen Leonard Perroots, director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, “the Syrians used mobile missiles in a fixed configuration; they put the radars in the valley instead of the hills because they didn’t want to dig latrines — seriously.” The Syrian practice of stationing mobile missiles in one place for several months allowed Israeli reconnaissance to determine the exact location of the missiles and their radars, giving the IAF a definite tactical advantage on the eve of battle. Even so, the Syrians might have been able to avoid the complete destruction of their SAM complex had they effectively camouflaged their sites; instead, they used smoke to “hide” them, which actually made them easier to spot from the air. It is ironic that the Syrians, who have been criticized for their strict adherence to Soviet doctrine, chose to ignore the viable doctrine that emphasizes the utility of maneuver and camouflage.

According to a 1981 article in Soviet Military Review, alternate firing positions, defensive ambushes, regular repositioning of mobile SAMs to confuse enemy intelligence, and the emplacement of dummy SAM sites are fundamental considerations for the effective deployment and survivability of ground-based air defenses.”

It should also be noted that the Israelis deserve a lot of credit for a meticulously planned and executed operation. Though the IAF was actively involved in electronic warfare even during the earlier War of Attrition, operating converted KC-97 transports for the role, the losses sustained in 1973 were taken very seriously, leading to a growing emphasis on electronic warfare and surveillance…’What happened after the SAM victory against Israel in 1973 is that they realized they needed to find a way to counter this deadly threat…they focused on electronic warfare…Airborne early Warning [AEW]…ELINT [electronic intelligence and surveillance]…radar jamming and radar-homing missiles [anti-radiation missiles or ARMs]. Israel purchased Airborne Early Warning aircraft from the US specifically the Grumman E2-C ‘Hawkeye’ which is a smaller but capable platform used on US aircraft carriers refitted two Boeing 707 transports as Elint and jamming platforms and quite importantly focused on developing remotely piloted vehicles. (please continue to read the rest of the comment in the post “What happened and why”).

Besides the legacy equipment Syria has the quite modern and deadly Buk and the Pantsir which has already drawn blood in the 2012 downing of the Turkish jet there can be little doubt that even the legacy equipment has been deeply upgraded. We can also safely assume that with the significant Russian military presence in country that the Syrian missile crews are now very well trained and disciplined.The bottom line is that there is no conceivable scenario where Israel could inflict any real damage on Syrian air defense. On the other hand the Israelis are playing with fire if they continue their reckless aggression. It is quite possible that Syrian SAM fire on March 17 either damaged or even resulted in the writeoff of an Israeli jet. From a political angle it is conceivable that the Russians have been urging the Syrians to show restraint but clearly that does not apply to Israeli airspace violations and open aggression against Syrian troops.

The Israelis have been warned, that’s why their ambassador was called on the carpet in Moscow. Anyone who thinks that VVP is not serious or that there is some ‘nudge-wink’ going on between him and Israel is obviously a fool.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world