Analysis: Now is the time for a better use of air power

The Hizbullah may have managed to neutralize the IAF's technological advantages.

helicopter 88 (photo credit: )
helicopter 88
(photo credit: )
A hard and fast rule of war is that the use of ground forces in urban combat is directly related to loss of life. In Gaza, the IDF has somehow learned to go in and get out with few casualties. Hizbullah is a different enemy, with different equipment, a different surrounding population and, perhaps, a greater motivation to fight. Wednesday's casualties in Bint Jbail may indicate that Hizbullah has managed, yet again, to neutralize the IAF's technological advantages. The proper use of air power against a terrorist or guerrilla formation takes time, and herein lies Israel's problem. Last week in Maroun a-Ras, several soldiers died fighting Hizbullah around their fortified bunkers. The correct use of military power in that situation would have been to use small special forces teams equipped with nothing more than GPS trackers, laser pointers and Uzi submachine guns. The elite forces, instead of going into the bunkers, could have laser-painted the bunkers' positions to the IAF, which would have destroyed them. That would be the correct way to leverage Israel's technological advantage. The massive bombings - the IAF's use of brute force - has its limitations with respect to high-value targets, and the deployment of ground troops neutralizes our advantages. When a soldier meets a soldier, when a Kalashnikov meets an M-16, when the fight is eye to eye, there are no technological advantages. It will always be like this. Hizbullah has no qualms about losing 50 fighters, whereas we Israelis do, and the Islamists know it. Wednesday's battle will give Hizbullah a huge morale boost - regardless of how many fighters they have lost. During the Lebanon War, I was in charge of the air force's underground command bunker. Every time the infantrymen got themselves into trouble, they would call on the IAF to "open the roads." This usually entailed civilian casualties. The air force chief at the time, Maj.-Gen. David Ivri, demanded that the ground forces provide quality intelligence to ensure that civilians were not being accidentally targeted. That is still the key now. Counterterror air warfare strategy has developed a great deal in recent years. It is now based on new intelligence technologies that have enabled airborne systems to locate small mobile vehicles such as rocket launchers, and even a pair of terrorists trying to launch a Kassam rocket, and precision-guided munitions, which have made it possible to hit such targets quickly and accurately. The most important characteristic of these systems is their ability to preserve the lives of innocent people located near the targeted terrorist. To find, designate (by laser-painter, for example) and hit terrorists in a limited time frame, teams of special forces should join the battle. The new strategy integrates intelligence, air power and special forces into a combined force that plans its missions as surgical operations. Intelligence officers search for the highest-value targets, including leaders of the terrorist organization, its training infrastructure, professionals who produce dangerous bombs, and those who recruit suicide bombers. The strategy is based on the assumption that it is almost impossible to demolish terror organizations in a short, intense war. On the contrary, the preferred scenario is a war of attrition. Step by step, operation by operation, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes brighter. Counterterror air warfare doctrine emphasizes using air power in a different way than in large-scale conventional warfare. The new doctrine prefers a longer but lower-intensity conflict. The Israel Air Force's operations in the current campaign do not even come close to conforming to this concept. The government is attempting to use the air force's brute force to crush Hizbullah and to compel the powerless Lebanese government to control southern Lebanon with its own toothless army. Throughout military history, there have been gaps between doctrine and reality. In the current case, the gap is particularly large, created by the government's ignorance of the appropriate strategy. The cabinet is ignoring, or simply doesn't understand, the principles of modern counterterrorism, especially those relating to air power. The cabinet needs to take into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of the intelligence/air power/special forces mixture. It is the duty of the IDF General Staff to acquaint the civilian leadership with the limitations and capabilities of air power. The government need to have the information to set the goals, which will then dictate the military means and strategy. There is no alternative. Dr. Shmuel L. Gordon, a colonel (res.) in the IAF, is head of the Technology and National Security program at the Holon Institute of Technology, and an expert in national security, air warfare and counterterrorism. He is also the author of The Vulture and the Snake: Counter-Guerrilla Air Warfare: The War in Southern Lebanon.