by Dr. Gabi Avital
Russia recently announced that it intends to follow through on its plans to sell S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries to longtime ally Syria. Diplomatic efforts by both the United States and Israel were initially able to keep the deal, which was signed in 2010 alongside a similar deal with Iran, from materializing. Some believe the final word on the matter has not yet been spoken and that Russia stands to lose more than it would gain if it goes through with the deal.
Israel's efforts to prevent the deal from coming to fruition may prove successful, saving the defense establishment's research and development teams from the major headache involved in trying to come up with a way to meet the new threat. S-300 missiles have a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles), and the newer models, which are currently only in Russia's possession, have double that range. The immediate implication is that Israel Air Force fighter jets, which until now have dominated the region's skies, might encounter lethal anti-aircraft fire as soon as they take off from their bases within Israel.
As daunting as that sounds, one must ask if a single system can truly constitute a tiebreaker in the weapons and munitions equation, especially on Israel's northern border.
The answer varies: There are no parameters by which Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Syria's military capabilities are equal to Israel's. Syria's air force all but ceased to exist 31 years ago, at the end of the First Lebanon War. Israel downed 80 Syrian planes during that war, with no losses to the IAF, but there is no guarantee that a score of 80:0 will remain in place.
After the bitter lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the blows dealt to the IAF by the [Russian-procured] Syrian and Egyptian anti-aircraft defenses, the IAF made sure to obliterate the missile batteries deployed in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley during the 1982 war. The IAF destroyed 23 of Syria's 24 Russian-made surface-to-air missile batteries during that war, and Russia was dealt a massive strategic blow when its air defense system was proved vulnerable.
This experience might give Russia pause before it supplies Syria with the S-300 missiles Assad is seeking. The Syrian military is incapable of assuming the task of mastering the advanced system without the help of Russian advisers. Assuming Israel will come up with a way to counter the threat in the near future, Syria cannot afford another loss, which would represent more than the physical loss of three missile batteries, but rather a strategic loss to its air defense capabilities.
Israel's wars have seen their fair share of weapons systems that, while carrying their weight, fell short of becoming a deciding factor in battle. War means losses, both in lives and in resources. The best way to prepare for war -- as evident by the strikes attributed by foreign media to Israel -- is to make clear to the other side that we will not be intimidated by advanced missiles.
Dr. Gabi Avital
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