Flurry Of Aircraft Shoot-Downs And Counter-Strikes Erupt Across Israel And Syria (Updated)

A stealthy Iranian drone's incursion into Israeli airspace sparked a series of military operations that ended with an Israeli F-16 being shot down.

IAI/IDF

Information about an aerial battle over western Syria has been coming fast and furious in the overnight hours. Late Friday an Iranian drone crossed over the Golan Heights and entered into Israeli airspace. The aircraft was detected and shot down. In response to the incursion, Israel promptly launched a strike on the drone's command vehicle and other components related to its operation. Another larger air raid was later executed by the IAF against various targets in Syria. During this operation an Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa ("Storm") was shot down. 

A video has been released showing the downing of the Iranian drone. It appears to be a flying-wing configuration. In particular, Iran has been working to build similar shaped unmanned aircraft as the stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel it captured in 2011, although these knock-off craft, which come in various sizes and configurations, are far less advanced than their American counterpart. The propeller-driven "Simorgh" variant of the design appears to best match the aircraft shown in the video being shot down, although the video is low quality so it's hard to make the identification definitively. 

Youtube Screencap

Iran has been working on creating a variety of RQ-170 shaped knock off drones of various sizes and capabilities. The propeller-driven variant on the right is most likely what was shot down.

Notice that the Iranian drone appears to release decoy flares before being shot down by an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. This would indicate a fairly advanced system. The second part of the video shows the line-of-sight control vehicle for the drone being destroyed by an Israeli guided munition. Note that the weapon uses man-in-the-loop terminal guidance which is very popular with Israeli forces. You can read more about this concept of operations and these types of munitions here. The actual weapon used was not fired from an aerial platform, it was an IAI Harop "suicide" drone (seen it banner image at the top of this article). The War Zone did a full profile on this series of pioneering weapons you can read here.  

Following the initial counterstrike on the drone control unit, Israel launched a large-scale strike package against a dozen other targets in Syria, including four Iranian-related targets and three air defense batteries. It was during this raid that the F-16 was shot down. Both of the F-16I's crew ejected from the stricken aircraft and were recovered by Black Hawk helicopter alive, but one has severe injuries and is being treated at Rambam Hospital.

Reports state that various missiles were involved in the Syrian anti-air onslaught, in which between a dozen and two dozen SAMs were fired. Cold War vintage SA-5 Gammon and SA-3 Goa missiles are said to have been included in the salvo, both of which the Assad regime has many of and has fired repeatedly towards IAF aircraft during raids over the country that have taken place over the years, with the frequency of those strikes having increased dramatically in recent months. The SA-17 Grizzly road-mobile SAM system—a modernized version of the SA-11 Buk—is also said to have been involved. Regardless of the type of missile Syria used to down the F-16, this is the first time one had found its mark on an Israeli jet. 

With Syria's air defense response being far more voluminous than seen in past IAF incursions into its airspace, air raid sirens were triggered around the Golan Heights in fear of the missiles or other errant anti-aircraft artillery projectiles landing in Israeli territory. The scale of the response and the loss of the F-16 could also point to the possibility that this was a planned operation on Syria's behalf. 

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli F-16I like the one shot down.

Assad's forces have executed bold, if not outright reckless and illogical maneuvers in other parts of Syria in recent days. The engagement also provides more evidence that Syria has upgraded their existing air defense capabilities and tied their air defense network in with Russia's more advanced sensor network as we have reported on in the past.

 The possible involvement of an SA-17 is also interesting because this system is highly mobile, can be operated in a self-contained manner, and can "pop up" unexpectedly. This can leave nearby enemy aircraft vulnerable to ambush attacks even if they are benefitting from high-end mission planning, real-time electronic surveillance measures, suppression of enemy air defense support, and electronic warfare coverage. There have also been reports that Hezbollah has received SA-17s in recent years, which also lends credit to the possibility that this was a "baited" operation.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

All that is left of the F-16I shot down following a raid in Syria. 

Just hours after these events took place, another aircraft was shot down in the region, this time over the embattled Syrian province of Afrin. Turkey has launched an incursion into the area and there has been fierce fighting there in recent days. The helicopter in question was a T129 attack helicopter belonging to Turkey. Both its pilot and gunner were killed as a result of the engagement. Turkish President Recep Erdogan has remarked on the loss, stating that those who knocked it out of the sky will "pay a heavy price."

We will keep this post up to date throughout the day as more details become available.

Update: 7:25am PST—

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi made the following farcical comment regarding the shoot-down of the Iranian drone:

"Reports of downing an Iranian drone flying over Israel and also Iran's involvement in attacking an Israeli jet are so ridiculous… Iran only provides military advice to Syria."

No less than two fairly advanced Iranian drones that were capable of firing weapons were downed by USAF F-15Es over southern Syria last year, not to mention Tehran supports a literal army of Shiite militia fighters that fight on behalf of Assad's regime. Iran also has various military installations spread throughout Syria and has even launched ballistic missile attacks on opposition targets in the country. Tehran also uses the country as a conduit to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah. These transfers that have been the targets of Israeli airstrikes for years now, something Israel is now outright discussing after years of not commenting on the operations.

Update: 9:20am PST—

Al Arabiya is reporting that an Israeli F-15 was also hit in the SAM barrage, but that jet was able to make an emergency landing. 

Also it looks like IAF CH-53 Yasur was involved in the pilot rescue/emergency evacuation which isn't surprising as combat search and rescue is one of the helicopter's primary missions. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com