Israel and the precision-guided missile threat
The emergence of pinpoint precision-guided rockets and missiles on the battlefield is a turning point in the history of warfare. This is because they provide terror organisations and non-government militias with the means to achieve air superiority without operating any combat aircraft.
Air superiority means having access to hostile airspace while denying the enemy access to friendly airspace. It provides its possessor with the freedom of action to strike the enemy at will. This freedom of action is achieved through conventional airpower by suppressing the hostile air force and neutralising the enemy’s ground-based air defences.
Every campaign in World War II opened with a bid for air superiority. The Third Reich’s Luftwaffe (airforce) succeeded in achieving this in Poland, Norway, and France, bringing about the swift defeat of those armies and the overrunning and occupation of those national territories by Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve air superiority over Britain, leading to the cancellation of Hitler’s planned invasion of the British Isles (“Operation Sea Lion”).
In 1967, Israel opened the Six-Day War with Operation Focus, which obliterated the air forces of Egypt and Syria. The purpose of this operation was twofold: to deny the enemy’s capability to strike Israel’s territory and armed forces from the air; and to provide an umbrella for the IDF’s offensive, which ultimately defeated the opposing land forces.
In Operation Mole Cricket 19 during the opening stage of the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israel Air Force gained full air supremacy over Syria and Lebanon, thus largely knocking Syria’s ground forces out of the war.
Since the early 20th century, when flying machines evolved from rich men’s toys into lethal weapons of war, all the world’s armies have invested heavily in countering the threat from the air.
Initially, such efforts were focused on access denial; in other words, preventing hostile aircraft from collecting visual intelligence about friendly troop dispositions and blocking hostile bombing of troops and cities. The response was the perfection and deployment of integrated air defences that relied on interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery (later replaced by ground-to-air missiles). The Battle of Britain was the first victory of this access denial strategy, with Britain managing to combine radar, fighter aircraft, and fire control centres into the first modern integrated air defence system.
Later on during WWII, when Britain’s integrated air defence became virtually impenetrable to the Nazi Luftwaffe, the Germans conceived the idea of bombing by missile rather than by aircraft. Since the air defences of the time were unable to intercept missiles plunging at supersonic speeds, ballistic missiles promised the penetrability that conventional bomber aircraft had lost.
This marked a major shift. In making this adjustment, Germany achieved the essence if not the form of classic air superiority – namely, the freedom to strike the enemy’s territory at will – with no loss of aircraft or pilots.
While Germany’s ballistic and cruise missiles wreaked havoc and killed thousands in Britain and later in Belgium, their poor accuracy prevented them from changing the course of the war. The disproportion between the immense effort of the Germans in developing, building, deploying and launching the missiles – a brilliant technical achievement – and their minimal impact on the war was internalised by all post-war military establishments, including the IDF. The expression “Missiles and rockets don’t win wars” blinded Israel for years to the looming missile threat.
Between WWI and WWII, several air forces – particularly the British and American – worked to achieve the second goal of air superiority, that of gaining access to enemy airspace with fleets of strategic bombers. During WWII, strategic bombing by swarms of heavy bombers caused unimaginable damage to German cities and killed at least one million civilians, but the effect on the course of the war is still up for debate. Only in the waning phases of the war, when the Luftwaffe’s capabilities were nearly exhausted, did the Allied bombers gain access to German airspace with acceptable losses.
Air offence and air defence clashed next in Southeast Asia, when the dense array of North Vietnam’s ground-to-air missiles, backed by the judicious use of interceptor aircraft, nearly blunted the US’s air superiority and exacted a heavy price in downed US aircraft and lost aircrew.
Another landmark – if largely forgotten – clash between air offence and air defence occurred during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Once Saddam Hussein’s plan to defeat Iran by a lightning campaign fizzled out, the conflict deteriorated into a war of attrition over the course of which Iraqi jet bombers, purchased from the Soviet Union, bombed Teheran and other Iranian cities.
The Iranian air force was still equipped at the time with cutting-edge US interceptor aircraft purchased by the Shah prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The consequence was that Iran managed to down many Iraqi bombers, forcing Saddam to call off his strategic bombing campaign.
In desperation, Saddam – like Hitler before him – turned to ballistic missiles. His fleet of Soviet Scud missiles did not have the range to hit deep within Iran. Using the expertise of aerospace companies in Europe and South America, he developed an extended-range version and converted most of his Scud stockpile. The new missile, dubbed Al-Hussein, was used for strategic bombardment.
Almost 200 missiles were fired at Teheran and three other major cities deep within Iran, killing thousands, destroying houses, and compelling millions to evacuate the cities. The common wisdom among most analysts is that those missile attacks were the last straw that compelled Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink the poison chalice” and agree to a ceasefire. After eight years of bloodletting, Iraq emerged victorious. It can be safely concluded that in that case, missiles did win the war.
A similar logic compelled Hafez Assad, Syria’s ruler, following the trouncing of his air force in the 1982 Lebanon War, to acquire a huge fleet of Scud missiles tipped with locally-developed chemical warheads. His minister of defence, Mustafa Tlass, pointed out the interchangeability between aircraft and missiles when he wrote that “the 1982 war was an air war, the next one will be a missile war.”
The non-state terror organisations now confronting Israel from Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas, have never had the option of acquiring air forces. Hence they have equipped themselves with huge stockpiles of simple missiles – AKA rockets – and have used them to terrorise Israel’s homeland, killing hundreds of civilians and causing considerable property damage and economic loss.
The Precision Breakthrough
Rockets and missiles, as originally conceived during WWII, were not very accurate, making them unfit for precision strikes. As a result, they were used mainly to saturate troop concentrations and terrorise population centres.
Improved accuracy could only be achieved via heavy, extremely costly, and highly complicated electromechanical guidance systems. Precision strikes thus remained the sole domain of manned combat aircraft that could close in on targets and hit them with short-range precision-guided munitions.
Over time, however, technology has caught up. Today’s smartphones contain all the wherewithal necessary for precision guidance of vehicles, be they automobiles, drones, or missiles. For about a decade, it has been possible to incorporate such technologies into even simple Grad missiles, converting unguided rockets into pinpoint precision missiles at modest expenditure.
This technological shift makes missiles as effective as airpower for precision strikes. Precision-guided missiles are being developed and deployed today by all the major world powers, as well as by many smaller states.
In the Middle East, Iran is leading the way. It is currently converting all its older rockets and missiles into precision weapons. It also supplies its allies in the region with expertise and materials with which to build their own precision missile capabilities – hence the Precision Project of Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in the region.
Why is Israel so anxious to frustrate Hezbollah’s Precision Project? Because once it is achieved, it will elevate Hezbollah’s war-making capability to that of a state military force. Hezbollah will possess all the advantages of an offensive air force without needing to own a single combat aircraft. Its precision missiles will be able to paralyse any vital installation or terrorise any civilian population centre in Israel.
One of the biggest advantages of ground-launched rockets and missiles is their small footprint. Precision rockets and missiles enjoy the same advantage: their launchers are as small, stealthy, and as hard to find and destroy as those of their more imprecise predecessors. Airpower, by contrast, has the Achilles heel of a reliance on huge airbases replete with kilometres-long runways, aircraft hangars, workshops, communication centres, and so on.
The vulnerability of giant, stationary air bases to precision missile strikes was demonstrated during the January 2020 Iranian missile strike on the US-operated Ein Assad airbase in Iraq. Prior to the attack, the US teams at that base had launched a fleet of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for patrolling the base perimeter. One of the incoming Iranian missiles hit an underground communications conduit and cut the fibre optic lines between the UAV’s control vans and the system’s transceivers. This caused a loss of ground control over the entire UAV fleet. It took hours to re-establish communication via satellite and bring the UAVs back in.
Needless to say, US combat aircraft based in Iraq were powerless against this missile strike. Simply put, Iran gained air superiority over the airbase by virtue of its precision missiles.
Active and Passive Defence
Once Hezbollah is equipped with precision missiles, it stands to reason that it will launch an Operation Focus of its own in the opening stage of any future war with Israel, firing salvos of precision missiles to paralyse Israel’s air bases. Israel’s active missile defence structure – Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and any future high power laser defence system – will probably be able to destroy most incoming missiles, but not all of them. Active defence cannot guarantee a hermetic defence. Precision missiles that do manage to leak through the defensive shield could erode the IAF’s capability – witness what Iranian precision missiles did in Iraq.
Against a precision missile threat, active defence is a necessary but insufficient condition. It requires complementary measures. One such measure is passive defence, meaning the shielding of vital installations with thick concrete walls that could withstand direct hits. While technically feasible, this kind of response is very expensive and time-consuming.
Another response would be to diversify the IAF’s offensive capability to compensate for degradation of its offensive power during the initial phase of future war. If Hezbollah can establish an “air force without aircraft,” so can Israel.
Israel’s own Precision Project is more than a decade old. Israel’s defence industries have developed and tested a number of ground-launched precision missiles with varying ranges and warheads. To date, the IDF has agreed to buy only the shortest-range version, and even that only in limited numbers. Longer-range precision missiles, such as the recently tested 400-km range LORA, are successfully exported to foreign armies, but not to the IDF.
A proposal to establish an Israeli missile strike force to back up Israel’s aircraft strike force was mooted a couple of years ago. As far as is known, it was rejected by the IDF. The relatively short-range precision missiles now acquired are slated to provide ground forces with long-range artillery support for ground operations, not to back up and complement the IAF’s capability to conduct strategic strikes when its bases are under precision missile fire.
Modern precision missiles have the same punch as combat aircraft yet are less vulnerable, as they don’t rely on huge, immovable, target-rich airbases. Precision-guided missiles and rockets can paralyse the civilian and military infrastructures of entire countries, paving the way to their defeat.
Israel needs to do everything in its power not only to prevent defeat by such weapons but to use them to defeat its enemies.