September 11, 2006
By Ze’ev Schiff
The air force, more than the other two branches of the IDF – the ground and naval forces – was successful in most of its major operations during the war against Hezbollah.
Nonetheless, the lesson for the Israel Air Force is that it must prepare for a different war scenario, one more challenging and different from what took place in Lebanon. The last war was unusual in its fairly ideal conditions for the IAF: It faced no opposing air force; the enemy lacked surface-to-air missiles and had only a small number of anti-aircraft guns; the battle took place close to bases that were well-defended and available at all times; and the IAF had time on its side.
The IAF must prepare to confront the launching of long-range ballistic missiles from Syria and Iran, and to strike strategic targets much farther away than Lebanon. Is it prepared for this? We can cautiously say it is.
The great success of the air force during the war stemmed from an excellent first strike based on accurate intelligence. During this strike it destroyed a significant portion of the long-range Iranian-made missiles. The result was that Hassan Nasrallah could not carry out his threat of striking Tel Aviv. Also destroyed at the time was Hezbollah’s main headquarters, in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut. If Israel had the powerful bunker-busting bombs available to the U.S. air force, it would have been able to strike at the complex of underground tunnels also.
At first the war was based solely on a major air operation, and that is too bad. Everything north of the Litani River was the responsibility of the IAF. South of the Litani was the responsibility of Northern Command in collaboration with the air force. In spite of the accusations, Israel’s aim was not the destruction of Lebanon – even though the chief of staff and the air force requested permission to damage Lebanese infrastructure more extensively, which the government did not approve. Similarly, a more limited request to destroy electrical infrastructure in the south, connected to Hezbollah bunkers, was also not approved.
The pilots embarked on their missions with one thing in mind: Do not make a big mistake. In the end they did – and in the bombing of Qana, 28 civilians were killed, 14 of them children. It is still unclear whether faulty intelligence authorized a strike against a home, or whether the home was struck because Hezbollah fired rockets from a nearby location.
In addition, the air force focused on several other targets. It was a bit slow in taking action against the smuggling of rockets and launchers from Syria, and it is not clear why vehicles carrying Hezbollah fighters were allowed to move from the north to the south along the coastal road. The air force could not assassinate individuals in Lebanon the way it has in the Gaza Strip. Greater success in this respect would have greatly affected Hezbollah’s morale. The IAF was very successful in providing air support to ground forces. The air force also took great risks in airlifting ground troops and supplies.
Prior to the war, IAF head Major General Eliezer Shkedi had warned the force would face a serious problem in countering the short-range rockets deployed in southern Lebanon. The air force had limited success hunting for these rockets, which it claims was due to poor intelligence. It turned out that most of these rockets were fired from fixed positions, but even if all these sites were destroyed, the rocket attacks would not have stopped – they merely would have become less accurate.