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Firsthand: The Syrian Jet Interception Release date 25.07.2018
Last night (Tuesday), an IAF "Yahalom" (Patriot) weapon system intercepted a Syrian fighter jet which entered Israel's airspace. Combatants from the operating battery and members of the Northern Air Traffic Control Unit reveal their side of the significant interception
Illy Pe'ery, Eitam Almadon & Tal Ben Naeh

Last night (Tuesday), an IAF "Yahalom" (Patriot) weapon system intercepted a Syrian fighter jet which entered Israel's airspace. Combatants from the Air Defense Division detected the threat and monitored it before finally intercepting.

Photography: Celia Garion | Graphic Design: Ron Tamir

"We've been working in numerous fronts over the past few weeks while maintaining a high level of preparedness", said Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, Head of the IAF Headquarters. "The general directive regarding our operation in the northern theatre remains the same – prevent the Iranian military establishment in Syria and the transferring of strategic munitions to the Hezbollah terrorist organization. In face of the combat occurring near the Golan Heights border, we strive to maintain our sovereignty and protect the airspace of Israel's northern theatre. We are doing everything we can do to protect the citizens of Israel from infiltrating missiles and aircraft while enforcing the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement".

On Tuesday morning, the IAF's detection systems noticed an increase in the internal fighting in Syria and the Syrian Air Force's activity. "We have no interest in war, but we will not allow Israel's sovereign territory to be infiltrated. We have conveyed messages of this sort both before and after the event", added Brig. Gen. Bar. "The 'Sukhoi' which took off from the T-4 airbase in the afternoon crossed into our airspace and was monitored by the Air Traffic Control Division early on. We knew it was a Syrian aircraft, and as soon as it crossed we launched two 'Yahalom' missiles towards it. After the missiles were launched the aircraft left Israel's airspace – the missile hit and the aircraft fell in Syrian territory. The pilot was presumably killed".

A Moment of Pride
Behind the "Sukhoi" interception is the northern "Yahalom" weapon system battalion, which recently intercepted a hostile UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) which infiltrated Israel from Syria. "The internal fighting in Syria occurring right on the border of Israel has caused a great deal of tension for us", said Lt. Col. G', commander of the northern "Yahalom" battalion. "The policy is clear – Israel's sovereignty, decided according to the established borders, will not be violated. It was clear that we would intercept the target if an event of this sort were to happen. It happened two weeks ago with the UAV, and it happened this time as well. The targets aren't intercepted by the system, but by its operators – the combatants of the 'Yahalom' batteries".

Archive Photo

Lt. Yuval Meshulam, the Air Defense combatant who intercepted the Syrian aircraft, excitedly spoke of the dramatic event: "The control station was tense before the interception. We have been on high alert because of the aerial activity close to the border. I was alone in the control station. I called the standbys and Capt. Or Neeman, the battery's commander, entered. We received clearance to intercept, I pressed the button and launched the missile. It was my first interception and I learned that one has to stay focused. After we debriefed, I called my parents and asked if they watched the news. They tried to ask questions, but all I could tell them was that they should be proud. There is tension in the theatre and we are the ones who remain vigilant. We will be prepared in the next event as well".

“Whoever infiltrates Israel will be intercepted”
“Whenever we detect activity near the border, we make our message clear to whoever we need to – Israel is off-limits and we will not allow any infiltrations”, declared Brig. Gen. Bar. “The mission of defending Israel’s skies is our default state. We have control systems and various other measures always prepared the mission. All of the systems are at the controller's use and he can decide which one should be used in real-time. There are many scenarios and each platform has its own advantage. No situation will ever be identical to another, and in the future a fighter jet might be the solution”.

Photo: Celia Garion

Intercepting the “Sukhoi” aircraft was the second interception against enemy aircraft performed by a “Yahalom” (Patriot) weapon system battery since its integration in the IDF. In 2014 it performed its first interception of a hostile fighter jet. Brig. Gen Bar, who was Head of the Aerial Operations Directorate at the time, spoke of the similarity between the events: “Even though the two occurrences are similar, today’s operational reality is more complex. There is a larger number of aircraft in the sky and there is a larger number of political issues at hand. Whoever infiltrates Israel will be intercepted. We monitor everything on an intelligence and operational level, routinely flying and operating in the theater while constantly assessing the other side’s intentions”.

High Alert Monitoring
The Northern ATC (Air Traffic Control) Unit has been alertly monitoring Syria in the recent months. “We are aware of the ongoing warfare in Syria during the recent years, but last month we noticed a rise in activity near Syria’s border with Israel. Although we understand that the aerial activity in Syria is internal, we can’t ignore it and are required to stay alert”, said Maj. R’, Commander of the Northern ATC Unit's Control Department. “We see dozens of aircraft of all sorts flying in Syria’s airspace alongside the Syrian military's activity. The situation requires us to be more alert than usual”.

Photography: Celia Garion

Maj. R’ explained: “We were very aware of any aircraft which nears the buffer zone. The moment the 'Sukhoi' crossed the border, we received instructions to intercept it using two 'Yahalom' (Patriot) missiles. The entire event lasted mere seconds and required us to relay the instructions sharply, calmly and precisely".

“The ATC’s mission is to maintain an updated aerial overview. This is a challenging mission considering the amount of aircraft in the air that need to be classified and monitored”, declared Maj. R’. “We can’t go below a certain level of high alertness so that the enemy won’t take advantage of the area’s situation and send aircraft aimed to damage Israel and its assets. The ATC and its service members will continue to operate 24/7 and ensure the safety of Israel's civilians".