The Gaza campaign -- the air warGaza campaign highlights strength, limitations of air power

Published 8 January 2009

Israel’s air war over Gaza is impressive: astonishingly accurate intelligence, continuously updated by a fleet of UAVs; aerial-platform-acquired intelligence instantly overlaid on existing human intelligence; improved ISR systems shorten sensor-to-shooter loop; small infantry units to communicate directly with available aircraft to request rapid fire against a target

The heavy air strikes the Israeli air force (IAF) has inflicted on Hamas targets in the Gaza strip have, again, demonstrated two things: the effectiveness of air power, and the limits of air power — especially when used against a ground-based adversary.

FlightInternational’s Arie Egozi notes that the Israeli attack, which began on 27 December, was based on an extensive target bank compiled over several months using both technical means and human assets. The IAF is also using a fleet of UAVs to locate launchers used by Hamas fighters to fire home-made Kassam rockets and Iranian-made 122mm Grad rockets toward Israeli towns and cities up 40km away. Improvements in ISR systems made the Israeli UAV campaign especially effective (see 5 January 2009 HS Daily Wire). Egozi writes that the amassed intelligence data gave not only the exact location of targets, but updated information about their construction, enabling the air force to adopt the best weapon system to achieve a “first hit, first kill” result.

Hamas targets were attacked primarily using Lockheed Martin F-16s armed with a variety of precision weapons equipped with electro-optical, laser, and GPS guidance units. Television footage from the combat area shows that in many cases 907kg (2,000lb) Mk 84 bombs were used using Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition and Rafael Spice guidance kits.

The most vivid example of the quality of the intelligence which was used to prepare the target data came when in less than four minutes, several F-16s destroyed a great number of tunnels that were being used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the Gaza strip, the entrances to which were mostly concealed within buildings. Videos taken from sensors mounted on a variety of aerial platforms show secondary underground explosions along the tunnels’ paths, indicating that Hamas used the hundreds of tunnels it built not only to smuggle explosives and Iranian missiles and rockets, but also as underground storage facilities.

Pre-planned raids have formed only part of the operation, which had seen more than 1,000 combat sorties flown by today, 8 January. F-16s and Bell AH-1 Cobra and Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters have also been widely used in a round-the-clock hunt for launch teams. Demand for UAV, helicopter, and fighter cover also increased after Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza strip on 3 January, effectively splitting the territory in two. One of Israel’s operational innovation has been to allow even small infantry units to communicate directly with available aircraft to request rapid fire against a target — for example, to suppress snipers or address heavy mortar fire.

Hamas fighters rely on high levels of mortar fire to harass the Israeli forces, and this, in turn, has called for many hover-and-kill missions, in which attack helicopters circle above the combat area at high altitude before dropping to low level to engage their targets. Apaches have been filmed using weapons including Lockheed AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles during the conflict.

Israeli intelligence informed the military that Iran has supplied Hamas with a limited number of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, and, as a result, the IAF combat helicopters involved in the campaign have used flares in every mission.

By far the most impressive aspect of the conduct of the air war so far has been data fusion. It has facilitated the success of the Israeli raids and minimized “sensor-to-shooter” times. Egozi writes that combined control centers receive online inputs from airborne and ground sensors which are instantly overlaid on existing human intelligence, enabling the air force to track and destroy moving targets, such as trucks used to transport rockets from hiding places to launch sites, and to hunt for Hamas leadership targets.

Former Israeli air force commander Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Eitan Ben-Eliahu told Egozi that the air operation over Gaza has been characterized by very accurate intelligence, excellent command and control and co-ordination between the air force, ground forces and the Israeli navy. “This is a textbook operation if we look at the number of aerial attacks combined very closely with infantry and naval forces,” he says.

The operational brilliance of the Israeli air assault also highlights the limitations of air power against ground-based opponent who plays by different rules. It is usually the case that, in war, a nation uses its military to shield and defend the civilian population from the adversary’s attacks. Hamas does the opposite: It uses the Palestinian civilian population to shield Hamas fighters. Thus, Hamas builds its military positions and arms caches inside and under residential buildings, hospitals, schools, mosques, and the like. It places rocket launchers right next to schools and hospitals.

This means that short of Israel being willing to kill and wound thousands, if not tens of thousands, of civilians, there is no way for even the most accurate air power — or, for that matter, ground forces — completely to destroy Hamas units and their weapons.