Mysteries still surround Israel's air strike against Syria. Where was the attack, what was struck and how did Israel's non-stealthy warplanes fly undetected through the Russian-made air defense radars in Syria?
There also are clues that while the U.S. and Israel are struggling in the broader information war with Islamic fundamentalists, Tel Aviv's air attack against a "construction site" in northern Syria may mean the two countries are beginning to win some cyberwar battles.
U.S. officials say that close examination of the few details of the mission offers a glimpse of what's new in the world of sophisticated electronic sleight-of-hand. That said, they fault the Pentagon for not moving more quickly to make cyberwarfare operational and for not integrating the capability into the U.S. military forces faster.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last week that the Israelis struck a building site at Tall al-Abyad just south of the Turkish border on Sept. 6. Press reports from the region say witnesses saw the Israeli aircraft approach from the Mediterranean Sea while others said they found unmarked drop tanks in Turkey near the border with Syria. Israeli defense officials finally admitted Oct. 2 that the Israeli Air Force made the raid.
U.S. aerospace industry and retired military officials indicated the Israelis utilized a technology like the U.S.-developed "Suter" airborne network attack system developed by BAE Systems and integrated into U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle operations by L-3 Communications. Israel has long been adept at using unmanned systems to provoke and spoof Syrian surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, as far back as the Bekka Valley engagements in 1982.
Air Force officials will often talk about jamming, but the term now involves increasingly sophisticated techniques such as network attack and information warfare. How many of their new electronic attack options were mixed and matched to pull off this raid is not known.
The U.S. version of the system has been at the very least tested operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last year, most likely against insurgent communication networks. The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions where approaching aircraft can't be seen, they say. The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading messages that allow a number of activities including control.
Clues, both good and unlikely, are found in Middle East press reports. At least one places some responsibility for the attack's success on the U.S.
After the strike, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan reported that U.S. jets provided aerial cover for Israeli strike aircraft during the attack on Syria. Similar statements of American involvement were made by Egyptian officials after the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.
More interesting is the newspaper's claim that "Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the-art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory," it said. "Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions."
Syria's most recent confirmed procurement was of the Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) short-range mobile SAM system. It uses vehicle-mounted target-acquisition and target-tracking radars. It is not known whether any of the Tor systems were deployed in the point-defense role at the target site struck by Israeli aircraft. If, however, the target was as "high-value" as the Israeli raid would suggest, then Tor systems could well have been deployed.
Iran bought 29 of the Tor launchers from Russia for $750 million to guard its nuclear sites, and they were delivered in January, according to Agence France-Presse and ITAR-TASS. According to the Syrian press, they were tested in February. Syria has also upgraded some of its aging S-125s (SA-3 Goa) to the Pechora-2A standard. This upgrade swaps out obsolete analog components for digital.
Syrian air defense infrastructure is based on for the most part aging Soviet SAMs and associated radar. Damascus has been trying to acquire more capable "strategic" air defense systems, with the country repeatedly associated with efforts to purchase the Russian S-300 (SA-10 Grumble/SA-20) long-range SAM. It also still operates the obsolescent S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) long-range system and its associated 5N62 Square Pair target engagement radar. There are also unconfirmed reports of Syrian interest in the 36D6 Tin Shield search radar.
There remains the second mystery of the actual site of the target and its use. Israeli news reports contend it was a compound near Dayr az-Zwar in north central Syria, and not Tall al-Abyad farther north. The site of the attack has been described as a transshipment point for weapons intended for the Hezbollah in Lebanon to restock missile stores that were used in last summer's fighting with Israel. Others contend it is a site with nuclear materials that may be associated with Iran's nuclear bomb program. Mentions are also made of a North Korean ship arriving in Syria only days before the attack and the presence of North Korean workers in Syria for several months.
"There are always indications the North Koreans are doing something they shouldn't, Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, director of the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency (NGA), told Aviation Week & Space Technology in response to a question about the shipment of nuclear materials from North Korea to Syria, which were subsequently bombed. "They are a high priority. We work as a key element . . . on the trafficking of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and high-interest arms shipments anyplace."
It's part of a growing NGA role in spotting the proliferation of weapons technology "which may be coming from East Asia to the Middle East . . . that we don't want to cross borders." Other crucial boundaries for surveillance include the borders in all directions in Afghanistan and Iraq—which includes Syria and Iran—as well as semi-governed areas such as the Horn of Africa. The use of automation to aid rapid analysis is improving, but that's being balanced by the fact that "the sheer volumes of data we are ingesting now . . . continue to increase by a couple of orders of magnitude on an annual basis," he says.