Some Optimism, for a Change

In the last few days a fleet of explosive and incendiary balloons and kites have floated over our border fence with Gaza to land in Sderot, Ashdod, and other spots. Nobody has been hurt yet, but these devices are attractive to children. It’s only a matter of time before they claim their first human victims (over the summer, incendiary devices burned fields all over southern Israel, destroying crops and killing countless animals). The IDF bombed a Hamas installation in retaliation. They made sure nobody was there to be hurt.

The new laser weapon – the “ray gun” I’ve been waiting for since the days of Flash Gordon movies – apparently isn’t operational yet. A version of it is expected to be able to burn the balloons and kites out of the air before they cross our border. It will also be usable against rockets and mortar shells, so it will be an adjunct to the Iron Dome system, our insanely expensive defense against cheap rockets. The laser is affected by weather conditions and has other limitations, so it can’t entirely replace Iron Dome.

Israel has a layered anti-missile defense system which includes Iron Dome, the Patriot missile, the Arrow and Arrow III, David’s Sling, and soon the newly developed laser devices. Iron Dome has recently been improved, and is even more effective than its previous 90% success rate.

Effective anti-missile systems are a part of our deterrent strategy. The theory says that if the enemy knows that their attack won’t achieve much, they won’t try to attack us – at least today. Of course, it’s well known that improvements in offensive and defensive weapons and tactics follow upon one another. The longbow, machine gun, tank, and aircraft all changed the face of warfare, as well as giving birth to technologies to counter them.

It seems as though nobody is as good at creating defensive systems as Israel. And of course they are important. It doesn’t matter that we have the capability of turning southern Lebanon into  a wasteland if Hezbollah can destroy our major cities and infrastructure while we are doing it. Defensive systems keep us alive while the offensive ones defeat the enemy and win the war.

But there needs to be a balance, both technologically and strategically. Do we have the offensive capabilities to defeat our enemies? And will we use them?

Today those enemies are Iran and her proxies. Our nuclear deterrent, assuming that there is such a thing, would not be employed except in the worst possible situation, when our country is in danger of being overrun or being attacked with weapons of mass destruction. So I will leave this out of the discussion.

Our ground forces are small compared to the number of fighters that Hamas and the PA (I am assuming they will act on behalf of Iran in the event of war), Lebanese Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, and possibly others (e.g., the ISIS militia in the Sinai) can deploy against us. In a multi-front war our forces would be spread thinly. Our experience in the 2006 Lebanon War showed that we can’t discount Hezbollah’s ability to fight and even to surprise us with effective tactics. Many of their fighters have been seasoned by fighting in Syria. We can assume that Iran will do its best to supply them with effective weapons.

Our air force is probably the best in the world (or almost – the only competition is the USAF), but it will be up against sophisticated Russian antiaircraft systems like the S-300 and possibly the S-400, which will limit its ability to fly everywhere, at least until we can destroy the batteries. Even when we have command of the air, it will not be easy to find and destroy all the rocket launchers that will be pummeling our home front, as we discovered in 2006. We will need to operate over Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and possibly Iraq and Iran (which is near the limit of the range of our manned aircraft).

Of course, nothing I said above is unknown to our military planners. They will have developed or are developing answers to the S-300 and S-400. Manned aircraft and pilots are a scarce resource, and Israel is coming to rely more and more on drones, which have long ranges and are much cheaper – Israel builds them herself – than manned aircraft. I suspect that in the next war, drones will become even more important, and Israel’s superiority in this area will be decisive in the future.

One area in which we are deficient compared to our enemies is rockets and missiles. Israel has chosen to invest more heavily in manned aircraft and drones, which offer greater precision in targeting – and also allow missions to be cancelled at the last moment to reduce collateral damage. Most of the rockets in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas are so inaccurate that they are only useful as terror weapons against civilian populations.

Israel has also invested in naval systems, mostly in a defensive role. Now that we have offshore gas platforms, resources must also be allocated to protect them, which include ships and anti-missile systems.

Our enemies can be expected to attack us at what they believe to be our weakest points. That means to attack our home front and to try to create casualties among our ground forces, since they believe that they can win by destroying our will to fight. We can expect ground incursions into our territory. One important tactic for us will be to integrate smaller armed drones with ground forces, so that they can provide their own pinpoint air support.

Thinking more strategically: today we are in a defensive mode. We are trying to avoid civilian and military casualties, while developing our capabilities – defensive and offensive – and finishing infrastructure projects, like the tunnel barrier on the border with Gaza. We are not interested in hot war at this point, because there are weapons to develop and deploy, infrastructure to build, even flooded aircraft to repair. The generals always want a little more time.

On the other hand, our enemies aren’t standing still. And here comes the optimism: they weren’t, until recently. With the death of Soleimani, the pressure of sanctions, the revolt of the masses who are sick of the corrupt, oppressive, and – what else can I say, stupid – regime, the Iranian programs to project power in Iraq and Syria, to introduce precision-guided missiles into Lebanon, and to develop nuclear weapons, are stalled.

At the same time, the friendly administration in the US has taken some of the pressure off of us. During the previous one, I would get up every day and ask “how are they going to try to hurt us and help our enemies today?” That is no longer true.

The killing of Soleimani was a psychological watershed for me. For the first time, I think I can say that time is on our side. I even sometimes allow myself to entertain the thought that the Iranian people will succeed in throwing off their chains and we will not need to fight that next war after all.

Sometimes. But we live in interesting times. The next administration in Washington could make Barack Obama look like Theodor Herzl. War could start by accident. A revolution in Egypt could change all our equations. We don’t know, so we must be prepared for anything. At some point we will have to go over from defense to offense. I’m sure our generals understand this. I hope they do. Defense is important, but doesn’t win wars.

At a time like this, wouldn’t it be nice to have an actual government?

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One Response to Some Optimism, for a Change

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    As always a rich informative analysis. I also sense that the cutting off the head of the snake in this case might be a real turning point. This combined with the economic pressure on the regime may lead even the fanatic mullahs to understand that more resources must be concentrated at home. The hope that this will lead to regime change is the real dream for this seems to be the only way the total military confrontation can be avoided.

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