The Second Lebanon War - the Aerial Perspective

At the end of the Second Lebanon War, the general impression was that only the IAF met expectations. The conclusions and lessons from the war during which the IAF executed 19,000 sorties in 34 days of fighting
The Second Lebanon War - the Aerial Perspective

IAF helicopter (Photo: IDF)

Operation Peace for Galilee of 1982 was the last overbalance operation of the IDF (there are those who describe Operation Defensive Shield against the Palestinians in the West Bank in 2002 as an overbalance operation, but the role played by IAF in that operation was marginal). Since then, the State of Israel has been conducting mainly reprisal, deterrence and enforcement operations, intended to retain the status-quo and stabilize the security situation. This reality, along with the technological progress and the cultural characteristics of western society in the present era, have led to the dominance of the fire effort in the context of the use of force, mainly through the use of air power, and that was the case during the Second Lebanon War as well.

From "Just Reward" to "Change of Direction"

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah launched an extensive attack which included the abduction of two IDF soldiers and massive fire aimed at Israel's northern settlements. On the following day, a General Staff plan for an operation in Lebanon codenamed "Sakhar Holem" (= Just Reward) was hastily prepared and approved. That plan was updated as the operation unfolded, and the codename was subsequently changed to "Shinui Kivun" (= Change of Direction), but its strategic framework remained similar. The plan disseminated to the forces was based on a contingency plan codenamed "Shoveret HaKerach" (= The Icebreaker), in which the primary effort relied on the employment of air power. Based on an extensive range of documents and testimonies, the most prominent of which was the report issued by the Winograd Commission, Israel's objectives for the operation may be summed up as follows: to bring about a change in the security situation and lift the terrorist threat imposed by Hezbollah out of Lebanon on the State of Israel by devising new rules and changing the balance of deterrence vis-à-vis Hezbollah; to restrict Hezbollah's freedom of operation, to inflict a substantial blow to its capabilities and status; to enhance (Israel's) regional deterrence by demonstrating the price of aggression against Israel; to motivate Lebanon to apply its sovereignty in its entire territory and impose restrictions on Hezbollah, including the removal of Hezbollah's posts along the border followed by the Lebanese Army deploying in southern Lebanon; to call in international involvement in order to enforce the relevant UN resolutions and the ceasefire mechanism (based on UN Resolution 1559) and finally – to create the conditions for the return of the abducted soldiers.

Several constraints and restrictive conditions were specified for the operation, notably: keeping casualties among the combat elements to an absolute minimum; avoiding a large-scale war in Lebanon, particularly against Syria; no Israeli presence to remain in Lebanon after the end of the confrontation; maintaining Israel's international legitimacy and maintaining the legitimacy of the operation among the Israeli public.

The operational concept of IDF was based on immediate action with a strength that would exceed all expectations and engaging Hezbollah directly (from the outset of the operation, the political echelon forbade IDF to intentionally damage the infrastructures of the Lebanese state). The intention was to exert increasing pressure on the Lebanese government to exercise its responsibility, restrain Hezbollah and invite international organizations to implement a stable arrangement in Lebanon, while maintaining readiness for a large-scale, prolonged operation and preparing for sustainment in the rear area.

550 Sorties per Day

The opening move of the war was a concentrated aerial effort intended to create shock & awe for the purpose of lifting the strategic threat imposed by Hezbollah and demonstrating the change in Israel's policy. This move, aimed mainly against Hezbollah's long and medium range rocket arsenal, was surprising owing to its strength, timing, scope, pace and accuracy. Subsequently, IAF performed an extensive range of missions such as strikes against Hezbollah's C2 layout and infrastructures, including attacks against symbolic Hezbollah objectives in the Dahiyeh neighborhood of Beirut, interdiction of logistic convoys and attempts to hunt and disrupt the launching of short-range surface-to-surface rockets. Additionally, IAF cooperated with the ground move, which consisted primarily of a limited ground maneuver in the form of 'raids', by executing close air support missions using fighter aircraft and attack helicopters, as well as airborne resupply and medical evacuation missions. In addition to intelligence gathering, IAF also executed missions that had an indirect effect, such as propaganda operations intended, among other things, to warn the civilian population and motivate the Shi'ites to escape from the south to the north, along with an aerial and naval blockade. It should be noted that IAF was required, for the first time, to prepare for the aerial blockade mission – a concept the legal and operational aspects of which had not been clarified sufficiently, as opposed to the well-known naval blockade mission. The scope of operation of IAF was unprecedented compared to Israel's past wars. In 34 days of fighting, some 19,000 sorties were flown, an average of about 550 sorties per day, more than half of which were performed by fighter aircraft. The majority of the air strikes were aimed at stationary targets and the minority were intended as support for the ground effort. Many flight hours were allocated to intelligence gathering missions. 36% of all munitions fired were precision-guided munitions.

"The Bombing Contractor of the IDF"

IAF lost 8 aircraft during the operation: one F-16 fighter whose pilot ejected during take-off, two Apache attack helicopters that collided while holding over Israeli territory, one Apache Longbow attack helicopter that disintegrated in mid-air over Israel owing to a technical failure, one CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy transport helicopter shot down by enemy antitank fire and 3 UAVs that crashed owing to technical failures and an operator's error.

At the end of the war, the general impression, to a considerable extent, was that only IAF lived up to the expectations. The Winograd Commission determined that IAF had gained some most impressive achievements and had demonstrated exceptional capabilities during the war. At the same time, the Commission stressed that IAF excelled particularly in the execution of missions that had been planned in advance. The criticism aimed at it pertained to the strategic-systemic level primarily. The Commission defined it as "A weakness in strategic thinking". In 2006, IAF had not yet developed the operational concept of a system engaged in comprehensive strategic thinking and possessing a long-term planning capability. IAF was unable to break free of its role as the "bombing contractor of IDF".

Operation "Mishkal Seguli" (= Specific Gravity) at the outset of the war did reflect the IAF's flexibility and ability to amass a force quickly in order to execute a surprising massive attack based on high-quality intelligence. This operation, which was somewhat similar to Operation "Moked" at the opening of the Six-Day War (1967), helped shape the mode of operation that IDF would follow in the coming years. This unofficial mode of operation includes a powerful and surprising opening strike intended to create an effect of shock and awe on the enemy's side. However, the main problem with the operational planning by IDF generally and by IAF in particular stemmed from the fact that the effect created by the opening strike was not taken advantage of for the benefit of an operative effort or for exerting diplomatic leverage with the purpose of implementing a potential mechanism for ending the confrontation.

The aspect of combined-arms operations and interoperability turned out to be one of the primary failures in the employment of force during this operation. Prior to the operation, IAF had not attended any in-depth brainstorming and planning sessions with the General Staff or IDF Northern Command. During the operation in Lebanon, each arm executed its missions almost independently. The missions had been planned separately and the options for combined-arms operations involving a supporting element and an element being supported were hardly utilized.

One of the mission categories that had not been planned and was not sufficiently pursued is target acquisition and "hunting" during the actual combat operations, despite the fact that at the end of the fighting, this mission category recorded a high level of achievement relative to the expectations. The factor that made a decisive contribution to the successful execution of this mission category was the massive employment of the IAF's UAV layout.

A Production Line of Operations

The operation of IAF throughout the war had all the characteristics of an industrial production line. The intelligence elements collected and classified as many targets as possible and processed them into a series of air strikes. The attacking aircraft received support from command centers at IDF Northern Command and in Tel-Aviv. The decision latitude of the pilots was extremely restricted. The results of the strikes were hastily collected and processed. The key concepts of that activity were target intelligence, effectiveness, accuracy, speed and mainly "output". Apparently, for the Israeli Air Force, as of the Second Lebanon War, "Strike Output" became a major value in planning and a primary criterion for evaluating the actual achievement. The number of targets being attacked became the objective for investment of collection and execution resources, largely at the expense of the actual value of the targets.

Another field of activity where a setback was recorded in the employment of air power was close air support. The excessive cautiousness and minimum altitude limitation imposed serious restrictions on the pilots' performance, their ability to identify the targets and maintain their aim. In this operation, citations were awarded mainly to helicopter pilots who challenged and defied their restrictive orders and executed casualty evacuation missions even under enemy fire.

In the context of a more comprehensive analysis of the operation, there were those who argued that Israel's primary failure in this war is to be found in the field of deterrence (for example, the book "The First Israel-Hezbollah Missile War" by Isaac Ben-Israel). On the other hand, there were those who argued that Israel did, indeed, consolidate its deterrence opposite its enemies generally and opposite Hezbollah in particular (E. N. Luttwak, "Misreading the Lebanon War," 2006). This claim relied primarily on Nasrallah's admission that he would not have acted against Israel had he known that it would respond in the manner that it did, and generally on the very fact that Israel had 'broken the rules' by responding with massive (some even say disproportionate) fire and by initiating a major ground maneuver toward the end of the war.

IDF altered the reality where it had "contained" events and embarked on an all-out operation in response to the attack by Hezbollah. By doing so, Israel demonstrated that it was willing to risk its soldiers and civilians and invest considerable resources in response to an attack against it, even if the attack was not conceived as a tangible existential threat. This operation led Israel to adopt a concept of unwillingness to sustain and restrain and established a state of moral and physical preparedness for the realization that next time, the response would be even more powerful and severe (a message that was stressed later on in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead). In fact, the Israeli operation dismantled the strategic logic of Hezbollah that had regarded its firepower as a factor that deterred Israel. However, IDF were unable to stop the launching of short-range rockets, which continued until the very end of the war without being affected in any way by the Israeli air strikes. During the war, Hezbollah launched some 4,000 rockets into Israeli territory.

Everyday routine in northern Israel and along the Lebanese border changed noticeably since the operation in the summer of 2006. Despite the realization that the present tranquil reality is potentially explosive, the time that has passed with no significant terrorist attacks initiated by Hezbollah is an unprecedented phenomenon. However, many Israelis still conceive the Second Lebanon War as a 'missed opportunity'. The general public shared a strong sense of disappointment and frustration at the achievements of the operation and the manner in which the national leaders had prepared the country for war and the manner in which they conducted the war itself. For many Israelis it was a frequently disappointing demonstration of the limitations of military strength in general and air power in particular.

Generally, the Second Lebanon War served as a wake-up call for IDF and IAF regarding the gaps they still had to deal with. Among other things, the need to inflict an extensive advance blow to the enemy leadership was clarified, along with the difficulties associated with the fulfillment of this need. The necessary development of solutions for the short-range rocket threat challenge and for combat operations in densely-populated and thick foliage areas as well as in the subterranean medium became highly acute. 


This article was co-written by Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Rodnik

This is an excerpt from a comprehensive study by the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies on the subject of "The Israeli Air Force and the Asymmetrical Confrontations". The complete study will be published in early 2017, in the context of a project dealing with "The Role of Air Power in Modern Operations", by US Naval Institute Press.


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