The Strategic Value of Israel’s Air Force

“Missiles launched.”

With these simple words from Israeli Air Force fighter pilots to air operations control, the mission’s climax begins. Within three minutes, precise hits are confirmed at each of three separate high-value terror targets in the Gaza Strip.

Less than five minutes since IDF intelligence verified their location, terrorist leaders are eliminated with minimal collateral damage.

So began Israel’s May operations in the Gaza Strip, dealing an immediate, debilitating blow to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). While that in itself was important, the greater significance of these operations should not be underestimated.

Air power is considered a powerful instrument, but a blunt one. It can be too destructive and too indiscriminate. It is certainly not subtle. Even when its use is unquestionably justified, the resulting destruction may invite international criticism and perpetuate civilian grievances.

Terrorists engaged in asymmetric conflicts with conventional militaries exploit the aforementioned limitations of air power, intentionally embedding their strategic assets within urban areas and civilian populations, thus rendering air power a largely tactical asset. Until now.

However, Israel’s newly demonstrated rapid pinpoint attack capability for fighting urban-based and civilian-embedded terror from the air is transforming the strategic impact of air power. Israel’s experience should prove useful to its allies confronting civilian-embedded militias or other forms of irregular warfare.

Israel’s capabilities are the culmination of a decade-long process in which it has developed the capabilities necessary to fight from the air against terrorist organizations operating in dense urban spaces.

Entirely from the air – and with minimal consequences for civilians, Israel has eliminated top commanders of the terrorist organizations; degraded or destroyed their arms production and storage capabilities; destroyed their underground infrastructure; and prevented their operations of rocket, suicide drone and/or anti-tank missile squads.

Those successes are owed to advances and technological developments in the unique, joint targeting/intelligence, and precision attack capabilities of Israel’s Air Force, its military intelligence, and the IDF’s Southern Command.

Quality intelligence tailored to Air Force requirements is a precondition to operational success. To that end, Israel collects data with an array of sensors – including airborne ones – and methods. The value of all this disparate information has been amplified by Israel’s development of powerful computer processing and artificial intelligence.

These tools integrate the collected data to give the military a clear, real-time picture, not only of targets for attack but even the enemy’s operational intentions and capabilities.

Thus, Israel can prepare with confidence for both surgical offensive operations and optimal defensive plans. These information technologies are being refined still further to provide an unprecedented level of intelligence and clarity.

The Air Force has also developed a variety of innovative operational capabilities to fight terror from the air, including those tailored to combat units, special forces, helicopters, air defenses, and UAVs. Across all sectors, these many developments have been in the singular pursuit and refinement of a primary goal: accuracy – to the point of unparalleled precision.

This rigorous precision ethic goes beyond the technological. Every sector of Israel’s armed forces has incorporated the culture of precision into its mission planning, always improving its capabilities through experience, testing, performance experiments, and studies.

In the Air Force itself that extends across the board to the performance of pilots, intelligence, ground crews, and controllers.

Adding cutting-edge technology facilitates the rapid sharing of accurate information, allowing for the ready adaptation of offensive attacks to the characteristics of specific targets. That allows Israel to calibrate its attacks using the minimum force necessary to achieve its aims, which, in turn, spares the lives and property of non-combatants to the maximum extent possible.

Qualitative edge of Israeli airforce results in low civilian casualties

The payoff from Israel’s commitment to such precision is the remarkably low civilian casualty ratios and levels of collateral infrastructure damage that have become standard in recent conflicts.

As Israel already operates in often-hostile diplomatic environments, these steps can only help strengthen the international legitimacy of its operations. But they matter domestically, too. Israel’s precision air capability lowers the risks to Israel’s own ground forces by sparing them from dangerous entry into urban terror centers.

The combination of these factors allows politicians greater space and freedom in decision-making while avoiding domestic and international political tripwires.

In effect, Israel’s commitment to precision and its revolution in intelligence processing operate as force multipliers. Israel’s precise, lethal air operations are demonstrations to Israel’s enemies, which significantly bolster Israel’s deterrence. Furthermore, such precise capabilities from the air should keep engagements shorter and reduce civilian bloodshed, enhancing Israel’s ability to accomplish its operational goals prior to international community interference.

Other Western countries also concerned with military morality and the preservation of civilian lives should appreciate the implications of Israel’s latest advances. Air power, formerly an essentially tactical capability of sometimes-limited use (such as in urban settings) has now evolved substantially to have a vastly increased strategic impact.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amikam Norkin, the recently retired commander of the IAF, is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Abe Katsman is a Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.