HERZLIYA, Israel — Whoever thinks the F-35 or other heavily armed fighter jets are no longer relevant for urban combat better think again, said Israel's top Air Force officer.
As counterintuitive as it may seem to the notion of surgical strike, Israel Air Force (IAF) commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel insists small wars and counterinsurgency operations of the future will demand massive use of heavy munitions.
Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin, Eshel's second in command and the officer tapped to become Israel's next J-5 director of planning, has likened the IAF's operational concept to "playing billiards with a bowling ball."
Fighters are the cue sticks. Through precise intelligence, they must insert Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs), Paveways and Israeli-developed Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective (SPICE) missiles into specific pockets of what the IAF has started to call human terrain.
And in an era where terrorist organizations and non-state actors deploy a variety of increasingly capable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), Israel can no longer count on owning the skies.
In the future, Eshel insists, even the smallest wars will require extensive use of fixed-wing airpower led by advanced, stealth capabilities provided by the F-35.
"Whoever thinks that the F-35 is not relevant to small urban wars doesn't understand the depth and extent of the threat," Eshel told a May 27 conference by the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies devoted to "Winning Small Wars and the Role of Air Power."
"Today, the subject of achieving air superiority is a challenge even vis-a-vis small countries and terrorist groups who know how to deploy SAMs," he said.
Israeli F-35s, which will start to arrive here later next year, will constitute Israel's "point of the spear," Eshel said, by "paving the way for other assets" capable of delivering heavier payloads.
"This fifth-generation fighter plane … will be a central element of our future force," he said. "It knows how to contribute to big wars, small wars and everything in-between."
As challenging as it is, Eshel said it can be done in a way that preserves freedom of action and international legitimacy.
"We have an offensive capability that is unprecedented and extremely significant which we've been developing over years and are now able to implement.
"In small wars, it's a very significant challenge for us to reduce collateral damage on the other side when the enemy is using all he has to elevate the damage we're forced to inflict on him," Eshel said.
"First of all, it's a moral challenge. ... It sounds like a slogan, but we are constantly thinking, planning and operating with this challenge in mind."
Eshel said the IAF demonstrated the massive use of airpower along with immense strides in joint operations during last summer's Gaza war, when low-flying F-16s dropped 1-ton precision-guided munitions (PGMs) within 250 meters of friendly forces.
Experts here estimated that in Shuja'aiyya alone — a heavily populated section of Gaza city — IAF pounded multistory homes with some 100 tons of weaponry in less than three hours. Tunnel shafts were discovered under some of the structures.
The pounding provoked international condemnation and angry sarcasm from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who, when apprised by an aide of the escalation, commented, "It's a hell of a pinpoint operation."
Kerry subsequently defended Israel's right to do all it needed to destroy tunnels and other sites from which Gaza-based militants were attacking.
In his Fisher Institute address, Eshel noted that heavy fixed-wing airpower not only provided effective close support of ground troops, but actually reduced casualties on the enemy side compared to the alternative if Israel had to rely only on bombing by artillery or other less accurate methods.
"The nature of the threat demands precision intelligence and significant firepower beyond all levels that we've known before, in quality and also in quantity," he said.
"In the urban theater, in order to destroy those houses and to destroy tunnels, you need accurate heavy weaponry that only a fighter plane can deliver."
Since the Gaza war, experts here note a considerable spike in IAF very high ops-tempo training on its own and in joint exercises with the US, Greek and other air forces.
For larger wars, such as the next round of fighting in Lebanon, significant numbers of heavily armed fighter planes are trained to perform targeting missions, return to rearm and then go back out and do it again and again.
"Even for us, it's hard to digest the power of it all … and I think that, in the context of Lebanon, it's at a level of unimaginable destruction," Eshel said.
Speaking at the same event, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon insisted that whether between wars or during campaigns, big or small, air power will continue to play a central role. He noted that of the more than 7,000 targets attacked during the Gaza war, more than 5,000 were destroyed from the air.
"Air power constitutes a center of gravity in our force structure and in the implementation of our force," Ya'alon said.
Last month, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a potential $1.9 billion post-Gaza war replenishment package of PGMs for the Israel Air Force. The preapproved package included 14,500 JDAM tail kits in sizes ranging from 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds, 4,100 GBU-39 SDBs, and 2,200 Paveway kits.
In parallel, Israel's Ministry of Defense is restocking supplies of 250-pound, 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound SPICE systems expended during the Gaza war. Developed by state-owned Rafael, SPICE integrates an electro-optical guidance kit onto inexpensive standard Mk-82, Mk-83 and Mk-84 bombs, which the IAF uses as a high-end option to the US-produced JDAM.
"Precision fixed-wing airpower has always been effective, but Operation Protective Edge was a classic example of how to employ it effectively in urban theaters as well," said Yuval Miller of the name designated for the Gaza war.
Miller, executive vice president for Rafael's Air and Intelligence Division, noted that "It all starts with precision intelligence. Once you have it, and that intel is available in real time, fixed-wing air power provides enormous added value, especially when compared to other capabilities from the ground that tend to be less precise and less available."