Israeli pilots prep to fight Iran's SAMs

Nov. 24, 2009 at 12:35 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- As Iran tests the capabilities of its air defense systems in nationwide exercises, the Israeli air force is reported to be planning special seminars to prepare its attack pilots to cope with heavy surface-to-air missile defenses.

According to The Jerusalem Post, the sessions will encompass "future conflict with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran" in which air force crews will "have to deal with an unprecedented number of surface-to-air missiles, most of them Russian-made."

None of these adversaries is considered to pose an overwhelming air-defense threat, although Israeli intelligence believes that Iran has supplied some shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to the Palestinian Hamas faction that controls the Gaza Strip.

The Israelis also believe that Syria may transfer more advanced systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the Israeli air force conducts daily intrusions.

The greatest threat the Israeli pilots will likely face is Iran, which has been building up its air-defense system for some time and is striving to acquire the top-of-the-line S-300PMU1 system from Moscow.

This long-range, high-altitude system is designed to shoot down both missiles and aircraft, and can take them on at a range of 120 miles and at altitudes as high as 90,000 feet.

The mobile system can track up to 100 targets simultaneously and can engage six targets at the same time, destroying them with a volley of 12 killer missiles.

Even though the S-300 has never been tested in combat, it is considered by Western military chiefs to be a highly effective and dangerous system.

In 2007 Russia signed an $800 million contract to supply at least five batteries of S-300s -- 40-60 launchers each with four tubes -- along with radar and fire-control units.

However, under pressure from the United States and Israel, it has not yet delivered any of the missiles to Iran, whose military commanders are increasingly frustrated by the delays.

They want the S-300s to protect Iran's key nuclear facilities. An Israeli strike is more likely while Iran does not have the S-300s deployed.

Israel, which has shunned U.S. efforts to negotiate with Tehran on its controversial nuclear program, has threatened to launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran to knock out its nuclear sites.

The prospect of unilateral Israeli military action has heightened since Tehran has rebuffed U.S.-led efforts to halt uranium enrichment, the pathway to producing weapons-grade material.

In the meantime, the key weapon in Iran's air-defense network is the Russian-built Tor-M1 short-range interceptor system. These are already deployed around nuclear facilities.

Apart from the 29 mobile Tor-M1 units, the Iranian network is largely outdated. It is not known to have any effective defenses against U.S. stealth bombers or the Israelis' known electronic jamming capabilities.

These were utilized Sept. 6, 2007, when seven Israeli F-15I fighter-bombers knocked out a nuclear facility in eastern Syria near the Turkish border after electronically blinding Syria's outmoded, Moscow-supplied air-defense system.

Israeli fliers have had little trouble from hostile anti-aircraft fire in the Middle East for two decades. The last Israeli jet reported shot down in combat was an F-4 Phantom over South Lebanon in February 1986.

Even so, the Israeli air force is taking no chances. Any pre-emptive strikes it may launch against Iran, the key target, would likely involve at least 100 aircraft, about one-quarter of its combat strength, and possibly more.

Pilots have already undergone intensive training on virtual reality systems to practice evading heat-seeking missiles.

"Until now," The Jerusalem Post reported, the Israeli air force "has trained its pilots to deal with the anti-aircraft threat by activating its own air-defense system, including the Hawk missile, and having it lock on to the training fighter jets. This was deemed expensive and ineffective."

The Israelis are prepared for some losses from the eclectic mix of French, Russian and British air defense missiles systems and the estimated 1,700 anti-aircraft guns dispersed around Iran's nuclear sites.

But the anticipated losses would increase dramatically if the Israelis have to go up against the S-300.

A detailed study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington published in March estimated that 20 percent to 30 percent of the attacking force -- 20-24 aircraft -- would be shot down.

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