Is Israel's Air Superiority in Danger?

The acquisition of modern aircraft and cutting-edge airborne systems by Middle Eastern countries and the changing modes of warfare present serious challenges to the Israeli Air Force. Exclusive review of the balance of aerial powers in the region


Photo: IDF

Fifty years ago, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) opened the Six-Day War by launching Operation Moked, which eliminated the aerial capabilities of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and even had an effect on the air power of Iraq. Since then, it was clear that Israel's national security relies, to a considerable extent, on her air superiority. Admittedly, this notion sustained a serious blow during the Yom-Kippur War of 1973, but the IAF drew the lessons, revised its operational doctrine and proved its renewed potential in several highly impressive operations: the attack against the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak, the attack against the PLO command center in Tunis, and the crowning achievement – Operation Artzav-19 in Lebanon, executed fifteen years after Operation Moked.

Since then, Israeli air superiority has been established and taken almost for granted, to the extent that pursuant to their dramatic defeat of 1982 in Lebanon, the Syrians gave up the attempt to seriously rehabilitate their air force. Since then, the Syrians acquired very few new aircraft and shifted their strategic from the air force to a "strategic balance" opposite Israel – achieved through an extensive surface-to-air missile layout instead of through an air force.

Since 1982, the IAF has continuously empowered itself: the F-4E Phantom (IAF designation "Kurnas"), F-15A Eagle (IAF designation "Baz") and F-16C Falcon (IAF designation "Netz") fighter aircraft of 1982 were gradually replaced by more advanced fighters: The F-16C/D "Barak", F-15I "Ra'am" and F-16I "Sufa" fighters. Just recently, the IAF started taking delivery of F-35A "Adir" fighters. In addition to the aircraft, the IAF acquired more advanced weaponry and enhanced intelligence gathering capabilities and has constantly revised and updated its operational doctrine to match the changing circumstances.

But can all of this last? Is there a danger that the IAF might lose its overwhelming qualitative advantage in the region? These questions arise every time arms deals involving other countries in the region become known publicly.

Israel's overwhelming air superiority should be measured with regard to several different dimensions and the aforementioned question should be answered accordingly. Firstly, we should examine the IAF's ability to defend the Israeli airspace against "traditional" threats, namely – the advanced strike aircraft of potential enemies. Secondly, we should examine the IAF's ability to operate freely in the skies of hostile countries in the region – either for the purpose of collecting intelligence or executing strike missions. Thirdly, we should examine the IAF's capability to operate opposite the primary threats currently facing Israel within the immediate theaters of operations.

The analysis below disregards the political aspect – the fact that Israel currently has formal peace agreements with two countries in the region, and informal relations with other countries, so the IAF is not expected to clash with the air forces of these countries within the foreseeable future. This analysis examines capabilities – not intentions.

Advanced Air Forces in the Region

Some of Israel's neighbors in the region are acquiring the best fighter aircraft available in the global market. Such air forces could, potentially, threaten Israel with the enhanced strike capabilities of the advanced fighter aircraft and precision munitions they are currently acquiring. On the other hand, such air forces can challenge the IAF and prevent it from flying over their territories, either for the purpose of performing strikes in their own territory or on the way to more distant objectives.

The aircraft arsenal currently available to various Middle Eastern countries and the recent arms deals that are currently being implemented highlight several points.

Syria: once the most severe threat facing Israel, the Syrian Air Force has not been regarded as a serious threat for quite some time. The Syrian Air Force, or what's left of it, is preoccupied with the civil war.

Today, the Syrian Air Force cannot be regarded as a serious threat. Iraq is not a relevant threat either. However, the Russian Air Force operates in Syria alongside the forces of Bashar al-Assad. Admittedly, the Russian expeditionary force is relatively small (in addition, heavy bombers arriving from distant bases also operate over Syria). Admittedly, reports indicated that some form of coordination exists between Israel and Russia, but the very presence of a foreign military power restricts the IAF's freedom of operation.

Iran: the air force of the Islamist republic is outdated and in any case, the distance between Israel and Iran renders the threat imposed by this air force negligible.

Egypt and the Gulf States: these countries possess sizable fleets of fighter aircraft that are among the most advanced models available in the global arms markets, along with cutting-edge weaponry systems.

All US presidents, since the 1970s to this day, pledged to maintain Israel's qualitative advantage. Accordingly, for example, no other country in the Middle East can purchase the F-35 fighter (but Israel has not objected to the latest arms deals between the USA and Saudi Arabia.

The Capabilities of the Region's Air Forces

All of the issues addressed above are dwarfed by the most important question – what is the true potential of each one of the air forces discussed and to what extent is it capable of implementing the capabilities acquired at such costs? Answering this question is by no means a simple undertaking, and the answer will never be unequivocal. The most important point, however, is the fact that the potential of a given air force depends less on technology and more on the human factor. The significant accomplishments of the Israeli Air Force may be attributed to a combination of creative thinking, extensive training, self-criticism and lesson drawing. No aerial operation may be executed without supporting systems – technical maintenance, logistics, intelligence, planning, command and control – skills that had also been developed on the basis of repeated drawing of lessons and the assimilation thereof through repeated drilling, training activities and exercises.

As far as we know – these particular fields of activity is where all of the air forces in the countries surrounding us are lacking. All of the Gulf States, for example, acquire weapon systems at particularly high prices, as along with the weapon systems they also acquire the entire technical maintenance and logistic support layout. Contractors perform all of the important tasks. These contractors will always follow the manufacturers' instructions. They will not be able to change the way they work according to doctrinal revisions. Contractors handle even the instruction and training activities, and these contractors, too, will be

reluctant to deviate even marginally from the procedures and methods they had brought with them from home. In an actual wartime situation – who knows whether they will be willing to stay?

Another point stressed many times by western observers with regard to Middle Eastern armed forces is the tendency to maintain a rigid hierarchical structure – which prevents creative thinking and freedom of operation within the lower echelons and makes it difficult to draw lessons.

Some of the countries in question acquire arms in large quantities, and one should wonder whether these countries will be able to recruit a sufficient number of local pilots to operate the systems they acquire (for example, reports have indicated that Qatar, a country of only about 300,000 citizens out of a population of 2.5 million, ordered 72 F-15 fighter aircraft).

Another unique difficulty facing the air forces of the region is the tendency of many countries – including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – to diversify their procurement sources. The consideration here is a political one, even though the economic and operational price is substantial. So for example, both the Egyptian Air Force and the air force of the United Arab Emirates will have US-made, French-made and Russian-made aircraft flying side by side. In Saudi Arabia, the air force will be flying US-made aircraft alongside British-made ones. Needless to say, aircraft from each country of origin have completely separate maintenance systems, and each aircraft type had been designed and built according to a different operational logic and carries different weaponry systems.

Taking all of these variables into account, the advanced technological capabilities acquired by the region's countries, by themselves, will not provide them with an actual ability for a possible clash against the Israeli Air Force.

Air-Defense Layouts

In addition to air forces, all of the countries in this region possess air-defense layouts made up of surveillance Radars and surface-to-air missile systems. These systems are likely to restrict the freedom of operation of the IAF should it be interested in operating in these countries – but technological evolution on the defensive side goes hand in hand with technological evolution on the offensive side, so there is no doubt that the IAF will be able to cope with these systems if and when the need arises.

The Evolution of Warfare

As long as we dealt with an analysis of aerial systems of the old, familiar categories – an air force facing another air force, an air force facing air-defense layouts – it was obvious that eventually, the massive procurement plans being implemented throughout the region notwithstanding, the superiority of the Israeli Air Force seems to be assured.

However, this analysis does not represent the last few confrontations in which Israel was involved, and the confrontations in which Israel is expected to be involved in the future. The primary enemies facing Israel today are organizations that have no air forces to speak of, and even their air-defense layouts are almost non-existent – Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and various forces sponsored either by ISIS or by Iran, operating in Syria.

These elements realized, a long time ago, that they are unable to challenge the IDF using tools similar to those used by the IDF, so they opted for a different type of warfare: massive employment of artillery rockets and surface-to-surface missiles, extensive use of precision Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM), extensive utilization of the subterranean medium and using the civilian space for cover and concealment. At the same time, these enemies employ all of the technological resources currently available off-the-shelf – resources that only twenty years ago were only available to the most technologically-advanced states: good resolution satellite images from Google Earth for spotting targets, satellite-based navigation systems (GPS, etc.) and similar resources.

All of these resources, which some elements within the IDF have named "The Spherical Space" – have completely changed the characteristics of the operations the air force will be required to perform. The IAF will be required to engage targets located inside densely-populated civilian areas 'surgically' and very accurately. The intelligence organs, which in the past were called upon to provide information regarding dozens or hundreds of targets (military installations, airbases and so forth) are currently required to provide information about tens of thousands of targets, which could include a specific apartment inside a specific building. The intelligence organs are also required to provide real-time information about the presence of uninvolved parties in the target area, and the IAF is required to avoid engaging these uninvolved parties to the maximum extent possible.

Moreover, the fact that a substantial portion of the operational activity has gone into the subterranean medium seriously restricts the ability of the IAF to influence these enemy assets. The concealment, dispersal and the use of underground systems led to a situation where the strength of the IAF produces effects that are less and less decisive, and the results are less and less conclusive. For example, when we conclude the Second Lebanon War of 2006, or the various operations in the Gaza Strip, we tend to speak in terms of deterrence. The achievement we refer to is the fact that for more than ten years, Hezbollah has not dared operating against Israel. We already take for granted, however, the fact that the IAF is unable to prevent and stop the launching of rockets and missiles, even after 50 days of fighting.

A new situation has emerged, where the air power of Israel, as we know it today – although still highly important – is becoming less and less relevant. The air power that once enabled us to win wars is evolving into a tool for managing and maintaining difficult strategic situations, but on the new battlefield it can no longer decide the outcome of military operations.


Yiftah Shapir is a senior research fellow with the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) and the Head of the INSS Middle East Balance project


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