By SHAI T.
Unfettered force may be Israel’s most efficient way of suppressing asymmetrical terror threats, but the onerous costs and realpolitik constraints of such military action dictate a defensive concept of deterrence strengthened by credible, selective use of adaptive airpower.
In the harsh reality of our region, where terror organizations like Gaza-based Hamas and quasi-state militias like the Lebanese Hezbollah operate under cover of uninvolved civilians, achieving and sustaining deterrence carries enormous challenges.
Over the years, Israel has learned that such groups can only be deterred by periodic demonstrations of a national will and capacity to wield decisive force. Only when they understand Israel is willing to “go all the way” are they deterred from rocket launches, terror attacks and other acts of so-called resistance.
But our enemies are well aware of the heavy diplomatic price Israel pays for decisive military operations and have adapted operational concepts to limit the effectiveness of the Israel Air Force (IAF). By stockpiling weapons and situating command centers in residential buildings, they seek to harness Israeli air power to advance their own agendas.
In the logic of asymmetrical combat — particularly in urban areas — the more we strike, the more we serve the objectives of the other side. So strict adherence to moderation as a means of maintaining international legitimacy has become a central element for military planners and government decision-makers.
Asymmetrical adversaries are battling in the court of public opinion and are willing to sacrifice their citizens to promote their objectives. In contrast, Israel must wage three simultaneous battles: Maximize military achievements beyond our border; defend our population and its quality of life; and work to protect the uninvolved civilians on the other side who are cynically endangered by their own leaders.
For Israel, the tragic irony of having to defend an enemy population during combat has become a mission onto itself. In contrast to widespread public perceptions that the Israel Defense Force intentionally harms enemy civilians, the reality is that most of the time, it operates in surgical fashion [with carefully selected weaponry] to reduce dangers to uninvolved civilians, often at great operational expense, or even the aborting of essential missions.
From this perspective, the relatively strong IAF faces the vast challenge of maintaining its ability to project power, defend against all possible threats and support maneuvering ground forces.
In the strategically shifting environment of the new Middle East, decades of deterrence may crumble with the emergence of new regimes. We don’t know what kind of regime will sprout from the nearly two-year civil war raging in Syria.
And with Egypt now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, we certainly must take into account the renewal of a long-dormant Western front. In that event, Israel will have no technological or qualitative advantage against its U.S.-equipped neighbor. If Egypt once again becomes an adversary, our only advantage will lie in our war-fighting doctrine and the quality of IAF aircrews.
IAF leaders have made significant strides in preserving the capabilities for conventional war while adapting force structure and operational concepts to better answer urban, asymmetrical threats. Through smart, careful, surgical employment of airpower, the IAF has demonstrated time and again its capacity to adapt and remain dominant across the combat spectrum.
Deterrence is achieved through the credible threat not only of destroying an enemy’s assets, but by reducing his maneuvering room by detecting and striking its leaders at any time in any place, even if he intentionally seeks cover in dense civilian areas.
In asymmetrical war, airpower is further challenged by the limited number of appropriate targets. Airpower delivers its most significant achievements in the opening days — if not hours or minutes — of the campaign. This was the case during the 2006 Lebanon War and also in Gaza during the December 2008-January 2009 Cast Lead operations and last November’s Pillar of Defense (as it was for the U.S. in Afghanistan after 9/11).
After a short time, the IAF is left with no high-value targets. The longer the operation, the greater the chances for collateral damage that threatens previous achievements. In asymmetrical war, time works against effective airpower. A huge challenge is to maintain that effectiveness over time.
It is still too early to judge whether the IAF’s considerable operative achievements in Pillar of Defense — some 1,500 persistent, precision air strikes in eight days with minimal harm to uninvolved civilians — will sufficiently deter Hamas from raining rocket salvos on the Israeli homefront.
Sadly, there is no sure recipe for durable deterrence. Operations like Cast Lead that ostensibly delivered significant military achievements quickly give way to renewed aggression. Conversely, disappointments and failings ascribed to the 2006 Lebanon War have delivered more than six years of quiet along our northern border.
What is clear is that three months after Pillar of Defense’s unprecedented display of air power, quiet is prevailing across our southern border and life has returned to normal for the more than 1 million Israelis within rocket range.
Shai T. an Israeli lieutenant colonel who holds a sensitive position on the IAF Air Staff and is restricted from publicizing his full name. He served as IDF assistant defense Attache in Washington 2005-2007. This commentary is excerpted from an article in the March Ma’arachot, a Hebrew-language scholarly journal published by the IDF.