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Israel suspected of 'hacking' Syrian air defences

Did algorithms clear path for air raid?

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Questions are mounting over how Israeli planes were able to sneak past Syria's defences and bomb a "strategic target" in the country last month.

Israeli F-15s and F-16s bombed a military construction site on 6 September. Earlier reports of the attack were confirmed this week when Israeli Army radio said Israeli planes had attacked a military target "deep inside Syria", quoting the military censor.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said it reserved the right to retaliate when he took the unusual step of offering interviews to Western media.

Syria and Israel have remained formally at war since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, during which Israeli forces seized the Golan Heights.

The motives for the strike, much less what was hit and what damage was caused, remain unclear. One theory is that a fledgling nuclear research centre, the fruits of alleged collaboration between Syria and North Korea, may have been hit. Others speculate that a store of arms shipments bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah might have been targeted. A test against Syria's air defences has also being suggested in some quarters. None of these theories appear to be much better than educated guesswork.

Bombers carrying out the raid are believed to have entered Syrian airspace from the Mediterranean Sea. Unmarked fuel drop tanks were later found on Turkish soil near the Syrian border, providing evidence of a possible escape route. Witnesses said the Israeli jets were engaged by Syrian air defences in Tall al-Abyad, near the border with Turkey.

This location is deep within Turkey, prompting questions about how the fighters avoided detection until so long into their mission. Neither F-15s nor F-16s used by the Israeli air force in the raids are fitted with stealth technology.

Flying under the radar is a dangerous tactic, no longer favoured since a number of British fighters went down during the first Gulf War over the liberation of Kuwait. That leaves the possibility that jamming techniques, or some even more sophisticated electronic warfare tactic, was brought into play.

Aviation Week reckons the success of the attack might be down to use of the "Suter" airborne network attack system. The technology, was developed by BAE Systems and integrated into US unmanned aircraft by L-3 Communications, according to unnamed US aerospace industry and retired military officials questioned by Aviation Week.

Instead of jamming radar signals, Suter uses a more sophisticated approach of "hacking" into enemy defences.

"The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see, and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can't be seen," Aviation Week explains. "The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading message algorithms."

Suter is said to have being "tested operationally" in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last year, according to Aviation Week. Syria reportedly recently bought two state-of-the art radar systems from Russia, reckoned to be Tor-M1 launchers that carry a payload of eight missiles, as well as two Pachora-2A systems. Iran recently bought 29 of these Tor launchers from Russia for $750m in order to defend its nuclear sites.

The apparent failure of these systems in detecting and responding to the Israeli raid therefore poses questions for arms manufacturers and armies all the way from Damascus to Moscow and over to Tehran.

Aviation Week's story can be found here. ®

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