Image by Bukvoed
The official biography of the recently deceased John McCain tells us that he was shot down by the North Vietnamese. That is simply false. McCain was shot down by a Russian SAM (surface to air missile) battery operating in North Vietnam under a North Vietnamese flag. The Russian battery commander was the first to view McCain’s pilot ID card and other personal items, several of which he kept as a souvenir until they were lost when he relocated from the Baltics where he finished his military service and retired, back to Russia after the fall of the USSR. There was recently a retrospective on this guy, who apparently died of the same tumor that killed McCain some ten years earlier. As has been well-documented, American aircraft lost to air-to-air combat in Vietnam, and earlier in Korea, were also lost to Russian interceptors, flown by Russian pilots. The other biography line, the one about McCain being interrogated and tortured by the North Vietnamese, is also most likely a lie. A high value target like McCain whose father was an admiral in the US Navy, would have been immediately delivered to the KGB and it would have been exclusively the Russians who would have dealt with him in Hanoi. It could very well be that McCain’s well-documented animus towards Russia and specifically towards Putin, who, as we know, cut his teeth in the KGB rising to the rank of Colonel, stems from his intimate five-year long acquaintance with that particular organization.
Russia has a long history of aiding its allies not only via the delivery of advanced weaponry and the training of its client states in its use, but via surreptitiously deploying its own forces to operate the sophisticated equipment they have just sold to them. When I served in the anti-aircraft division of the Israeli Airforce in the early 1980’s Israel was just about to receive from the US the Chaparral system of short-range heat-seeking missiles mounted on tracked vehicles. A few friends of mine were lucky enough to have been selected to travel to the US and be trained in the use and maintenance of this new (to Israel) weapon system. This is common. However, no American personnel are ever allowed to operate Israeli military equipment after its delivery to the IDF. The reasons for it are both ideological and practical; Israel’s founding ethos prohibits reliance on any foreign power, even the closest of allies for its defense. This foundational principle is well-rooted in the lessons of WWII in the early stages of which France and Britain betrayed their allies Poland and Czechoslovakia and left them defenseless in the face of Nazi and in the case of Poland both Nazi and Soviet aggression. This betrayal happened notwithstanding “ironclad” guarantees written into the Versailles Accords that terminated the First World War, guarantees stipulating that France and England would treat any aggression against Poland and Czechoslovakia as an act of war against their own countries. When Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia settled by ethnic Germans some two hundred years earlier, the British PM at the time Neville Chamberlain, defining appeasement for all times, shamefully declared that the British “do not want to go to war in a land they couldn’t find on a map for a people whom they didn’t even know (paraphrasing)” and thus backed out from a signed international treaty without as much as an “excuse me”.
The lesson Israel derives from these events is not only that international mutual defense treaties are not worth the paper they are printed on because they never get acted upon by the power pledging to come to the defense of its junior partner, but also and even primarily, because the reliance on a third party for self-defense weakens the fighting spirit. Both Czechoslovakia and Poland were large European countries with very significant defense industries and longstanding military traditions. The fact that the First World War would not be the last that a new conflict was brewing even before the last shot of the war was fired was known to all Europeans, children and simpletons not excluded. Both Poland and Czechoslovakia could have, in the twenty-year period between the two wars, made significant military preparations to withstand renewed German aggression and they would have met with a significant level of success. By engaging Hitler’s forces, the Czechs would have likely turned the British public opinion in their favor, forcing Chamberlain to provide assistance, both politically and militarily. By surrendering without a fight the Czechs sent a signal of weakness, a signal of resignation to their fate and that sealed the deal; no one wants to help the weak and the feckless. It is thus Israel’s view that reliance on foreign intervention on one’s behalf weakens the spirit and is antithetical to the survival of small countries in our wolf eat wolf world.
When G. W. Bush, in one of his misguided pushes for “peace” in the Middle East, the kind of peace that asks Israel to give up hard-won territorial assets in exchange for meaningless papers and fleeting photo-ops, offered Israel a NATO-like mutual defense alliance, the then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon famously remarked that Israel would never be another Czechoslovakia. His remarks were not well-received by the administration, because they implied, of course, that when push came to shove the US would behave no more honorably than Chamberlain’s England. A minor diplomatic brouhaha ensued. But the Israeli public knew Sharon’s comments to be a simple statement of fact and stood behind its PM. Bush’s initiative, thank God, went nowhere.
The other reason Israel does not allow Americans to operate its equipment is that this equipment is often modified by the Israeli military industries in ways that Israel prefers to keep secret even from its closest allies. I know this, because the system I had the privilege to operate was so modified and improved, leading to the downing of a Syrian MiG-25 operating at altitudes that were far outside our missile system’s operational envelope as delivered to us from the US. The specific manner in which IDF weapon systems are used, the “TOL” (torat lechimah, operational procedure), is also uniquely Israeli and also secret. It is this TOL and the constant training in it that more often than not gives the IDF its tactical advantage.
The Russians, on the other hand, never allow their client states to independently operate the advanced equipment they “sell” them. They don’t trust their third world allies to have the necessary training and discipline to operate sophisticated military equipment in a way that would show its best side, and showing its best side is critical to sparing Russia a good deal of embarrassment and hurting its arms export industry, and industry that is second only to the oil and gas sector in terms of its importance to Russia’s faltering economy. The strategy of Russian military operating offensive and defensive weaponry on behalf of other countries is not without its own risks; Russia often denies, as was the case in Korea and in Vietnam, and as is the case now in Syria, being a direct side to the proceedings. Its personnel often do not wear any identifying insignia and when they are killed they are surreptitiously buried in civilian graves with no military honors. The bigger risk, however, is that even when operated flawlessly by top-notch Russian crews, Russia’s military technology often proves vastly inferior to its American counterpart.
In the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Russian-operated SAM batteries in Egypt, using the same SA-2 missiles that downed McCain’s Sabre, decimated the American-made F-4 Phantoms flown by Israeli pilots, denying Israel its customary air superiority over the Sinai theater of operations and delaying the counter-offensive by more than a week. This was an enormous blow to the Israeli self-esteem and led to a complete reorganization of the Israeli Air Force with heavy emphasis on electronic warfare (EW). Nine years later, during the First Lebanon War in the summer of 1982, Israeli F-15s and F-16s utterly destroyed Syrian (but Russian made and operated) air defenses with the loss of not a single Israeli aircraft. Ever since then, Israel has been enjoying unchallenged access to the airspace over its northern borders and as far afield as Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Yesterday, a Russian spy plane, an IL-20, was shot down over Latakia in Western Syria, not far from the large Russian naval and air force installations in the region. Fifteen crew members lost their lives. This morning, the Russians are officially blaming Israel’s action last night against an Iranian weapons depot in western Syria for provoking the large-scale Syrian anti-aircraft fire response, in the course of which the Russian airplane was accidentally shot down by the Syrians. Specifically, they are saying that the Syrian S-200 SAM battery perceived the four Israeli F-16 jets operating in the region to deliver a guided air to surface missile strike on the Iranian weapons depot in eastern Syria as “grouped target”, firing a salvo of three missiles, each carrying a 217 Kg (477 lbs) fragmentation warhead with 37,000 fragments spreading in a 120 degree cone. The Russians claim that Israel delivered to them a warning over the “hot line” only one minute before the strike, denying them sufficient time in which to reroute the IL-20, which was on a long final approach to land at the Hmeimim Air Base at an altitude of 5 Km (15,000 ft).
The presence of the French Navy guided missile cruiser Auvergne, equipped as it is with a complement of cruise missiles, complicated the tactical picture in the region. Finally, the long-range S-200 battery was operating outside of its performance envelope at a distance of only 35 Km (22 miles, 19 nautical miles), a distance more suitable for smaller missiles. This precluded the operation of the missile system in the unambiguous “phased-array” mode, in which a target is identified not only by its altitude and azimuth, but also by its distance, and forcing operation in the less-preferred “monochromatic illumination mode”, in which distance data is not available. This led the battery commander to misinterpret the very large radar signature of the IL-20 with its four turboprop engines as a grouping of four smaller F-16 jets and fire the three missile salvo. The S-200 is the most advanced anti-aircraft system currently operating in Syria, and the Russians are careful to specify, with some redundancy, that it belongs to the Syrian armed forces. Considering the circumstances, the sophistication of the weapon system, and Russia’s standard operating procedure, it is more than likely that the missile and the regional command and control were all operated by Russian personnel, making the loss of the Russian spy plane with all hands a friendly fire incident. Considering further the limited number of Russian military personnel in the western Syria theater, it is quite likely that the Russians who approved and executed the fatal fire personally knew the Russians that were killed in the incident. An ugly situation indeed.
As a retired fire control officer in the Raytheon-made HAWK SAM system, I consider the Russian explanation to be a cover up for the incompetence of the battery crew and the faulty decision making by the regional command and control center, be they operated by the Russians, the Syrians, or both. The “monochromatic illumination” mentioned by the Russians, the one that does not provide distance data, must be a Doppler illuminating radar. As someone who has spent tens of thousands of hours behind such a radar and as a pilot with many hundreds of landings, I can unequivocally say that the Doppler signature of a large turboprop cargo plane like the IL-20 on a stabilized approach to land, is radically different than the signature produced by a maneuvering F-16, an aircraft against which I trained often. On the command and control side as well, the Russian story does not hold water. Long range anti-aircraft missiles are not bazookas; they do not get fired unless cleared by the regional command and control center, a facility with multiple radars that must have been in direct communication with the IL-20 and fully aware of both its coordinates and its altitude at all times. The same center would have been able to see the non-stealth Israeli F-16s. My educated guess is that the Russian regional command and control center at the Hmeimim air base was fully aware of the tactical picture and the limitations of the S-200 system. They knew that firing a salvo of three missiles outside of their nominal performance envelope at the Israeli fighter jets hoping to miss their own much heavier spy plane, especially with the F-16 releasing countermeasures, was foolhardy to say the least. They went for it anyway, because the possibility of shooting down an Israeli fighter jet and the associated gain in prestige and blow to Israel’s morale and deterrence proved irresistible.
So far, the Russians have undertaken the rather mild step of inviting Israel’s ambassador to Russia Gadi Koren to the Kremlin this morning to explain Israel’s actions. Following this meeting, the IDF issues a rare statement, expressing its regret for the lives lost aboard the IL-20. Blue check marks from the Russian military-industrial establishment are now calling on Twitter for Putin to install Russia’s top of the line S-400 SAM system in western Syria with the express stated purpose of denying Israel air superiority over its northern borders and over the weapons delivery routes from Iran to Syria and to Lebanon. Fortunately, Putin is highly unlikely to heed the advice of his hot-headed Twitterati. Deploying SAM batteries that are flying the Russian tricolor against Israel would pit, for the first time openly, officially, and undeniably, the best in Russian-made air defense systems technology, operated by highly trained Russian crews, against the best in American military technology as improved and operated by Israel. Israeli pilots have recently been training against S-400 systems that Russia sold to Greece, an increasingly close Israeli ally in the Eastern Mediterranean. Putin has sufficient intelligence to know that his prized S-400 are not likely to live up to their hitherto purely “on paper” reputation. A minor defeat of the Russian system, as in yes, it’s been wiped out, but not before shooting down one or two IDF aircraft, would be bad enough. An epic defeat, like the one in 1982, would likely prompt a palace coup and send Putin into an early retirement, weather to one of his “friends’” palaces abroad or to an unmarked grave, depending on the circumstances. In deploying S-400 in direct challenge to Israel, Putin would be gambling with his grip on power and potentially on life itself. His faith in Russia’s military tech may be high, but it ain’t THAT high. Bank on it.
DEVELOPING: Russian president Vladimir Putin, following his meeting with the Israeli ambassador to Russia Gad Koren and a phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, seems to have moderated his tone with respect to the incident, calling the downing of the Russian spy plane by a Syrian made in Russia SAM battery “a series of tragic errors” and explicitly stating that the Ilyushin turboprop was not shot down by the Israelis.