Syrian Missile hits near Dimona – The facts so far
On Thursday April 22, a Syrian SA-5 surface-to-air missile (SAM) was launched from Syrian territory. It proceeded to fly over Palestinian occupied territory and finally exploded over the northern Negev.
Before that, at around 1:30 am, Israeli jet fighters conducted a series of airstrikes on targets in Syrian Golan. In response, Syrian Air Defense launched a salvo of Sam missiles at the attackers. One missile continued flying over the occupied territory. Although Israeli radar detected it, attempts to intercept it with Israel’s vaunted missile defense system failed.
The missile exploded in flight over the Negev, sending fragments crashing down on the community of Abu Qrainat, about 30 kilometers from the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona. No one yet, including the Israelis, think the missile was targeting Dimona.
What is the SA-5 Missile?
Developed by the Soviets in the 1960s, it was the premier Soviet air defense system for decades and remains a key part of air defense systems of former Soviet client nations like Syria. The radar and command and control function allow it to fire and control several missiles at the same time. It was designed to provide long range protection of critical cities or military bases.
The SA-5 missile is designed for medium and long-range attacks. Its range is 300 kilometers, and its ceiling is 40,000 meters. It has a 200+ Kg warhead. The warhead is detonated either with a proximity fuse or a command from the ground.
If the missile fails to reach its target it is designed to self-detonate when its fuel runs out. Although the missile is launched with four solid fuel boosters, it sustains its flight with a liquid fuel motor.
It is reported that the Soviets had made this type of missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Could the SA-5 have been used to attack Israel?
Yes. The Soviets had given it a secondary mission capability as a surface-to-surface ballistic missile. The 300-kilometer range is relatively modest by today’s standards. But it was also incapable of reliably hitting any small target. However, it was more than capable of hitting large targets like military bases or urban areas.
The warhead, which was designed for bringing down aircraft would also work well against soft targets like urban areas or buildings. The warhead had 217 kg of high explosives and 37,000 steel pellets. Nearly everyone within 125 feet of the explosion of the warhead would probably be hit by these pellets of 2 and 3.5 grams. At about 100 feet, about 50% would sustain wounds that would be fatal.
Of course, a SA-5 missile could have been used to target Dimona, but since reports indicate all the sensitive nuclear weapon production equipment is underground, the missile would have inflicted some damage to the surface structure.
Was this intentional or an accident?
Some experts point their assessment toward an accident. The missile is supposed to explode when its fuel runs out and it appears to have done that at about 300 km from the launch site.
“Runaway” SA-5 missiles are not unusual. On July 1, 2019, a Syrian SAM missile flew over the Mediterranean and exploded in the air above Northern Cyprus.
Since it appears that the missile exploded in the atmosphere by itself, it is likely that it followed directions and self-destructed when the fuel ran out.
Why didn’t Israeli air defense shoot the missile down?
This is one question many people – especially the Israelis – are asking. At this point in time, we do not know what system was responsible for the failure, although there are reports that it was the American made Patriot Theater Ballistic Missile System that is responsible.
If that is so, it points out a major flaw of the Patriot that other missiles like the SA-5 could take advantage of.
The Patriot is designed to intercept ballistic missiles like the Scud missile and Iran’s Shahab missile family. These missiles are launched in a high ballistic trajectory that takes the missile out of the atmosphere, high into space and then back towards earth and its target.
This is a far different flight path taken by the SA-5 in normal operations. The SA-5 follows a propelled flight path that is nearly parallel to the ground compared to the elliptical path of a traditional ballistic missile.
Sophisticated missile defenses focus more on ballistic missiles and their flight path. Their radar stations and software are designed to give them their best results in these scenarios.
It also must be remembered that the SA-5 can operate in a ballistic missile mode at heights that are lower than many air defense missiles that aren’t purposely designed for low altitude targets like cruise missiles.
For all the money spent on air defense systems, they remain very vulnerable. They may be able to intercept a ballistic missile coming in from an expected path, but that same system cannot intercept a cruise missile one mile away, ten feet off the ground, and heading towards the command vehicle at 600 miles per hour. Nor can it stop a drone flitting 50 above the radar unit.
Modern air defense systems have impressive capabilities if they face what they are expecting – ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, etc. – and the physics that govern them.
Israel has focused its missile defense against the Iranians and their missiles. And, although the average layman does not realize it, the physics of launching a ballistic missile from Iran towards Israel fits a narrow band of trajectories – like the limited options for a basketball player taking a last second shot from the other side of the court. Israel has invested much of its anti-missile defense in detecting and destroying missiles coming from those areas, at certain altitudes and at certain speeds.
Israeli may try to justify their failure by claiming that In this case, a missile came from an unexpected point in Syria. It did not take the traditional ballistic course because it was using powered flight. Its course was also headed for an isolated part of Israel, the Negev, instead of a population center.
A final lesson is that many weapons systems have alternate uses – uses that many tend to forget about. In 1956, obsolete Israeli P-51 Mustang aircraft cut Egyptian telephone lines in the Sinai with their propellers in Operation Kadesh. Similarly obsolete surface-to-air missiles like the SA-5 have other applications that military people forget.
War is not always about the best equipment, but it is about making the best use of equipment in ways that will surprise your enemy.
Israel’s damage control
Israel’s military spokesman Hidai Zilberman downplayed the likelihood of a deliberate attack. “There was no intention of hitting the nuclear reactor in Dimona,” he told reporters.
A senior US general also speculated that the incident was not intentional, but rather indicated a lack of Syrian air defense capability.
“I think it reflects actual incompetence in Syrian air defense… I do not believe it was an intentional attack,” marine general Kenneth McKenzie, head of US central command, said during a senate armed services committee hearing.
Whether it was intentional or an accident the effects of this incident will force the Israelis to examine their failure to intercept similar missiles in the future and may rethink their strategy of continuous attacks on Syria.
Also, it is likely that the Syrians discover that they can use this option of directing their SA-5 missiles like surface to surface to gain a deterrent against future Israeli attacks.