On March 17 IAF jets were targeted by Syrian missiles in a rare incident that Israel responded to immediately. But what is the real story behind this incident?
In the wee morning hours of March 17, a Friday, a strange incident marred the skies over the area of the Jordan Valley in Israel. According to an official statement released by IDF Spokesman, the country's Air Defense Command intercepted a Syrian, Russia-manufactured anti-aircraft missile at 2:40 a.m.
It had later been clarified that an Arrow 2 missile was aimed at a Syrian missile that was fired in the direction of the West Bank and Israel north of Jerusalem, in the area of the Jordan Valley.
But it seems that the short and laconic announcement by the IDF doesn't really tell the full story. Or in other words- the IDF isn't revealing the whole truth about the incident. So what really happened that Friday morning?
On that night, several Israel Air Force jets had returned from a mission in Syria, where they operated like they have in the past (according to foreign reports) to stop weapons convoys –mostly advanced missiles - on their way to Shi’ite terror organization Hezbollah. When the jets were already en route back to Israel, they came under fire of Russian-manufactured surface to air missiles SAM-5 (Vega) that were launched from Syria.
One of the Syrian missiles' trajectory pointed south-south west. Theoretically, it could have landed in Israeli territory. But when such a missile misses its target (in this case, the IAF jets), it's supposed to activate a self-destructing mechanism that sends its parts flying to the ground.
Since it was not clear at the time where the missile was coming from and there was serious concern that it would land within the West Bank or in Israel, it appears that the Arrow missile defense system had fired one or two intercepting missiles in its direction (as is the common procedure during interceptions).
Prior to the launch, a red alert siren was heard in several villages in the Jordan Valley where the interception of the missile was expected to happen.
Several days following the incident, the commander of the Air Defense Command, Brigadier General Tzi Haimovitch, provided more details. According to him "the threat was ballistic, and in such a situation there is no room for question marks or dilemmas." Haimovitch explained that the decision to intercept the missile was made by the relevant commanders "within a split second."
Due to the rapid reaction that was required facing this threat, the commander of the IAF and the chief of staff were not made privy to this decision- but they later backed up and justified it.
Arrow 2 missiles are equipped with a warhead with shrapnel shells. The shrapnel is usually supposed to hit the front part of the ballistic missile the Arrow intercepts. This is aimed mainly against the major threat facing Israel - Shahab-3 and Scud-D missiles, which Iran, Syria and Hezbollah all have in their arsenal. The shrapnel fired at the missile is meant to eliminate the explosives and neutralize the threat.
However, the “warhead” of SAM-5, a 40-year-old, outdated missile, does not contain explosives. It contains "metals"- avionics equipment and a radar antenna. Its warhead is actually located in its back part, some 3.5-4 meters from the tip. Next to it is the self-destructing mechanism, and between the two and the front separates a steel divider.
In short, it is most likely that the Arrow’s shrapnel hit the Syrian missile’s warhead but not its explosives in the back. In other words- it is doubtful that an interception took place in the full sense of the word.
What may have happened is that a shock wave, which spreads when shrapnel shards hit the front part of the missile (with the same effect of a hand-grenade), could have possibly neutralized the self-destructing mechanism of the Syrian missile. Another possibility is that the self-destructing mechanism didn't work for a technical reason.
If that is indeed the case, it can be assumed that a part or parts of the SAM-5, which weighs seven tons in total, continued in its flight and landed in some spot in Israeli territory.
Just to make things even clearer: the warhead of the Syrian missile weighs 200 kg. There are both seeing and hearing witnesses from communities in the area who noted large explosions that were followed by a resounding booming noise and a visible flash.
The Arrow 2 is a two-stage missile with two engines. The first one is manufactured by the Israel Military Industries and the second by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. When the first engine finishes its activity, it is ejected.
After the incident photos were published in Jordan showing a part of a missile's motor with inductors that came out of the engine. It fell to the ground in the area of Jordan's Irbid and was probably the first-stage engine of the Arrow. Therefore, there is a probability that an Arrow shard hit the Syrian missile, neutralized its self-destructing mechanism, but did not entirely destroy it. There's also a chance that the two Arrow missiles missed their target and that following a technical failure in the Syrian missile's self-destructing mechanism, the missile got to Israel.
The claim that some made in Israel that the parts that fell in Jordan were shards of the Syrian SAM has been ruled out by experts.
For the past two weeks the Jerusalem Post has been attempting to receive detailed answers from the IDF Spokesperson's Unit about the aforementioned information. Among some of the questions that were referred to the IDF it was asked whether parts or even small shards from the Syrian missile actually landed in Israeli territory, and whether published images that showed the metal part that landed in Jordan were actually part of the Arrow missile.
The spokesperson's unit declined to comment on the questions and was only willing to comment that the incident was still being investigated and that conclusions will be drawn accordingly.
This evasive reply raises even more questions. It implies perhaps that the IDF has something to hide and that the army is not interested in disclosing to the public the full details about this incident. It is also reminiscent of the security establishment's conduct seven years ago regarding the Iron Dome missile defense system.
It was claimed in the past that the Iron Dome would be capable of intercepting mortars or rockets within a short range, even a range of 5km, and still defend the communities along the border with Gaza. However, as the previous two military campaigns in Gaza have taught us, despite Iron Dome's impressive capabilities and the upgrades it has seen since, its ability to protect is challenged on an almost daily basis.