The Air War Over Hezbollah

Sept. 1, 2006

Washington, D.C., Aug. 13, 2006

“‘Airpower’ Assumptions Shot Down Over Lebanon,” read a provocative headline on an Aug. 2 Reuters news agency dispatch from Israel.

In recent years, said the story, experts had believed that heavy use of airpower was the surest way to win a war. Yet the vaunted Israeli Air Force did not achieve victory over Hezbollah, it noted.

Reuters did not say the IAF was without value, only that its failure to halt the Shiite militia’s missile attacks had “cast doubt” on the whole “theory” of airpower.

If such drivel were to become conventional wisdom—and a recent outpouring of copycat media commentaries suggests it’s possible—the collateral damage could extend far beyond the Mideast.

The US Air Force might suffer associated blowback. The war in Lebanon, which blazed up on July 12, has emboldened USAF critics to challenge airpower anew, in part because of similarities between the US and Israeli air forces.

The IAF’s 21 fighter squadrons feature F-15s and F-16s and USAF precision weapons. The two air arms employ similar tactics. Any perceived weakness in one, the thinking goes, could indicate a weakness in the other.

In reality, the IAF has not shown weakness. To the contrary, it has demonstrated, to anyone willing to see, tremendous power.

IAF pilots cut Syrian and Iranian resupply routes to Hezbollah. They destroyed huge swaths of militia infrastructure. They choked off escape routes and killed hundreds of fighters. They bombed senior leadership. They supplied critical aerial reconnaissance.

What, then, could the critics be talking about

The main claim seems to be that Israeli airpower did not prove to be “decisive.” Precisely what is this supposed to mean—that IAF did not, all by itself, defeat the entrenched, highly organized Hezbollah fighters, who had six years to prepare heavily protected positions

If that is the standard, no modern military service anywhere would pass the test. One might ask the critics: When was the last time the Israeli Army won a war all by itself? Or the US Army

Moreover, the IAF wasn’t working solo. Columnist Charles Krauthammer might blast Israel for “foolishly relying on airpower alone,” but Israeli artillery, special operations forces, and Navy units were engaged from the beginning.

Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres (a former Defense Minister) told Newsweek’s Lally Weymouth on Aug. 6 that Jerusalem planned “to use airpower and ground power for different reasons.”

Said Peres: “We used the airpower to bomb the headquarters of Hezbollah, … and then we decided to destroy their communication systems. … Now we are using ground forces [to hit the fighters] because they hide weapons in private homes and villages.”

Some would deny Israeli airpower the “decisive” label because, in their view, its contributions were marginal. It’s a hard sell, however.

The Jerusalem Post of Aug. 6 reported that, over the war’s first 26 days, the IAF flew 8,700 sorties and struck 4,600 targets. These included 260 Hezbollah headquarters and command buildings, 60 bunkers, 70 weapons warehouses, 30 Hezbollah infrastructure targets, 90 rocket launchers, 50 bridges on Hezbollah’s lines of communication, and more than 100 vehicles suspected of hauling rockets or guerrillas.

“We bombed the road from Syria to Lebanon so they won’t be able to send rockets in,” Peres said, “and we bombed the runways [in Beirut] so Iranian planes will not bring in resupplies.”

IAF struck 1,200 missile launch sites and the roads leading to them. In the first two days of war it eliminated a large part of Hezbollah’s medium-range and long-range missile force (though thousands of mobile short-range Katyusha rockets remained).

Then there is the matter of civilian casualties, a problem characterized by various talking heads as the wages of reliance on airpower. Cited as Exhibit A was the IAF’s July 30 attack on the town of Qana, which killed 28 Lebanese. Jerusalem claimed Hezbollah used the town as a missile launch site.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a boots-on-the-ground stalwart, blamed the attack on “an over-reaction by the Israeli Air Force.” Scales’ contempt for airpower is clear but illogical. Does he really believe a full-scale Israeli invasion would produce fewer civilian deaths? Everyone else knows a meat-grinder ground offensive would be far worse.

These critiques of Israeli air operations are reminiscent of those that followed US Air Force successes in the 1991 Gulf War, 1995 Balkan War, 1999 Air War Over Serbia, 2001 war in Afghanistan, and 2003 war in Iraq.

In those cases, some Army partisans argued that “boots on the ground,” not aircraft and precision strike, contributed most to US victory. Now, as then, what is at stake are force structure, budget shares, and more.

At this writing, Israel and Lebanon were moving toward a UN-sponsored cessation of hostilities. The war has been waged for a full month. Israel estimated that Hezbollah had 13,000 rockets at the start, and these weapons continued to rain down on cities and towns of northern Israel.

Plainly, the IAF’s air campaign did not defeat the Hezbollah missile threat. Nor, it must be added, was that goal achieved by Israel’s ground forces. Jerusalem had some 10,000 troops in the field for several weeks. Progress was been steady, but slow.

This does not change the fact that Hezbollah has been dealt a blow from which it is not likely to recover any time soon. Airpower gets a big part of the credit.

It is outrageous to imply that modern airpower is some kind of theory. It is a fact. It may not be sufficient by itself, or “decisive” as that word is strictly defined. Yet when all is said and done, it will be seen that airpower achieved quite a lot.