Israeli F-15 fighter jets are refueled by a Boeing 707 during an air show over the Negev desert, near the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, on June 28, 2012. Israel Air Force leaders plan a major revamp in how the service operates. (Agence France-Presse)
RAMAT DAVID AIR BASE, ISRAEL — The Israel Air Force (IAF) is revamping headquarters staff, planning procedures and air operations to support a 10-fold increase in the number of targets it can detect and destroy, the Air Force’s chief of air operations said.
In an exclusive interview with Defense News, Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin said the institutional revamp — the service’s first since the 1973 Yom Kippur War — aims to shorten the duration of future wars while reducing demand for maneuvering ground forces through massive, persistent and punishing use of precision air power.
More than a year in the making and slated for phased implementation in the coming months, the changes are driven by IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel and his Expanding Attack Capacity (EAC) program.
Officers here say the program affects all aspects of air operations, from the orders received from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Staff to the pilot in the cockpit and maintenance crews tasked with turnaround time.
It also involves wholesale changes in mission planning, resource management, bomb damage assessment and the way the IAF coordinates movements with western coalition forces that may be operating in the region.
But perhaps the biggest driver of EAC, experts here say, is significant improvements in so-called sensor-to-shooter capabilities. By mating persistent intelligence collection with precision weapons, the IAF expects to generate an exponential number of new, time-sensitive targets during each day of future fights.
Once implemented, traditional waves of air attack should give way to an express train of precision strikes, allowing “first circle” enemies such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas little time to recover from the initial shock and awe of previous campaigns.
“We’re focusing on the entire system across the full distance,” Norkin said. “The RPMs [rotations per minute] of this engine must be much higher to support a huge surge in the quantity of targets we detect and destroy each and every day of a future campaign.”
In an Oct. 21 interview at this IAF hub in northern Israel, Norkin noted that the 1,500 targets attacked in Israel’s November 2012, eight-day Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza doubled the number of targets attacked in the 34-day 2006 Lebanon War.
“In Pillar of Defense, our daily attack capacity was twice that of Lebanon, despite the fact that [Gaza] was a much smaller area and more densely populated,” Norkin said. “Now, when we talk about the northern area of operations, we’re aspiring for an order of magnitude expansion — maybe more — in the number of targets to be destroyed every day.”
Despite IAF sensor-to-shooter capabilities demonstrated by its destruction of 120-some rocket launchers in the last Lebanon war, Norkin said the IDF realizes it can no longer waste time and assets going after individual launchers. “We all understand that rockets will continue to fall here until the last day of war. A residual capacity to launch will remain with the enemy,” he said.
Under the new concept, Israel will focus on “hurting the enemy where it hurts the most,” Norkin said, referring to leadership, commanders and significant war-fighting assets.
“We won’t be able to push the enemy to the point where he can no longer shoot rockets and missiles. Therefore we need to push him to the point where he doesn’t want to shoot his rockets and missiles,” the IAF officer said.
In a memo to all IAF officers this month, Eshel described the EAC revamp as historic, complex and fraught with risk.
“Some have compared it to a marathon race which demands — while running — that we perform open heart surgery and still finish first,” Eshel wrote.
Nevertheless, the IAF commander said he believed his organization would successfully implement the EAC plan and that prescribed changes would be proven through concrete results.
Expediting the Endgame
Israeli officers and defense experts said the IAF revamp is an essential element in IDF strategy for expediting the diplomatic endgame through maximum destruction of enemy assets and minimal harm to uninvolved civilians.
“As soon as war breaks out, the hourglass is overturned,” Lt. Gen. Benjamin Gantz, IDF chief of staff, said of Israel’s race to achieve optimum operational gain while preserving domestic and international support prior to a brokered cease-fire.
With Hezbollah and Hamas vowed to Israel’s destruction and unwilling to entertain any type of negotiated peace, officers here insist their only option is to prolong periods of relative quiet between the inevitable outbreak of future wars.
As such, IDF strategy demands inflicting as much pain as possible through high-intensity combat and rapid battlefield gains to deter the next round of fighting once a cease-fire takes effect.
In an address this month at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Gantz cited the “blurring of definitions between terrorist and civilian,” particularly in the context of Lebanon-based Hezbollah, “where the living room and the missile room is in the same house.”
Future wars, Gantz said, will be “transparent” and subject to round-the-clock media coverage and international scrutiny. “Every irregularity of the IDF will be accompanied by attempts to delegitimize Israel.”
While commanders across all sectors and services must be ready “to activate maximum assets with ultimate force,” Gantz flagged a preference, when possible, for precision, standoff operations.
As the officer in charge of last November’s standoff campaign against Gaza-launched rockets, Gantz delivered significant results through standoff strikes without having to embark on broad-based incursion.
More than 20,000 active-duty and reserve forces were poised at the border for the real prospect of a maneuvering ground war. But after eight days of punishing precision strikes, Israeli political leaders were convinced Hamas had been sufficiently deterred and accepted the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended the fight.
Assaf Agmon, a brigadier general in the IAF reserve and director of Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, warned against mistaking Pillar of Defense as a template for future wars that may require ground maneuvering to support initial gains from standoff attack.
Nevertheless, he said operational efficiencies expected from the EAC effort should, in many scenarios, “lessen the likelihood, or at least diminish the duration,” of a costly and diplomatically damaging ground war.
“Air power assumes enormous added value in our defensive concept and in all Western cultures that are less tolerant of the heavy casualties that come from big maneuvering ground wars,” Norkin said. “It’s hard to stop the lethality of tanks once they start to move. In contrast, air power can be controlled in a very calibrated, surgical manner. It’s like a thermostat that you can direct as hard or as soft as needed or turned off entirely when it’s time to stop.”
Organizational changes prescribed by the IAF’s EAC program call for splitting training, doctrine and operational functions now performed by Norkin, the air branch chief, into two separate one-star positions.
A new head of air operations will be responsible for planning and executing all IAF operational missions. The new one-star position, approved by Gantz on Oct. 14, will be supported by three bureaus, each commanded by a colonel and focused on attack operations, active defense and international cooperation. Training, doctrine and joint air exercises will remain the purview of the air division chief.
The IAF also will establish a new department for joint operations with other IDF service branches and augment the intelligence bureau that supports air operations.
“For the past 40 years, we’ve been working according to the same structure, with only minor patchwork modifications here and there. But the force implementation chain of command is different from force training chain,” said Norkin, the officer tapped to become chief of air staff — the service’s No. 2 slot — once changes take effect.
Norkin underscored the fact that in Israel, there are no separate Army and naval aviation branches. “This restructuring will optimize our ability to meet the nation’s steadily increasing air power demands,” he said.