The Invisible Raid: Operation “Orchard” 2007
For decades Israel has acted to prevent hostile states from developing a nuclear capability. On 7 June 1981, Israeli bombers breached Iraqi air defences and destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor under construction a few miles south-east of Baghdad.
Syrian air defences are now rather more formidable than those deployed by Iraq in 1981. In the early morning of 7 September 2007, two squadrons of the IAF’s elite `Hammer’ Wing bombed Syria’s only-and highly secret-nuclear reactor at Deir ez-Zor in the deserts of eastern Syria. Two hours later, the thirty or so Israeli F-15s and F-16s returned to base. The first the Syrians knew of an air raid was when the morning shift arrived at the wrecked reactor.
The raiders were not stealth aircraft, yet the IAF had still managed to defeat the sophisticated Syrian IADS. The only unusual feature of the evening for the Syrians, was that at one moment their radar screens seemed to be swamped with unidentified contacts. This appeared simply to be a glitch, as the screens quickly returned to normal.
The weapon the Israelis used to neutralize their opponents’ early warning system was called `Suter’. Suter was a virus introduced to the Syrian IADS through an, as yet unknown, vulnerability, perhaps a human agent handled by Mossad, perhaps a technical mechanism or simple hack. Suter essentially ensured that the Syrian controllers saw only what their Israeli adversaries wanted them to see. The Israelis had hijacked the Syrian IADS for the duration of the raid, codenamed Operation `Orchard’. If this was the case, EW complexes within Turkey would also likely have been affected as the subsequent discovery of drop tanks near Hassa showed that Israeli aircraft transited Turkish airspace at least on their outbound leg. It eliminated the Syrian nuclear programme and removed any ambition for nuclear weaponry. This was strategic strike at its most efficient and effective. Orchard is an indicator of how high-end air warfare is being conducted now.
The Israel Air Force (IAF) began a series of air strikes in 2013 that reportedly targeted weapons systems that Syria was transferring to its Lebanese ally Hizbullah. These air strikes all struck targets in areas largely controlled by pro-government forces.
The first was carried out on 30 January 2013, when vehicles were destroyed at the Al-Jamraya Research Centre just northwest of Damascus. Western media reports cited unnamed US officials as saying Buk-M2E mounted on transporters had been targeted before they could be driven across the border into Lebanon. In contrast, Syrian television showed footage of 9K33 Osa SHORAD systems and a number of transport trailers that had been destroyed in the air strike.
Even if the Syrians removed Buk-M2E components from these trailers after the air strike, the presence of the SAMs would not have been indicative of an intention to transfer them outside of Syria. Tracked vehicles that are capable of severely damaging paved roads are often transported on trailers and this has been seen with Syrian Buk-M2Es heading towards Al-Mazzah Air Base west of Damascus.
At the same time, Hizbullah would not be able to operate and maintain complex systems such as Buk-M2E SAMs on its own. Furthermore, the transfer of that system to Hizbullah would put Russia under far more international pressure to discontinue arms deliveries to Syria and to concede to a UN arms embargo on the Arab country. There are other possible explanations: Syrian may have intended to deploy Buk-M2E batteries to Lebanon to defend Hizbullah positions and/or challenge the Israeli aircraft that currently operate over Lebanon with impunity, or to transfer the less sophisticated Osa SAM systems to Hizbullah.
A series of airstrikes in early May 2013 appeared to have been directed at Hizbullah-oriented weapon systems. According to an unidentified US official quoted by The New York Times, the first strike on 3 May targeted Iranian-supplied Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) under the control of Iranian Quds Force and Hizbullah personnel. The Fateh-110 is a far less sophisticated weapon system than the Buk-M2E and potentially could be operated by Hizbullah personnel.
Another Israeli air strike destroyed a compound near the northern port of Latakia in July 2013. Unnamed US officials told both The New York Times and The Guardian that the strike targeted long-range Yakhont anti-ship missiles. Although these have been in Syria’s arsenal since 2007, the officials said the strike was likely a response to recent Russian deliveries of Yakhonts with upgraded radars. The New York Times also reported Israeli fears that the missiles would be transferred to Hizbullah, which used Iranian-sourced anti-ship missiles to strike an Israeli Navy vessel in 2006.
Some uncertainty exists over the attack method and the overall success of the Latakia strike, with some reports claiming that submarine-launched cruise missiles rather than air-launched weapons may have been used. In August 2013, The New York Times cited US officials as saying that that at least some of the Yakhonts were removed from the site prior to the strike. In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Yakhont components (as well as Syria’s longest-range Scud-D ballistic missiles) had been smuggled to Hizbullah, although the group was not believed to have all a complete system as yet.
The IAF’s unwillingness to enter Syria’s airspace indicates that its efforts to improve its IADS have been successful. Furthermore, the incorporation of modern Chinese radar systems following the 2007 incursion suggests a more robust EW network is being established, designed to limit the effectiveness of any network-centric warfare attempts to degrade it. At the same time, the more strikes that the IAF carries out, the better the chances of the Syrian Air Defence Command predicting future strikes. In doing so, the command has the ability to relocate advanced mobile systems such as the Buk-M2E and Pantsyr-S1E in an attempt to successfully repel hostile action.
The network will be further improved by the incorporation of the S-300P-series system. This would complement the modernised and advanced short- and medium-range systems already in Syria and replace the aged S-200 as the primary long-range strategic air defence weapon.
Some reports have been dismissive of the impact that the S-300P series would make. World Tribune cited an anonymous Israeli official in July 2001 as saying that Israel possessed indigenously developed countermeasures that were designed to defeat S-300 series systems. In 2008, The Jerusalem Post quoted an anonymous Israeli defence official who claimed that, if Iran received the S- 300, electronic warfare systems designed to defeat it would be developed and deployed: a statement that appeared to contradict the 2001 assertion.
Both the US and Israel have nonetheless repeatedly tried to pressure Russia into not supplying the systems to either Syria or Iran. This worked in Iran’s case, when Russia cancelled a contract after the imposition of a UN arms embargo on the Islamic Republic in 2010.
The situation with the S-300PMU-2 systems that Syria has ordered has been less clear. In January 2014, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the delivery of S-300P series to Syria had begun. In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israeli officials had warned the US that Syria was making initial payments for the system under a USD900 million contract signed in 2010. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern about the possible transfer of the system a few days later. “We have previously stated that the missiles, particularly the [S-300], is potentially destabilising with respect to the state of Israel,” he said on 9 May. In August, the Russian media cited the annual report released by Avangard, which is part of the Almaz-Antey group that makes the system, as saying that the delivery of S-300PMU-2s to client 760 (code for Syria) had been delayed. Some 48N6E2 missiles had apparently been delivered, but the second batch had been put back to June 2014. Russian president Vladimir Putin confirmed the delay in September, when he stated: “We have delivered separate components but the whole delivery has not been completed and for the moment we have suspended it.”
That does not mean that Syria will not get its S-300PMU-2. The system appears to have become a diplomatic bargaining chip between the Russia and US, and with the latter thinking about increasing its support for the Syrian opposition, the former may decide that President Bashar al-Assad needs additional ways to protect itself against foreign military intervention.