New Israeli stealth fighters operating over Syria?

Israel's F-35s may have already flown combat mission against Russian air defenses.

Mordechai Sones ,

F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter leads formation of other fighter jets.
F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter leads formation of other fighter jets.
צילום: iStock

A French journalist citing French intelligence reports claims that Israeli F-35 stealth fighters have already carried out combat missions in Syria, according to Business Insider UK.

Israel received three F-35s from the US on Tuesday, bringing its total inventory of the revolutionary stealth fighter up to five.

Air Forces Monthly's Thomas Newdick summarized a report from Georges Malbrunot at the French newspaper Le Figaro that said Israel sent its F-35s on a combat mission one month after getting them from the US.

Malbrunot reported that on January 12, Israeli F-35s destroyed a Russian-made S-300 air defense system around Syrian President Bashar Assad's palace in Damascus and a Russian-made Pantsir-S1 mobile surface-to-air missile system being readied for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has repeatedly and firmly stated its goal to ensure weapons not reach Hezbollah, and in March, Israel said it had conducted an airstrike in Syria.

"When we know about an attempt to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah, we do whatever we can to prevent this from happening, provided we have sufficient information and capabilities to react," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, according to Russian state-run media.

Other details of the story seem unlikely, however. The article claims that the only known S-300 system in Syria is operated by the Russians near their naval base, so hitting that would mean killing Russian service members, and that there are no reports that this happened.

Tyler Rogoway of The Drive pointed out that the Pantsir-S1 air defenses would bolster Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Israel wouldn't be under immediate pressure to destroy this system because its jets have advanced air-defense-suppression and electronic-warfare capabilities that limit the threat posed by the Pantsir-S1 and make it unlikely that Israel would risk F-35s to attack it.

But Business Insider finds parts of the French report to be credible — there was indeed an airstrike on January 12 at the Mezzeh air base. The Syrian government and Arab media outlets have accused Israel of the strike.

"The F-35's stealth abilities remain untested, and only in a heavily contested environment could the F-35 really meet its match. In the past, F-35 pilots have complained that surface-to-air threats are not advanced enough to provide realistic training, and the Air Force has run short on adversary services to provide enough competition to prove the F-35's capabilities," said Business Insider.

In the case of the S-300, experts have pointed out that it would take a stealth jet like the F-35 to safely take it out.

On Thursday, the Syrian government again accused Israel of an airstrike, this one near Damascus International Airport.

Short of taking responsibility for the attack, Israeli officials said they supported strikes on Hezbollah targets. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told Army Radio: "I can confirm that the incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel's policy to act to prevent Iran's smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hezbollah in Iran. Naturally, I don't want to elaborate on this."