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reflections

Jul 26, 2006 | 09:47 GMT

Geopolitical Diary: The Debate Over Israel's Air War

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
We heard the first rumbles of discontent from inside Israel on Tuesday. The complaints are muted and most decidedly do not come from an anti-war faction. Rather, the complaints originated from a few retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers and intelligence officials who would normally be fairly quiet during a crisis. The mere fact that we are picking up these discordant tones indicates to us that the unease is more widespread than it would appear and likely reflects growing tensions in the IDF. The complaints revolve around the strategy the IDF has pursued over the past weeks. Rather than pursuing a more traditional IDF course of coordinating airstrikes with intense mobile operations on the ground, the Israelis have chosen a strategy that has focused on an intense air campaign — and which some say is trying to deal with Hezbollah almost exclusively from the air. In some ways, they say, the current operation is more in keeping with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's view of the uses of air power and technology than with Israeli military tradition. The argument is that air power cannot deal effectively with Hezbollah, that the failure to suppress rocket fire indicates this, and that the open-ended nature of an air campaign conflicts with Israel's diplomatic and strategic realities. One report that reached us was that Hezbollah is able to fire its rockets only when F-16s are not in range, since the rocket sites would be spotted and suppressed rapidly. Our first response was to dismiss this on the assumption that Israel must be maintaining a continual combat air patrol over Lebanon. But that does not appear to be entirely the case. Given the number of sorties the Israeli air force (IAF) is flying and the number of targets it must hit, there appear to be substantial periods of time when aircraft are not available for counterstrikes. Hence, the rockets keep coming. These complaints are directed at Gen. Dan Halutz, the IDF chief of staff. He also is the first IAF commander to be given the top military post, which traditionally is held by an army general. Halutz, like all air force commanders, believes not only in the utility of air power, but that air power properly applied can break a ground force. This is an old, old argument between armies and air forces everywhere, and it is to be expected that retirees schooled in the old ways will be upset by Halutz's strategy. Nevertheless, the rumbles have significant implications. The argument against Halutz goes this way. First, assuming the best case, there is no evidence that an air campaign by itself can shatter Hezbollah. Second, even if in some theoretical sense such a thing were possible, the IAF does not have the resources to do the job. There are just too few planes and too many targets to hit. Moreover, Hezbollah anticipated Israeli air superiority, knew it would not be able to move nor resupply, and has had years to prepare logistically for the war. Lines of supply cannot be cut, because they do not exist; and Hezbollah has a highly distributed command system, so decapitating it achieves nothing. The other side of this criticism is that it is time for the army to move in. The argument is that at this point, the air force has done all it will be able to do and is reaching the point of diminishing returns. The cost of waiting is that international opinion is turning against an air campaign that inevitably hits unacceptable targets; that the pressure for a cease-fire will build; and that when the ground campaign is finally launched, it will be under a time pressure it need not have, which will cause greater risk-taking and casualties. It would be nice for the Israelis if the air campaign could do the job itself, as it would mean fewer Israeli casualties, but the air force is operating without a criterion of failure — it asserts that the strategy will work over time, but gives no indication when. Israel is a small country, and retired officers and intelligence officials are in continual contact with those on active duty. We don't know, but have to assume, that this debate is now going on in the Israeli Defense Ministry and among the IDF staff. Halutz wants to continue the air campaign and hold the army, and the army is demanding to be cut loose. It does not want to do attritional, small-unit warfare in south Lebanon. We do not know how this argument is playing out, but there is a decision that ultimately will have to be made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Now, bear in mind that retired Israeli officials can and will like anything if it is in the national interest. All of this sudden chatter about dissatisfaction may simply be disinformation designed to throw Hezbollah off guard. Perhaps — but we suspect not. It rings true, given traditional Israeli doctrine and Halutz's introduction of a new untested doctrine — and the fact that, to this point, the IAF has not succeeded while public opinion around the world, which had been mildly pro-Israeli at the beginning of the campaign, is turning against it. Plus, there are an awful lot of soldiers sitting around and waiting, draining the economy. We expect this is a real split, and its outcome will determine the shape of this war from the Israeli side. In the meantime, Hezbollah seems to be holding together, resisting where attacked on the ground. We do not know what effect the bombing is having on it, but there is no sign of disintegration. Hezbollah is playing the game it dealt the cards for and seems, for the moment, content.
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Geopolitical Diary: The Debate Over Israel's Air War
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