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Was an Israeli F-35 Hit by a Russian-Made Missile in Syria?

F-35 Hit by Russian Missile

The F-35 is one of the world’s most advanced fifth-generation fighter multirole fighter aircraft, and it is now in service with several different air and naval services around the world.

F-35 Hit By a Missile?

One such operator is Israel, and in 2017 rumors emerged that an Israeli F-35 had been hit by a Russian-made air defense missile while conducting an airstrike in Syria. The rumors are shaky at best, and while the Israeli military did reveal that one of its F-35s had been damaged around the time of the rumored missile hit, it reported that the damage was from an unrelated incident involving a bird strike. It is also not clear that any F-35s – which at the time had not yet achieved operational status with the Israeli Air Force – actually took part in the mission during which an aircraft was rumored to have been hit with the missile.

The F-35 in Israel, Explained

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is a joint program undertaken cooperatively by the United States alongside a group of seven U.S. allies and partners, while Foreign Military Sales have subsequently made the F-35 available to a further six countries.

One of the most prominent F-35 customers is Israel, which in 2010 became the first country to select the F-35 through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales process. Israel has signed on to purchase a total of 50 F-35As, the F-35 variant designed to be operated from traditional runaways and which is also in service with the U.S. Air Force. The first F-35 was delivered to Israel in 2016.

The Israeli Air Force’s F-35 fleet is unique in that Israel has been allowed to make modifications to its F-35s. The Israeli Air Force has a history of incorporating and making use of its own weapons and systems even of foreign-built aircraft, citing its unique operating requirements as justification. That has continued with the F-35, with the Israeli Air Force adding additional electronic warfare upgrades onto the F-35 while also equipping pilots with its own version of the helmets worn by F-35 pilots elsewhere, which utilizes a unique heads-up display. Israel’s F-35s are also equipped with their own weapon options including the Rafael Spice EO/GPS guided bomb and an Israeli-designed cruise missile. In addition, Israeli F-35s have been fitted with unspecified sensors and recorders designed to gather test data that can be analyzed on the ground.

Israeli F-35s have also been given the unique designation of F-35I Adir, which translates as “mighty one” from Hebrew. The F-35I made its official combat debut for Israel in 2018, and two F-35I squadrons are now operational with the Israeli Air Force. Israeli F-35s have also taken part in exercises alongside of F-35s operated by other countries.

What May Have Happened 

The incident about which rumors emerged regarding a possible hit on an Israeli F-35I took place in October 2017 and involved an Israeli attack on a Syrian surface-to-air (SAM) site. An unspecified assortment of Israeli military aircraft, on what was likely a reconnaissance mission, flew within the effective range of a Syrian SAM system, which reportedly fired on the aircraft. The contingent of Israeli aircraft was likely made up of either all F-16s or a mix of aircraft that included at least one F-15C outfitted for a photo reconnaissance mission. The Israeli military reported that all of the aircraft safely returned to base.

In response, the Israeli Air Force launched a follow-up attack targeting the SAM site’s fire control radar/emitter. According to Israeli Air Force damage assessments, the target was sufficiently damaged to the point that it was no longer operational.

The target in question was a Russian-made S-200 (NATO designation SA-5) SAM system, the predecessor of the more advanced S-300 and S-400 systems.

Why the Rumor? 

In the aftermath of the incident, unverified rumors emerged that an Israeli F-35I involved in the operation had been hit by a missile fired from the S-200 system. Reports had emerged that one of Israel’s F-35Is had been damaged, which may have helped fuel the rumors. It was revealed, however, that the F-35 in question had been damaged as a result of hitting a bird, and that collision looks as though it took place prior to the incident with the S-200.

Also calling into question the validity of the rumor is the fact that at the time of the incident, Israel had only taken possession of seven F-35s, and while the F-35I would achieve initial operational capability with the Israeli Air Force in 2017, it would not do so until December of that year. That Israel would choose to deploy an F-35, of which it had so few and which had not been declared operational, on a mission that close to the Syrian border is questionable.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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