Israel's military stunned by the failure of its air war

Friday, July 21, 2006

TEL AVIV Israel's new chief of staff, an air force general, believed that most of Israel's future operations would be conducted from the air.

Military leaders were convinced that with superior communications and air power they did not even need new U.S. "bunker buster" munitions to root out terror leaders in underground hideaways.

Today, this vision of air power as a panacea has been shattered.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz and his advisers have been stunned by the failure of Israel's air war against Hizbullah, which has shrugged massive air bombings on its headquarters in Beirut to maintain the rocket war against the Jewish state.

"Air power is not the answer here," a senior officer said. 'You have to go from one Hizbullah [weapons] bunker to another. Some of these bunkers are seven meters deep and can't be destroyed by aircraft, even if you could find them."

The air force learned that lesson in Beirut as fighter-jets sought to destroy Hizbullah headquarters, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials acknowledged that 23 tons of munitions failed to penetrate the thick walls of the underground command headquarters constructed by Iran.

Indeed, the air force did not even deem the purchase of deep penetration munitions a priority. Earlier this year, Israel decided against purchasing U.S.-origin bunker-buster weapons regarded as a requirement for any air strike against Iran or Syria.

Military sources said Halutz was convinced that communications and air power rather than troops would rapidly win Israel's wars. They said the air force was surprised by its failure to halt or even reduce Hizbullah rocket strikes.

Only a month ago, Lt. Col. Itay Brun explained the concept of Israel's military. The concept envisioned an army based largely on special operations units and backed by air power.

As Brun described it, most of Israel's operations would be conducted from the air. Fighter-jets would destroy guerrilla strongholds, helicopters would pick off enemy combatants while unmanned aerial vehicles would select and track targets. Most of the tactics would also be used in a conventional war.

"The next challenge is to win the war against terrorism and guerrillas from the air," Brun, adviser to Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told a military conference.

But he General Staff quickly learned that Hizbullah was not a Shi'ite version of the Palestinian insurgency in the Gaza Strip. For years, the air force boasted of its ability to kill Palestinian insurgency leaders while glossing over the failure to halt missile strikes from Gaza towns only three kilometers from Israel.

"We are fighting a much more capable [Hizbullah] terror organization which practically holds a sword to our neck and has 12 percent of the Israeli population living in shelters and paralyzes the entire northern part of the country," Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan said.

"As aggressive and effective as the air war has been, there is still a need for ground operations," Maj. Gen. Benny Ganz, chief of the Ground Forces Command, said.

As a result, the General Staff has approved the entry of at least 5,000 troops in Lebanon in a limited search-and-destroy mission for Hizbullah rockets in villages near the Israeli border. So far, about 3,000 soldiers have been deployed in southern Lebanon, where attack aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles failed to detect and battle Hizbullah fighters in the thick hilly underbrush.

On Friday, two AH-64A Apache attack helicopters crashed in northern Israel near the Lebanese border. The military said a pilot was killed and another four soldiers were injured as the helicopters sought to support troops in Lebanon.

As the air force received 60 percent of the military budget, army training was cut to the bone and the armored corps was significantly reduced.

Reservists forgot what the inside of a main battle tank looked like. Army supplies dwindled way past the danger point as military intelligence dismissed the prospect of a conventional war against Israel.

Over the last two years, the Ground Forces Command has been administering the Digital Army Program, a nearly $1 billion effort to link ground forces assets to ensure situational awareness as well as coordination with the air force and navy.

Today, Israel's advanced technology has been unable to detect, let alone stop Hizbullah assaults. Military sources said Hizbullah quickly developed methods to penetrate Israel's C4I [command, control, communications, computers and intelligence] border system, based on advanced sensors and heavy air surveillance.

Hizbullah, the sources said, learned how to disable cameras and exploit blind spots to cut through the border fence and attack Israeli military positions. They said this was how a small Hizbullah force attacked an Israeli border post on July 12 and abducted two soldiers.

The military acknowledged that for more than one hour commanders were unaware that soldiers had been taken to Lebanon. Commanders said they were caught off guard by Hizbullah's mastery of anti-tank weapons, mortars and platoon-sized maneuvers.

"It may be that we don't have our priorities straight," said [Res.] Maj. Gen. Yiftah Ron-Tal, who until 2005 headed the Ground Forces Command.

To some strategists, the Israeli concept of air power was doomed to failure. In a lecture at Tel Aviv University in March, [Res.] Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former head of military intelligence research, warned that ground forces and tanks have remained far more flexible and resilient than aircraft.

"The policymakers must understand the limitations of the air force," Amidror said. "My feeling is that the air force does not sufficiently stress its weaknesses."

In a report released on July 19 by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Amidror and co-author Dan Diker argued that Israel could be forced to convert its air war to a ground war in Lebanon. The report, entitled "A Strategic Assessment of the Hizbullah War: Defeating the Iranian-Syrian Axis in Lebanon," asserted that Israel underestimated the Iranian-sponsored Shi'ite militia, trained and equipped by Damascus and Teheran.

"This is a war in which Israel is acting primarily through its air force, which is a new approach," the report said. "However, if Israel's air force fails to stop Hizbullah rocket assaults, Israel may be forced to send in substantial ground forces to control the areas from which rockets are being launched. This real possibility would have far-reaching implications in terms of potential losses for the IDF and for the citizens of Lebanon."

Copyright 2006 East West Services, Inc.

Print this Article Print this Article Email this article Email this article Subscribe to this Feature Free Headline Alerts

Search Worldwide Web Search