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Syrian Anti-Aircraft Missile ‘Explodes in Air’ Near Israel’s Dimona Nuclear Reactor

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The first reports of a Syrian surface-to-air SA-5 missile landing “near Dimona” gave rise to stories which assumed that the Syrians had been deliberately aiming a missile at Dimona’s nuclear reactor, Israel’s most heavily defended site, had the Syrian missile anaged to hit it, there would have been untold consequences, with devastating attacks throughout Syria. And there were worries about why the IDF had failed to intercept the missile, which blew up in mid-air, apparently without having been hit, with its fragments landing harmlessly — no casualties, little damage — in Ashalim, a community about 40 kilometers from Dimona. An investigation by the IDF is underway. A report on the incident is here: “IDF probing why air defenses didn’t intercept Syrian anti-aircraft missile,” by Judah Ari Gross, Times of Israel, April 22, 2021:

The Israel Defense Forces launched an investigation to determine why its air defenses failed to intercept an errant surface-to-air missile fired from Syria that landed in southern Israel on Thursday morning.

The Syrian missile exploded in mid-air, sending fragments crashing down, with pieces landing in the community of Ashalim, some 40 kilometers from the nuclear reactor in Dimona, without causing injuries or significant damage.

The IDF worked to prevent a potential strike on critical assets in the State of Israel. A SA-5-model of surface-to-air missile was fired, passed through the area. There was an attempt to intercepit, which did not succeed. We are still investigating the event,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at a press conference in Tel Aviv.

“Normally we see different outcomes,” Gantz added.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, Israeli fighter jets conducted a series of airstrikes on targets in the Syrian Golan. In response, Syrian air defense units fired a large number of anti-aircraft missiles, notably SA-5 missiles, at the attacking Israeli planes, according to Syrian state media.

Israeli radar detected that at least one of the SA-5s — also known as S-200 missiles — was on a trajectory that would have it land in the northern Negev desert, which both triggered sirens in the area and prompted Israeli air defense troops to fire an interceptor missile at the incoming projectile.

According to the IDF, the interceptor failed to shoot down the Syrian anti-aircraft missile, a massive projectile with a 200 kilogram (440 pound) warhead. The military said it was launching an investigation into the matter.

Other reports describe the interceptor as a Patriot missile. Wasn’t there reason to think that Israel’s own Iron Dome missile defense system might have had more success? The Patriot has failed too often to intercept Houthi missiles launched at Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. military, in ordering two Iron Dome batteries in early 2019, tacitly admitted to its lack of confidence in the Patriot missile. The Israelis have perfected a multilayered air defense system using the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow weapons systems in a recent series of tests. Perhaps this incident will push the IDF into hastening the deployment of this system to replace far more of the Patriot batteries Israel still possesses.

Pieces of the projectile were recovered from Ashalim. A number landed in the community’s swimming pool….

In response to the launch of the surface-to-air missile, the Israeli military conducted a second round of airstrikes in Syria, targeting Syrian air defenses, including the battery that fired the SA-5 that struck southern Israel….

In 2019, in a similar case, a Syrian SA-5 missile that was fired at an Israeli jet crashed in northern Cyprus, causing a large explosion and starting a fire.

That a Syrian SA-5 missile fired at an Israeli jet flying over Syria landed hundreds of miles away in northern Cyprus shows just how wildly off-target the Syrian defenders could be, as appears to be the case here as well, with the anti-aircraft missile fired in an attempt either to hit, or to scare off, Israeli jets over Syria ended up landing far off in the northern Negev.

Israel has regularly accused the Syrian military of wildly firing large amounts of anti-aircraft missiles in response to its strikes.

The predawn incident came amid peak tensions between Israel and Iran, weeks after an attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site earlier this month, which has been widely attributed to the Jewish state. Iran has vowed to retaliate for the alleged Israeli sabotage.

Some may assume – and Iran would certainly encourage that assumption – that the attack was deliberate, that Dimona was its intended target, and that Israel’s failure to intercept the Syrian SA-5 showed how vulnerable Israel is to attacks even on its most heavily defended site, the nuclear reactor and nuclear research facilities at Dimona. But it seems clear that the missile was fired wildly. It may have been fired, some analysts suggest, as part of a wild volley of missiles shot in the general direction of Israel, hoping to do some random damage. One of those S-5 missiles happened to head toward the northern Negev, not at, but In the general direction of, Dimona.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman stressed that the military did not believe the overnight incident was a deliberate attack on the country or its nuclear facility.

“There was no intention of hitting the nuclear reactor in Dimona,” Zilberman told reporters.

Israel has now sent a handful of planes to again to bomb Syrian targets, including the very site from which that particular SA-5 missile was launched. Had the Israelis concluded that the Syrians had deliberately targeted Dimona, even if they had failed to hit that target, the IDF’s response would have been much more devastating.

But the worry remains: what went wrong with Israeli attempts to intercept the SA-5? Was it a failure of the Patriot missile system? And if so, don’t the Patriots need to be switched out, and replaced by the multilayered missile defense system of Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow, at a quicker pace than heretofore? Or was there a failure not of the weapons system, but some human error? Whatever it was, the IDF investigators will have to come to the bottom of this failure PDQ.

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