A Low-Cost Way to Defeat Adversaries? Israel and Air Power in the Second Lebanon War

A Low-Cost Way to Defeat Adversaries? Israel and Air Power in the Second Lebanon War

By Major Jared Larpenteur

At 9:05 am on 12 July 2006, Hezbollah initiated Operation TRUE PROMISE at the Lebanese-Israeli border. They kidnapped two Israel Defense Force (IDF) reserve soldiers and sparked the Second Lebanon War.[1] Israel restricted large ground operations and instead turned to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to win the war for them. Over the next 34 days, the IAF carried out tens of thousands of sorties but failed to achieve the decisive result sought by Israel.

No stranger to conflict, Israel has fought for survival since the establishment of the country in 1948. From 1948 to modern day the IDF has undergone multiple transitions to keep its military in line with the modern battlefield. Some of these transitions came at the cost of extensive amounts of blood and treasure. Despite a relatively successful air campaign in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel’s societal perspective led to paying a high cost to discover essential lessons regarding the importance of joint warfare on the modern battlefield.

Since 1982, the IAF had dominated the skies of the Middle East. However, by the 2006 Lebanon War, they had become accustomed to an uncontested environment and employment in the counter-insurgency environment. Leading up to the Second Lebanon War, two intifadas, the first from 1987-1993 and the second in 2000, drew the Israeli military away from high-intensity conflict.[2] The first intifada occurred in 1987 and made the IDF shift focus from manoeuvre warfare to riot control to handle massive civilian uprisings. The second intifada in 2000 saw more violent clashes including suicide bombings in Israeli territory resulting in over 135 Israelis killed.[3] The two intifadas prompted the IDF to transition to a more counter-insurgency approach to warfare but also degraded public opinion as the Israeli populace became war-weary. At the same time, Israel observed the United States use of a heavy air power approach during Kosovo in 1999 and the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 to help limit casualties.

Israel had developed an aversion to casualties but still faced instability within the region. According to Frans Osinga, Israeli military leaders came to see air power as ‘a low-cost way to defeat adversaries such as Hamas and Hezbollah.’[4] Adversaries like Hezbollah watched, adapted, and understood the power of the IAF. Hezbollah understood Israel’s transition and according to their leader believed ‘the Israeli Achilles heel was the society itself.’[5]  By 2006, Hezbollah planned for a future war with Israel under the assumption that Israel would rely on air power and limited ground forces to reduce the risk of casualties.

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz (an IAF general), and Defense Minister Amir Peretz met shortly after the July 2006 abductions to discuss options their perspectives became apparent when they decided not to send a large ground force into Lebanon, but instead, rely on airstrikes and limited ground raids.[6] The resulting conversation led to Israel’s three political objectives: first, the release of the abducted soldiers to Israel unconditionally; second, stop the firing of missiles and rockets into Israel territory; lastly, enforce United Nations Resolution 1559, which pressured Lebanon to control Hezbollah, disarm militias, and secure its southern border.[7]

Fueling all fighters
An Israeli Air Force F-15I from No. 69 Squadron moves away after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over Nevada’s test and training ranges during Exercise RED FLAG 04-3 in 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

On 12 July, mere hours after the war began, the IAF launched Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT. This air campaign targeted Hezbollah’s rocket sites, runways at the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, interdicted the Beirut-Damascus highway and attacked the al-Manar Television Station (a Hezbollah-operated media source).[8] General Halutz assumed that it would only take two or three days to achieve the objectives because of the effect of precision-guided munitions on specific targets. These specific targets carried the planning assumption that air strikes would damage Hezbollah, pressure the Lebanese government, resulting in the release of the captured soldiers, and strengthen Israel’s military deterrence.

Two days later, Israeli intelligence assessed the strikes as successful. This led the IDF General Staff to target the town of Dahiye, a southern Beirut suburb that housed Hezbollah’s headquarters. The General Staff believe that Dahiye would deliver a symbolic blow to Hezbollah represented the beginning of a change of focus. With the soldiers still unreturned, the strikes on Dahiye appeared to expand the war aims to cause damage and pain to Hezbollah.[9]

By the end of the war, the IAF had carried out 19,000 sorties, averaging 200 sorties a day. The IAF attacked around 7,000 targets to include Hezbollah command posts, bridges, traffic intersections, and rocket launchers. The IAF used 19,000 bombs and 2,000 missiles of which 35 per cent of the ammunition were precision-guided munitions. The IAF racked up more flight hours in the Second Lebanon War than during the Yom Kippur War.[10] Despite the air effort, Israel began to realise that the air campaign alone would not achieve their political objectives as Hezbollah continued to launch an average of 90-150 rockets into Israeli territory every day.[11]

On 12 July, shortly after the air campaign began and keeping with the limited ground force approach Israel deployed several special operation units to recover the two kidnapped soldiers instead of large manoeuvre force. However, the special operations units did not anticipate the resistance from Hezbollah, while the IAF remained primarily focused on its strategic objectives. The IAF never prioritised integration and support for the ground offensive. Major General Benjamin Gantz, commander of the IDF army headquarters, stated:

By exploiting the air war, we could have gotten in simultaneously in full force and taken over the entire area, cleansing it from within. But that would have required […] decisive ground-maneuver warfare, not the stage-by-stage operations that were ultimately executed.[12]

However, the IDF entered southern Lebanon under the assumption that the destruction of targets by the IAF placed significant effects on Hezbollah.

To circumvent the use of air power and draw the IDF into attritional warfare Hezbollah developed large bunker and trench systems in southern Lebanon that could protect its arsenal of 122mm Katyusha rockets from air strikes. Additionally, Hezbollah integrated bunker systems inside of villages, towns, and surrounding terrain to draw the IDF closer rendering air support useless. As stated by an IDF lieutenant in southern Lebanon, ‘[Hezbollah] have so many places to hide from the air strikes, so we have to send in the infantry. It can be dangerous.’[13] For example, the IDF found a bunker complex in southern Lebanon 40 meters underground covering an area of two kilometres, with firing positions, operation rooms, medical facilities, and air conditioning.[14]

As the reports of Hezbollah’s resistance flooded in, it became clear that Israel needed a more significant force to secure the established political objectives. In response, the IDF launched its first large-scale ground force on 17 July to seize Maroun al-Ras and was surprised by Hezbollah’s preparation and fighting skills. Despite the effort, Maroun al-Ras remained unsecured as Hezbollah successfully outmanoeuvred the IDF with integrated mortar, rocket, and anti-tank weapons.[15] The realisation that intelligence did not match the reality on the ground hit hard as the first of the IDF ground elements manoeuvred into southern Lebanon. With the limited ground approach, the IDF faced massive resistance from Hezbollah. One IDF officer stated, ‘We expected a tent and three Kalashnikovs, that was the intelligence we were given. Instead, we found a hydraulic steel door leading to a well-equipped network of tunnels.’[16]

With the reports of limited success, Olmert and Halutz decided to deploy the Israeli reserves on 21 July. Despite the call for the reserves, Halutz’s ground plan remained the same without a consolidated effort between the IAF and IDF to achieve military objectives that linked to national objectives. By 5 August, three weeks after the start of the war, the IDF had roughly 10,000 soldiers in Lebanon four miles from the border. By 8 August, Israel realised it had been pulled into what they wished to avoid, a large-scale ground operation with dozens of casualties.[17]

Despite the scale of air power involved, Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT did not have the intended effect. It only impacted around seven per cent of Hezbollah’s military resources.[18] Hezbollah still maintained the ability to manoeuvre and fire rockets, the two captured IDF soldiers were never returned to Israel, and the Lebanese government had no more control over Hezbollah than they did at the start of the war on 12 July. What changed the war and resulted in some semblance of partial Israeli success was not the massive air campaign but the eventual ground offensive.

For the US Military, Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT provides several stark and valuable lessons. First, air power alone cannot achieve decisive results. Air and ground forces must act together whether in counter-insurgency, large scale combat operations or as in 2006 when facing a hybrid threat. On the modern battlefield, the integration of air and ground elements become imperative for success to achieve military and political objectives.

Second, as air and ground power integrate the release authority for munitions should be delegated down to lower echelons. In the Second Lebanon War, the IDF General Staff held the release authority which created lag times in fires and medical evacuation procedures. These lag times directly led to friendly fire incidents and enhanced pressure from the enemy. For example, near the town of Bint J’beil, an IAF attack helicopter inadvertently fired on IDF ground forces during a firefight barely avoiding fratricide.[19] Additionally, Israel learned that integration of the air and ground domain requires extensive training. That training should entail calling for fire, air-ground coordination, and target acquisition.

Lastly, the use of air power in the targeting process should focus more on desired effects to achieve decisive results rather than the destruction of specific targets. In the targeting cycle, the IAF uses a quantitative approach that focuses on the destruction of specific targets, with the assumption that effects placed on the target will bring decisive results.[20] The US Air Force uses a qualitative effects-based concept which focuses on the desired effects rather than a specific target.[21] During the Second Lebanon War, the air campaign attacked specific targets such as bridges over the Latini River, known Hezbollah positions, TV stations, and Lebanese airfields, with the assumption that destroying these targets would have the intended effect of achieving decisive outcomes. However, once the ground forces arrived in southern Lebanon, it became apparent that destroying these targets did not have the desired effect.

Israel paid the price in blood and treasure to learn the hard lessons of integrating air power on a modern battlefield. The Second Lebanon War resulted in the death of 66 IDF soldier, $55 million in loss of infrastructure, and $443 million in loss of economic activity.[22] The Second Lebanon War shows the importance of understanding the effective use of air power and the need to integrate air power across all operating domains. Israel learned the cost of getting air power integration wrong in 2006. In 2019 the US must avoid such costly schooling.

Major Jared Larpenteur is an Infantry Officer in the United States Army and currently a student at the School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, KS. He is a 2003 graduate of Louisiana State University with a BA in History and commissioned through the ROTC program. He has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and has experience in mechanized and light airborne infantry units. He received his masters from Kansas State University in Adult Learning and Leadership. He can be found on twitter at @jlarpe1 or email at jlarpe1@gmail.com. Views are his own and not representative of DoD or the US Army.

Header Image: An Israeli Air Force General Dynamics F-16C Barak of No. 110 Squadron departs on a mission during the ‘Blue Flag’ exercise on Ovda Air Force Base, Israel, on 27 November 2013. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 12–3.

[2] Intifada translates as ‘shaking off’ meaning grassroots resistance across the Middle East, see: Bethan McKernan, ‘Intifada: What Is It and What Would a Thrid Palestinian Uprising Mean for Israel and the Middle East?,’ The Independent, 7 December 2017.

[3] Giora Eiland, ‘The IDF in the Second Intifada,’ Strategic Assessment, 13:3 (2010), p. 31.

[4] Frans Osinga, ‘Air Strike’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Air Power (New York: Routledge, 2018), p. 102.

[5] Cited in Scott C. Farquhar, Back to Basics: A Study of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2009), p. 7.

[6] David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. 56.

[7] The United Nations Security Council, ‘United Nations Resolution 1559.’

[8] Harel and Issacharoff, 34 Days, p. 86.

[9] Ibid., p. 100.

[10] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 62.

[11] Ibid., p. 65.

[12] William M. Arkin, Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2007), p. 133.

[13] Benjamin S. Lambeth, Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah: Learning from Lebanon and Getting It Right in Gaza (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. 51.

[14] Arkin, Divining Victory, p. 21.

[15] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 68.

[16] Uzi Mahnaimi, ‘Humbling of the Supertroops Shatters Israeli Army Morale,’ The Times, 27 August 2006.

[17] Farquhar, Back to Basics, pp. 15-7.

[18] Ibid., p. 14.

[19] Lambeth, Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah, p. 51.

[20] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 33.

[21] US Air Force, Air Force Doctrine Document No. 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 2003), p. 18.

[22] Raphael S. Cohen et al., Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza, Brief: Summary of From Cast Lead to Protective Edge (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), p. 8.

#Commentary – Trading in the Old Lawnmower for an F-16

#Commentary – Trading in the Old Lawnmower for an F-16

By Dr Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil and Dr Jacob Stoil

At 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, a single mother of three boys, Miri Tamano woke up in Beersheva to a missile defence warning siren. In under a minute, she woke up her children and rushed them to a safe room just before the house was destroyed by a direct hit from a Gazan rocket.[1] The strike against the Tamano house was the last straw after days of escalating tensions along the Gaza border and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) retaliated by launching twenty strikes against Hamas affiliated targets in the Gaza Strip.[2] At first glance, this use of the IAF may seem similar to the many similar strikes Israel launched over the last decade. However, it may also be the beginning of a new air-centric response to Hamas rockets. What is most interesting about this potential change in approach is not the change in and of itself but rather the forces that drove it. Unlike many changes to operational approach, this one is not driven primarily by changes in the military operational environment or international political realities. Instead, the possible shift towards a new air-based approach and the new emphasis on the employment of the IAF stems from domestic politics and frustration with recent approaches to the problem of Gaza.

The home of Miri Tamano in Beersheba, damaged by rocket fire from Gaza.
The home of Miri Tamano in Beersheba, damaged by rocket fire from Gaza. (Source: @IDFSpokesperson)

The IAF has always had a role in Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) retaliatory and deterrence operations. In the pre-1967 period, the IAF served as part of joint operations against Syria. In one famous incident on April 7th 1967, Syrian artillery strikes and small arms fires led to an escalation which eventually brought the IAF in to bomb Syrian positions and IAF fighters to clear the skies of Syrian aircraft. The goal of this operation was to establish deterrence along the Northern border. Here the IAF acted in concert and in support of ground force. Similar in 1970, the IDF called on the IAF to launch a major operation targeting Soviet Air Force units in Egypt. This operation followed a series of ground operations and sought to achieve a decisive blow ending the War of Attrition. This pattern continued through the 1980s when the IDF launched Operation Peace to the Galilee which sought (and to an extent achieved) a decisive defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. Here again, Israel used air power in support of the ground offensive. In these instances and many others, IAF served as one aspect of joint retaliatory operations. More significantly the retaliatory operations either anticipated the coming of a decisive engagement (e.g. the 1967 War) or sought to be decisive by themselves – at the very least restoring credible deterrence.

Although, since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War something resembling the classic pattern of deterrence operations continues on the Syrian border, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 changed the primary Israeli approach to establishing deterrence and seeking decisive victory. Since leaving Gaza as part of disengagement, the IDF has pursued a strategy of countering the hybrid threat through a concept often referred to as ‘mowing the grass.’ This concept has led Israel to five major ground operations in Gaza since 2006. At its heart mowing the grass is a concept for conflict management which buys time for an eventual political solution. Mowing the grass centres on the creation of deterrence and periods of quiet. In the concept when the adversary decides to escalate its level of violence Israel responds with restraint. As the adversary further escalates, Israel escalates its response. Eventually, the adversary crosses the threshold of tolerable violence, and Israel launches a major ground operation to severely punish the adversary and degrade adversary capabilities. This buys a period of calm which may last anywhere from several months to several years. However, almost invariably the same pressures which caused the adversary to escalate in the first place cause another escalation and the process repeats. In Gaza, this process has repeated itself several times resulting in Operation Summer Rains in 2006, Operation Hot Winter in 2008, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and it is now leading to a potential conflict in 2018.

Sites in the Gaza Strip targeted by the IAF on October 17, 2018.
Sites in the Gaza Strip targeted by the IAF on October 17, 2018. (Source: @IAFsite)

As a concept, mowing the grass recognises that defeating the enemy is next to impossible. In Gaza, Hamas is intertwined with Palestinian society and governance. For military planners mowing the grass means that there can be no decisive outcome. Hamas remained in government, the communities near Gaza could enjoy some calm, but invariably the threat would return, and the process would repeat. In Gaza, once escalation began, Israel would respond with warnings to Hamas, followed by more escalation and limited air strikes. This, in turn, would be followed by more escalation from Hamas and more significant air and artillery strikes by the IDF. As Hamas escalation continued, the IDF would build up ground forces near the Gaza border. Eventually, this process would lead to a limited incursion and then major ground operation by the IDF.

In the early stages of the escalation, the IAF played a messaging role indicating the seriousness of Israel’s intent and the willingness to escalate. As escalation continued the role of the IAF became a facet of joint operations aimed at reducing Hamas capabilities but never seeing a decisive victory. The final phase of these operations carries multiple political costs, both domestically and internationally. This phase inevitably causes more significant civilian and combatant casualties among the Palestinian population in Gaza which can be ‘expensive’ to Israel in the international community. The IDF has increasingly worked to distinguish between the two on the international stage, resulting in an associated media strategy that provides almost real-time footage of some parts of major Gaza operations.[3]  To an Israeli domestic audience, mowing the grass is an acknowledgement of the inability of the IDF to bring victory or create lasting deterrence and the Israeli Government to achieve a lasting end state. Essentially as long as mowing the grass remained the central method of military response to the situation in Gaza, the Israeli public knew that every operation and the lives it cost only bought time until the next one required the same sacrifices.

Mowing the grass relies on a lawnmower powered by patience and societal tolerance for the costs associated with the approach. The capacity of the Israeli public to absorb the costs associated with mowing the grass also constrains Israel’s policymakers. As a conscript army that draws upon a relatively small civilian population, IDF casualties are seen by the majority of Israeli society as ‘our children,’ a notable departure from earlier Israeli generations’ perspective of seeing them as ‘a silver platter upon which the country was borne’ – a tragic but unpreventable loss for a greater good.[4]

Traditionally, as in the Four Mothers campaign to pull out of Lebanon in the mid-nineties, concern with casualties as a justification for limitation of military action was the province of Israeli left-wing political parties. The right-wing parties, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, also venerated soldiers but did not use the potential loss of life as a justification for reducing normative tactical options. Instead, right-wing politicians tended to emphasise the IDF’s role as protector of civilian life; frequently, centrist and right-wing governments were drawn into Gaza operations following public frustration with repeated terror strikes launched from within Gaza. Instead, Netanyahu is facing pressure from a different angle. The Israeli right-wing has grown stronger and particularly more popular with younger voters in the past two decades, and Netanyahu faces challenges from the right both in his own parties as well as from other right-wing parties that are natural and necessary allies in his ruling coalition. In the parliamentary system, a lack of confidence from within the coalition can collapse a government and bring about early elections that reshuffle the political balance of power.

One voice of opposition, former MK Moshe Feiglin signalled that Netanyahu’s right-wing might be losing patience with the ‘mowing the grass’ strategy. In an open statement to the press Wednesday, Feiglin wrote that ‘Victory is unconditional surrender! Don’t send a single soldier to his death for anything less than that.’[5] Feiglin went on to complain that as long as the government is ‘once again planning us a glorious defeat, just like previous iterations, a defeat that in the end leaves Beersheba a prisoner of Hamas,’ Feiglin’s faction will oppose any Gazan incursion ‘and the unnecessary risk to IDF soldiers.’[6] Feiglin’s comments reflect a growing frustration with what many Israelis see as a lose-lose strategy. The limited scale of the ‘mowing’ operations does not disable Hamas in the medium let alone long-term, meaning that Israeli civilians continue to live under the constant threat of rocket fire. While not entirely preventing rocket fire into Israel, Gaza incursion operations also incur high casualties from an Israeli perspective; 67 IDF soldiers were killed in Operation Protective Edge, a number surpassed this century only by the Second Lebanon War.[7]

Israeli F-16
An Israeli F-16 (Source: @IAFsite)

Under these circumstances, air power seems like one of the only choices available to politically navigate the public expectation of responding to rocket strikes while also avoiding the lose-lose dynamic of the mowing-rocket cycle. Feiglin intimated as much, calling on the prime minister to avoid ‘once again sending soldiers to die in the alleyways of Gaza for a political performance of war.’[8] Should the escalation from Gaza continue, the domestic political situation provides Netanyahu few choices. He could continue with the old pattern of operations in which the IAF serves to signal escalation and then as part of the combined operation, but this would risk significant domestic fallout. The Prime Minister could seek a decisive engagement in Gaza in which the IAF would act to support the land campaign, but this would be militarily and diplomatically extremely difficult. Finally, he could find an option that achieves the effect of mowing the grass without the human cost. In other words, he could turn the main effort of the response to the IAF, with supporting effects provided by the navy and ground forces outside of Gaza.

Israelis view air power as relatively risk-free, and in fact, only one IAF plane and one helicopter have been shot down in combat in the last 20 years, resulting in five deaths and two injuries. By relying more heavily on an air response, Netanyahu can avoid criticism for ‘wasting’ IDF soldiers on an operation that yields little clear take-home in the eyes of his voters. This changes the balance between the IAF and the other tools of military power and may drive Israeli engagement to air-centric approach. For this to work, the IAF will have to launch more strikes than in previous engagements. No longer part of a joint plan, the IAF will shoulder the responsibility for inflicting most of the cost on Hamas. By attempting to win an operation through the air alone, the IAF returns to an almost Douhetian concept of operations. As Israel, discovered in the 2006 Lebanon War this approach is not without problems. Among other challenges, it encounters questions as to what happens if the IAF completes its target list without achieving the war aims. The presence of ground forces has traditionally stimulated the exposure of new targets for the IAF allowing it to increase the efficacy of its strikes. Without such multi-domain cooperation, the target list may be far more limited.

What is significant then about the potential turn towards an air-centric approach is that it stems not from military or operational necessity but from domestic politics. This may be familiar to US and European states, but it is new for Israel. Even if this current period of increased conflict in Gaza ends with a ground operation or before one is necessary the change in the conversation on such operations will have a dramatic effect on the IAF and Israel’s thought about air power. For Netanyahu or any subsequent Prime Minister, until Israel develops a new approach to Gaza, an IAF centric approach will be at the forefront of consideration. This pushes the IAF into a new concept of operations and turns it from a critical supporting aspect of the IDFs total war package into the lawn mower of choice.

Dr Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil is a former NCO in the Israel Defense Forces, where she served as a combat medic and medical platoon deputy commander in the 9th Battalion of the Armored Corps. As a reservist, Shimoni-Stoil was a heavy search and rescue medic with the Home Front Command, mobilising in the Northern Sector during the Second Lebanon War. In her military capacity, she served in and around Gaza. After leaving her regular service, Shimoni-Stoil was hired by the Jerusalem Post and served in several capacities eventually being appointed the newspaper’s Internal Security correspondent. It was in this position that she covered both the increase in tensions and rocket attacks along Israel’s southern border with Gaza as well as the opening weeks of the Second Lebanon War. She later served as the Knesset [Parliamentary] Correspondent before becoming the Washington Correspondent for Times of Israel. Dr Shimoni-Stoil is now a lecturer in history at the Loyola University of Maryland. She has appeared as a commentator on radio and television channels worldwide and written for 538.com. She can be followed on twitter @RebeccaStoil.

Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military OperationsWar on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate. He can be reached on twitter @JacobStoil.

Header Image: Israeli Air Force F-16I (Source: Wikimedia)

Disclaimer: The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, any other government agency, or any institution.

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[1] https://www.timesofisrael.com/hero-mom-asks-for-help-after-beersheba-home-destroyed-by-gaza-rocket/

[2] https://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-says-20-targets-bombed-in-gaza-including-tunnels-blames-hamas-for-rockets/

[3] For examples of this type of information strategy see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG0CzM_Frvc&list=PL854689D6B2FCDD45; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmh1dhRGzzM&index=2&list=PLObnKQho8o8PNUxfldeGNOsDFdazchJH8;  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfjW-CcvxRw;

[4] For the text of the iconic Israeli poem that serves as the basis of this concept see: http://zionism-israel.com/hdoc/Silver_Platter.htm

[5] Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018

[6] Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018

[7] http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Pages/IDF-soldiers-killed-in-Operation-Protective-Edge.aspx

[8] Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018

#Commentary – Going Back to the Future with Insurgent Air Power

#Commentary – Going Back to the Future with Insurgent Air Power

By Dr Jacob Stoil

From the British conception of air policing to the myriad of coalition air assets deployed as part Operation Inherent Resolve, counterinsurgents have enjoyed their ability to be the sole force in skies and the plethora of benefits that brings. Throughout late 20th and early 21st century, there have been rare instances where insurgents have tried to either contest this or at the very least exploit the air domain for their operations. These include the development and deployment of the ‘Air Tigers’ of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil and Eelam (LTTE) and the more recent use of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by a host of actors including ISIS and Hezbollah. LTTE’s attempts were largely ineffective, and ISIS’s small UAVs have been only deployed for tactical effects. Assumedly developing a counter to this ISIS threat will be part of the broader effort to deal with the UAV threat writ large. In Gaza, Hamas has developed something different and is going back in time technologically to exploit the hybrid space and launch an air campaign.

In late May 2018 Israeli security forces identified an explosive-laden UAV launched by one of the militant groups from the Gaza strip. In the same month, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) destroyed a Hamas base containing unmanned underwater vehicles. Both these capabilities while impressive represent an evolution of what combatants have already observed the world over. Militant groups increasingly have the capabilities to employ low-cost unmanned systems in a variety of domains. The interesting evolution out of Gaza strip is not the use of advanced technology by militant groups but a return to simple and cheap solutions.

Over the past month, militants in Gaza have launched numerous strikes using incendiary devices attached to kites and balloons. These devices come in several forms; some are kites released on to the wind current carrying flaming material and accelerant dangling from a rope. Others are helium balloons (or helium-filled condoms) with trailing flaming materials and accelerant. Although there are variations most of these carry metallic mesh pouches contacting burning oil-soaked rags or coal. These take advantage of the dry summer conditions in Southern Israel to spark fires out of proportion to the amount of accelerant. In addition to these, there are varieties with small impact based explosive devices attached and more recently explosive devices designed to litter the ground.

This is the past returning. During the Second World War, the Japanese military was unable to bomb the mainland US and turned to balloons with incendiary devices as an attempt at a solution. By 20 June 2018, 75 days of balloon and kite attacks had seen over 700 attacks which burned over 6,100 acres of primarily agricultural land causing millions of dollars of damage. For Israel damage to its agricultural sector presents a serious threat given the relatively small amount of arable and pasturable land.

Iron_Dome_Battery_Deployed_Near_Ashkelon
An Iron Dome battery at Ashkelon, c. 2011 (Source: Wikimedia)

The balloon and kite launched devices present significant challenges to the Israeli military (IDF). Due to their low signature, they are harder to detect than UCAVs. Unlike rockets and mortars, they do not follow a set trajectory making counter battery fire more difficult. They are cheap and therefore employing short-range air defence such as Iron Dome makes little sense. The helium-filled condoms which trail burning liquids or rags may only cost as much as the helium (condoms are distributed in Gaza by the Palestinian Authority and international NGOs) while Iron Dome costs near $100,000 per launch. Other forms of Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar systems rely on a more prominent radar profile and are designed for point defence not protecting a whole broader.

The biggest challenge they pose may result from their place in the narrative domain. Often launched by teams including children, balloons and kites do not seem as threatening as other, more significant, more conventional types of attacks. Targeting those who launch them with lethal force would likely play poorly in the media and the international community overall. Unlike rockets and mortars, kites, and balloons – no matter the threat they may pose – are not often thought of within the panoply of tools of war. In this way, they are emblematic of an entire strategy – namely causing as much strategic threat as possible while remaining below the threshold of escalation. In his 1991 book The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld identified the challenge this strategy poses to conventional state militaries stating: ‘Since fighting the weak is sordid by definition, over time the effect of such a struggle is to put the strong into an intolerable position.’[1] The kite and balloon attacks represent a new form of air power for insurgent groups which takes advantage of exactly this dynamic. As of now these attacks also provide a narrative victory to the militant groups allowing them to showcase in video and photo their ability to reach out and attack Israel. If the success of the balloon and kite attacks continues, we can safely assume they will spread. The more they are featured in regional media and militant media the more likely this is to happen.

So what options exist to counter this counter this new aerial threat? Thus far the IDF has looked to technological solutions deploying cheap commercial UAVs to bring down the kites and the balloons through physical contact. The Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that this has had mixed results. The IDF has recently deployed a new system called Sky Spotter. The IDF employs this electro-optical system, to identify and provide an alert of incoming attacks mitigating the damage caused. Sky Spotter also serves to guide defenders to the incoming targets. There are plans to equip Sky Spotter with a laser system or to the ability to autonomously vector mini-UAVs. In the meantime, with an increase in the threat, some Israeli officials have suggested targeting those launching the attacks, and the IAF has begun firing warning strikes near those launching the attacks. As previously noted this tactic is rife with problems.

Another possible solution might be retaliating against targets and in doing so establishing deterrence. Although this might work in the unique operating environment of Gaza it is doubtful it would be as possible if another insurgency adopts this new use of air power globally. Just as lookouts may be more useful for identifying incoming attacks from balloons and kites than more high-tech radar, so too might defeating the threat requiring an examination of the past for inspiration. In the past, the best air defence consisted of layers of surface to air missiles (SAMs) and gun systems. These balloon and kite attacks exploit the intellectual and perhaps, even technical space, below the threshold for the employment of SAMs. Kites and balloons are vulnerable to gunfire and integrating rapid firing weapons aimed and operated by humans might provide a solution to this threat. Even this is not without problems as it potentially risks causing inadvertent casualties due to inaccuracy. Regardless, until a solution is found, it is likely insurgents will continue to exploit the air domain not only by developing drones but by evolving from drones to balloons.

Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military Operations, War on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate.

Header Image: A missile from an Israeli Iron Dome, launched during the Operation Pillar of Defense to intercept a missile coming from the Gaza strip, c. 2012. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 176.