Review Essay: The Israel Air Force and the Evolution of Arab‒Israeli Warfare

Review Essay: The Israel Air Force and the Evolution of Arab‒Israeli Warfare

David Rodman

Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah: Learning from Lebanon and Getting It Right in Gaza by Benjamin S. Lambeth. Published by RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, 2011. 388 pages.

Eagle in the Sky by Ran Ronen. Published by Contento De Semrik, Tel Aviv, 2013. 406 pages.

The Israel Air Force (IAF)—nowadays formally known as the Israel Air and Space Force (IASF)—has accumulated a vast amount of battle experience in its six plus decades of existence. It has fought six interstate wars against adversaries in the Arab world: the 1947‒49 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1969‒70 War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 Lebanon War. It has also fought two asymmetrical wars against nonstate adversaries: the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the 2008‒9 Gaza War (more commonly referred to as Operation Cast Lead). And it has engaged in numerous counterinsurgency campaigns and special operations between these bouts of full-scale warfare. Indeed, with the possible exception of the United States Air Force (USAF), the IAF has undoubtedly amassed more battle experience than any other air force in the world during the post-Second World War era.

This battle experience may be roughly divided into two periods: the first dominated by interstate warfare, which ran through the Lebanon War, and the second dominated by asymmetrical warfare, which has obtained ever since this war. Despite marked differences in its battle experience during these two periods, the IAF has occupied a central place in Israel’s military doctrine for much of both, its capabilities ensuring for it a leading role in defending the country against interstate and asymmetrical challenges alike.

Two recent treatments of the IAF’s battle experience, when considered in tandem, nicely capture not only the air force’s part in interstate and asymmetrical warfare, but also its shifting focus from the former to the latter. The first account, by Brigadier General (Ret.) Ran Ronen, is neither a history nor a biography in the generally understood sense of these genres. Rather, it is essentially a sort of extended logbook, or war diary, which recounts the most memorable missions and moments of his air force career. Its episodic construction notwithstanding, Ronen’s fascinating “memoir” imparts a strong taste of the IAF’s battle experience from its inception through the Lebanon War. The second account, by air warfare expert Benjamin Lambeth of the RAND Corporation, belongs to an altogether unrelated species, offering a meticulous technical description and analysis of the IAF’s performance during the Second Lebanon War, while also reflecting upon the air force’s performance in the Gaza War, albeit in a more cursory fashion. His treatment constitutes an insightful guide to the IAF’s battle experience during the period of asymmetrical warfare.

The IAF was literally born in battle during the War of Independence, its first combat aircraft, ironically enough, a variant of the German-designed Bf 109 fighter received from Czechoslovakia in the midst of hostilities. Though the fledgling IAF acquitted itself commendably in the war, eventually achieving air superiority over the neighboring Arab air forces and assisting Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ground forces in their defensive and offensive operations, airpower had a relatively minor impact on the Israeli victory in the war. Air Transport Command (ATC), which ferried much needed munitions (and other supplies) to Israel from abroad, as well as to civilian outposts and ground forces in the combat zones, made perhaps the single most important contribution of airpower to this triumph through its timely deliveries.

The IAF really matured into a first-rate air force during the interwar period between the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign. By the outbreak of hostilities, it had integrated into its order of battle among the most sophisticated jet fighter-bombers in the world, namely the French Mystère. A young but already established pilot, Ronen flew this aircraft during the fighting, executing both ground attack and air superiority sorties. Still, regardless of the IAF’s rapidly emerging capabilities, the IDF assigned Ronen and his fellow airmen a marginal role in the Israeli operational plan, which is probably why he has relatively little to say about his participation in this round of hostilities. Indeed, so uncertain were Israeli defense planners about the IAF’s capabilities to protect the country during wartime that French fighter-bomber squadrons were deployed at Israeli air bases for the duration of the fighting, just in case Egyptian aircraft should attempt to bomb Israeli cities, an eventuality in the event that never presented itself.

After the war, however, these defense planners reassessed the IAF’s place in Israel’s military doctrine. They noted that the air force’s performance during the Sinai Campaign had exceeded their expectations. Not only had the IAF achieved air superiority over the Sinai battlefield by shooting down Egyptian fighter-bombers, but it had also ably assisted IDF ground forces by mounting ground attacks, as well as by airlifting supplies to the front. Hence, the IAF, along with the armored corps, which had also exceeded expectations during the war, moved from the periphery of Israel’s military doctrine to the very center of it.

The IAF’s newfound status manifested itself in two ways. First, the air force acquired more and better fighter-bombers. Between the Sinai Campaign and the Six-Day War, it obtained the Mirage IIIC, the Super Mystère, and the Vautour, among the best aircraft of their types available at the time. Second, whereas before the Sinai Campaign, the IAF’s operational activity had essentially been confined to conducting reconnaissance sorties over Arab territory and countering the occasional Arab reconnaissance foray into Israeli airspace, after the war, particularly from the early 1960s onward, the air force began to participate actively in raids against Arab insurgents and in border skirmishes with Arab states. Ronen, who received command of a Mirage squadron in the mid-1960s, relives one especially well-known aerial encounter that took place during the 1966 Samua raid against Jordan, in which he fought a Hunter fighter-bomber for over eight minutes before finally shooting it down.

The Six-Day War showed what the IAF could accomplish if given the chance to play a major role in hostilities. The air force’s devastating preemptive strike—one of the most spectacular strikes in the history of air warfare—resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian air forces on the ground. Contrary to the assertion later voiced by many observers, this strike did not actually win the war for Israel, but it did give the IAF complete control of the air. Consequently, the air force was largely free thereafter to support IDF ground forces in their rapid offensive thrusts into Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Of even greater importance, air superiority ensured that those ground forces would not come under sustained attack from Arab air forces. Airpower, while not decisive in and of itself, made a very substantial contribution to the overwhelming Israeli victory in the war.

Ronen, still a Mirage squadron commander, flew three air base attack sorties during the first day of war, each of which consisted of a bombing run to knock out runways followed by three strafing runs to destroy aircraft, equipment, and infrastructure. Ronen even bagged a MiG-19 during his second sortie of the day, chalking up a total of seven air-to-air victories in his flying career. Each of these sorties unfolded within a precisely orchestrated, almost flawlessly executed, day-long operational plan that saw the entire IAF hurled first against the Egyptian air force and then later against the Jordanian, Syrian, and, to a much lesser extent, Iraqi air forces. With Arab airpower out of the way, the rest of the fighting must have seemed rather anticlimactic to Ronen and his compatriots, which is perhaps why he does not dwell on his ground attack sorties during the fighting, except to recount one carried out against Egyptian troops in the southern Sinai.

The outstanding performance of the air and armored forces in the Six-Day War convinced Israeli defense planners to build up these service branches even further at the expense of the rest of the IDF, a decision that would lead to wholly unforeseen and very undesirable consequences in the next two Arab‒Israeli wars. For the IAF, the years following the Six-Day War were years of transition from French to American aircraft. The Mirage—and an Israeli-produced derivative known as Nesher (or Eagle)—would remain a part of the air force’s order of battle, but the Mystères and Vautours would be gradually phased out in favor of far superior American A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms.

The years following the Six-Day War were also years filled with fighting, culminating in the War of Attrition—a war in which the IAF would suffer some painful reverses. While the air force maintained air superiority over the Sinai, preventing Egypt from fulfilling its declared war aim of “liberating” that territory from Israel, it lost control over the airspace on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal by the end of hostilities. After demolishing Egypt’s integrated air defense system (IADS) in the summer of 1969 and engaging in damaging “deep-penetration” raids into the Egyptian heartland in winter 1970, the IAF was eventually pushed back toward the canal by a far more advanced Soviet‒Egyptian IADS in the spring and summer of 1970, one that gradually rolled forward toward the waterway. More advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries operated largely by Soviet personnel took a toll on the IAF’s Phantom squadrons in the process. The War of Attrition essentially concluded in a draw alongside the Suez Canal, an outcome that highlighted the limits of what airpower could accomplish on its own. In spite of the efficient performance of the air force at the tactical level of warfare, the IAF simply could not impose Israel’s will on Egypt. This state of affairs was only made worse when the Soviets and Egyptians promptly violated the cease-fire agreement by pushing their IADS even closer to the Suez Canal, giving them the ability to contest the airspace on the Israeli side of the waterway.

Ronen sat out much of the fighting of the post-Six-Day War years. As a Mirage squadron commander, he did chalk up a few additional air-to-air victories in sporadic aerial engagements with Egyptian fighter-bombers in the months following the war; however, long before the War of Attrition formally began in early 1969, he had been appointed to head the IAF’s flight academy. Only toward the very end of the war, in summer 1970, did he take command of a battered Phantom squadron, which had just lost its previous commander in a SAM-suppression sortie, helping to hone its fighting skills.

Israeli military doctrine’s overemphasis on aircraft and tanks at the expense of combined arms formations, coupled with the fact that the country’s political leadership prevented the IAF from carrying out a preemptive strike to disrupt the imminent Egyptian and Syrian attack, created severe problems for the air force in the Yom Kippur War, particularly at the outset of hostilities. Unable to implement its prewar operational plans, which called for destroying the Egyptian and Syrian IADSs before joining in the land battle, the IAF instead had to attack these air defense arrays in piecemeal fashion in the midst of providing air support to heavily outnumbered ground forces during the first few days of the fighting. Consequently, the IAF suffered considerable losses to these IADSs early on, rendering it unable to intervene with great effect in the land battle for a good portion of the war. On the other hand, the IAF maintained air superiority vis-à-vis the Egyptian and Syrian air forces throughout the entire war by shooting down hundreds of their aircraft in air-to-air engagements, permitting the IDF’s ground forces not only to mobilize and deploy without being molested, but also to fight without coming under effective air attack. In the final analysis, the air force once again made a substantial contribution to an Israeli victory, but its contribution had fallen short of prewar expectations.

Ronen, an air base commander responsible for seven squadrons as of early 1973, nevertheless insisted on flying operational sorties throughout the Yom Kippur War, in order to lead by example. He relives a couple of high-risk reconnaissance flights to map Syrian air defenses, as well as a couple of deep-penetration raids against strategic targets in Syria. But most of his commentary about the Yom Kippur War reflects on his responsibilities as an air base commander during wartime.

Ronen retired from the IAF in late 1980, about a year-and-a-half before the outbreak of Israel’s last interstate war. During the Lebanon War, the IAF, some of its squadrons now equipped with the ultramodern American F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, functioned superbly in its anti-IADS mission, wiping out Syria’s entire air defense array in the Bekaa, including at least 19 SAM batteries, in short order and at no cost to itself. When Syrian fighter-bombers rose in defense of the array, they were shot down by IAF aircraft in bunches. By the end of the conflict, 80‒100 Syrian aircraft had been downed by IAF fighter-bombers, again with no less to themselves. The IAF, to put it another way, completely dominated the skies in this conflict, just as it had in the Six-Day War.

The Lebanon War signaled the end of the IAF’s involvement in “heroic wars.” Whereas its main opponents until this time had been the armed forces of Arab states, hereafter it would face off primarily against nonstate insurgent organizations in “unheroic wars.” To be sure, the IAF had already participated actively in counterinsurgency campaigns—for example, against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan during the late 1960s and in Lebanon from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Its thinking from 1948 through the early 1980s, however, had always been focused principally on countering the threat posed by Arab armies and air forces. Since the early 1980s, in contrast, the IAF has steadily shifted its attention toward the threat posed by insurgent organizations, such as Hizbullah and Hamas. Preparations for asymmetrical wars and counterinsurgency campaigns have overshadowed—but have not completely eliminated—preparations for interstate wars.

The IAF’s battle experience from the early 1980s to the turn of the twenty-first century differed little in kind from its experience between interstate wars during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. In Lebanon, the air force was engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against Hizbullah from the mid-1980s until 2000, in which it executed the same sorts of reconnaissance sorties, sporadic air strikes, special forces insertions, and casualty evacuations that it had carried out in the campaigns against the PLO in Jordan and Lebanon, though some of the tools at its disposal, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and precision-guided munitions (PGMs), were considerably more sophisticated this time around.

With the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, the IAF significantly ramped up its participation in counterinsurgency warfare. While the air force had employed UAVs very effectively to gather both real-time, actionable intelligence and battle-damage assessments ever since the years directly prior to the outbreak of the Lebanon War, its drone capabilities have undergone a quantum leap during the early twenty-first century. Not only have the IAF’s UAVs flown far more surveillance sorties than in the last decades of the previous century, but they have also been capable of around-the-clock operations in consequence of their state-of-the-art electronic payloads. All of the intelligence data derived from these sorties assisted the IDF enormously during the second intifada, which largely petered out by 2005, in its triumphal campaign to defeat Palestinian insurgent organizations—Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, to name just the more prominent ones among them.

In addition to intelligence gathering, the IAF made other crucial contributions to Israel’s victory in the second intifada. First, the air force executed many “targeted attacks” against insurgent leadership personnel. Fitted with American and Israeli PGMs, its AH-1 Cobra and AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships, as well as, quite possibly, its Hermes 450 UAV (the IAF itself has neither confirmed nor denied that it has employed armed drones), killed many of the key commanders of Palestinian insurgent organizations, making it difficult for these groups to continue their assaults against Israel’s civilian populace. Second, the IAF provided timely air support for the IDF’s occasional large-scale ground incursions into Judea, Samaria, and Gaza to cripple these organizations, mainly in the form of helicopter gunship sorties. And, third, the air force played a significant role in transporting troops to—and removing casualties from—the battlefield.

The IAF has also ramped up its participation in special operations since the dawn of the twenty-first century. To be sure, as the hostage-rescue mission at Entebbe airport in 1976 and the destruction of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 demonstrate, the air force has long been involved in special operations; nevertheless, the frequency with which it has been called upon to carry out such operations has grown of late. In 2007, the IAF destroyed a Syrian nuclear weapons facility in a raid similar to the one launched against the Iraqi reactor. From 2009‒12, it carried out several air strikes in Sudan, preventing the transfer of Iranian-supplied rockets to Gaza via the Sinai. In 2013, the IAF attacked Syrian targets on at least four occasions, preventing the transfer of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, as well as long-range rockets, to Hizbullah. Predictably, Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in any of these strikes, but there is no real doubt about the IAF’s participation in these and, quite likely, other special operations that have not even made it into the public eye.

Unfortunately for Israel, the suppression of the second intifada did not bring about the end of its security predicament. Its unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 permitted Hizbullah and Hamas, respectively, to fill the power vacuums left in its wake. With Iranian sponsorship, both insurgent organizations, especially the former, eventually developed powerful rocket forces with which to attack Israel’s home front. Rockets replaced homicide bombers as the most immediate danger to the Israeli populace.

The threat posed by these rockets to large swathes of the Israeli populace constituted the proximate cause of both of the country’s recent asymmetrical wars, which involved the most extensive employment of Israeli airpower to date outside of interstate war. The Second Lebanon War, like the earlier War of Attrition, concluded without a clear victory for Israel, again highlighting the limits of what airpower can accomplish when not backed up by robust action on the ground. The Gaza War, which saw Israeli air and ground forces cooperating in a true combined arms campaign, on the other hand, ended in an unambiguous Israeli victory.

Many observers in Israel and abroad were quick to point the finger at the IAF for the country’s inability to achieve a decisive victory against Hizbullah. Airpower, according to them, did not “deliver the goods.” Lambeth, to the contrary, astutely declares that these critics are off base in their assessment. He correctly points out that the Israeli campaign against Hizbullah was based overwhelmingly on the application of stand-off firepower—firepower, by the way, from both the air and the ground—as the most efficacious solution to the threat posed by rockets, so the inability of Israel to accomplish its wartime goals was actually the fault of a misconceived operational plan that eschewed until the final days of hostilities a significant ground incursion into Lebanon to root out Hizbullah. For a number of reasons—the influence of American battle experience in Iraq and Kosovo, a decline in the preparedness of the IDF’s ground forces for full-scale warfare as a result of Israel’s incessant involvement in counterinsurgency campaigns since the Lebanon War, and a desire to minimize troop losses chief among them—Israel’s military doctrine had steadily shifted over the previous decades from an emphasis on maneuver warfare to an emphasis on stand-off firepower. Lambeth shows, in short, that Israel’s flawed military doctrine, coupled with the announcement of unrealistic political objectives, not the IAF, was to blame for the unsatisfactory outcome of the war.

Indeed, the IAF functioned quite well in executing its assigned missions. Lambeth reviews in depth the air force’s highly successful attacks against Hizbullah’s long- and medium-range rocket arrays, its primary targets during the fighting. The almost complete destruction of the former and the decimation of the latter early on in the war took these potent dangers to the Israeli populace off of the table. Hizbullah was unable to fire so much as a single long-range rocket into Israel throughout the war, and it was able to fire only a handful of medium-range rockets, which caused few casualties and little infrastructure damage. The vast majority of the more than 4,000 rockets that hit Israel during hostilities were of the short-range variety. Lambeth rightly calls attention to the fact that these small, low-technology rockets, which have almost no launch signature, simply cannot be quashed from the air. The IDF itself acknowledged as much. That is why the IAF was never assigned the task of dealing with these rockets, which continued to fall in substantial numbers until the final day of the war.

The IAF also functioned efficiently in its other assigned missions. Its UAVs furnished real-time, actionable intelligence, observes Lambeth, on an around-the-clock basis throughout the war. This intelligence not only helped to thwart many medium-range rocket attacks against Israel, but also assisted the ground forces in their forays against Hizbullah strongholds in southern Lebanon. Despite the fact that air‒land cooperation between the IAF and the IDF’s ground forces in full-scale warfare had withered significantly over the previous decades, helicopter gunships, fighter-bombers, and, perhaps, armed UAVs were still often able to engage in effective strikes against Hizbullah targets in close proximity to Israeli troops. Furthermore, IAF strikes pulverized much of Hizbullah’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon and Beirut. And, finally, the IAF routinely inserted special forces teams behind Hizbullah lines, brought in much-needed supplies to ground forces in southern Lebanon, and removed wounded troops from the battlefield, frequently lifting them out of “hot” landing zones. Largely because of the IAF’s contribution to the fighting, Lambeth illustrates, Hizbullah suffered a very heavy blow, one which has kept the Israeli‒Lebanese border quiet since a cease-fire took effect in summer 2006.

The unsatisfactory outcome of the Second Lebanon War led to much soul-searching in the IDF, which then spent the years before the outbreak of the Gaza War fixing the problems that had been exposed during the fight with Hizbullah. The ground forces in particular vigorously renewed preparations for full-scale warfare. Air‒land cooperation was tightened in line with a renewed emphasis on a combined arms approach to fighting, and the IDF more or less dispensed with the notion of stand-off firepower as the most efficacious solution to every security problem.

Israel began the Gaza War the same way as it began the Second Lebanon War—with stand-off firepower. The IAF’s opening strike, which simultaneously hit dozens of high-value targets, caught Hamas by surprise and threw that organization into a state of panic and confusion from which it never recovered during the war. After a week of hammering Hamas rocket-launching sites, command and control facilities, training camps, weapons depots, and the like, mainly from the air, IDF ground forces entered Gaza to administer the coup de grȃce. Lambeth points out that highly effective air‒land cooperation during this phase of the war resulted not only in a steady decline of rockets launched into Israel, but also in the shredding of what was left of Hamas’ military infrastructure and capabilities. The combined arms approach of the IDF’s operational plan resulted in a crushing victory for Israel.

Nevertheless, despite its bruising defeat, Hamas decided to confront Israel yet again. By late 2012, Hamas rocket fire against southern Israel had picked up to the point where another major bout of fighting had become inevitable. In this latest round of fighting—one that never rose to the level of an outright war—Israel again emerged the clear winner, the IAF’s strikes again pulverizing Hamas’ military infrastructure, particularly sites associated with its rebuilt rocket arsenal. On this occasion, Israel proved able through stand-off firepower alone to achieve its military objectives, because the outstanding performance of the Iron Dome anti-rocket interceptor system in protecting the Israeli populace rendered a ground incursion unnecessary. The lack of a land maneuver in this instance, however, should not be taken to mean that the IDF has reverted to an emphasis on stand-off firepower at the expense of an emphasis on maneuver warfare.

Whether interstate warfare again becomes dominant in the Middle East—or whether asymmetrical warfare has permanently displaced it as a feature of the region’s military landscape—will only become clear, of course, with the passage of time. Ronen and Lambeth’s accounts collectively attest to the fact that, whichever type of warfare Israel might face in the future, the IAF is very capable of meeting the challenges presented to it, so long as Israel’s military doctrine is properly attuned to the country’s security threats. And, in the turbulent Middle East, those security threats are not going to disappear any time soon.

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