How much of a threat to Israel are the Syrian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) now in Lebanon? The Israeli Air Force has faced Soviet-built SAM antiaircraft missiles before and knows how dangerous they can be. In the 1969-70 "war of attrition" between Israel and Egypt, the missiles proved costly to the Israeli Air Force. At several points they kept the Israelis from being able to fly over Egypt as they had done after decimating the Egyptian Air Force in 1967.
In the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, SAMs, supplied in almost unlimited quantities to Egypt by the Soviet Union, took such a high toll that they allowed Egypt's Anwar Sadat to build up forces for his surprise attack across the Suez Canal. Neutralizing the SAMs was the high price Israel had to pay finally to be able to encircle Egypt's Third Army at the end of this war.
The difference today in Lebanon, where SAMs have been deployed by Syria, is that as yet there is believed to be only a primitive network of the missiles, untested and uncoordinated. Air defense takes time, says a Western military expert, and the missiles have been in place only two weeks.
Still, the missiles are dangerous to the Israeli Air Force, as the apparent downings May 12 and May 14 of two remote-controlled Israeli reconnaissance planes show. As time passes, the Syrians are more and more able to bring about the essentials of a good air defense: (1) multiple anti-aircraft systems, (2) well-disciplined fire control, (3) friend-orfoe identification techniques, (4) and a comprehensive communication network.
How many SAM missiles are there in Lebanon?
Israel says that Syria in the past week has managed to cover the skies of central Lebanon with 14 SAM batteries. For the SAM-6, which is a low-altitude, radar-homing missile, launchers with three missiles to a launcher. Israeli Prime Minister Begin said there were five SAM-6 batteries in Lebanon and four more on the Syrian-Lebanese border, which is only five miles from the center of Lebanon's troubled Bekaa Valley.
Mr. Begin says there are also two batteries of SAM-2s, two more of SAM-3s, and one of Libyan-donated SAM-9s, all believed to be near the Syrian-Lebanese border, although it is not certain on which side. The SAM-2s are medium-range, radio-controlled missiles similar to the old American Nike. They were used with initial success in Vietnam and have since been updated. The SAM-3s are older, short-range missiles similar to the US Hawk. The SAM-9s are modern, optically guided, short-range missiles.
Together with Syrian antiaircraft guns, these missiles, if coordinated, give soldiers on the field different layers of protection.
While these estimates may be through the Israeli lens, they nevertheless serve to show what sort of a threat Israel thinks they are.
How would the missiles be attacked?
The Israeli Air Force with its US-built F-15s, F-16s, F-5s, as well as other planes (including an earlier version of the US Airborne Warning and Control System) would use radar and communication jammings techniques, electronic chaffing, and other classified means to strike the missile batteries.
"Any antiaircraft missile system can be taken out," says a military analyst. "But you can pay a very high toll for doing so."
Military theory says the missiles must be taken out before the real target -- which the missiles presumably are protecting -- is bombed. But in Lebanon, there is no target other than the missiles.