The Israeli Air Force headquarters during Operation Protective Edge
By REUVEN BEN-SHALOM
Published courtesy of the Jerusalem Post
“This is the Israeli army calling. Am I speaking to Bassem?” The officer spoke Arabic slowly and clearly, using an impeccable Gaza dialect. “Yes,” came the answer. “Listen to me carefully, Bassem. You have five minutes to evacuate your house because we are going to bomb it. Do you understand?”
The caller was assertive, not aggressive, and his voice was empathetic, even compassionate. I asked him later about this and he answered: “They are human beings. My job is to do everything I can to save them.”
We watched real time imagery of the house, as people exited. “Count them. Each and every one of them,” the commander ordered, a tense expression on his face. “Are they all out?” Someone gave the number and confirmed that the procedure had been completed, but a Major said: “Let’s verify this again. If we can save even one person, it’s worth it.”
I spent a long night in the “Knock-on-the-roof” cell, where targets were being attacked after a meticulous process of verification aimed at getting uninvolved civilians out of harm’s way, including phone calls, and warning shots to the roof, before dropping the bomb.
During Operation Protective Edge, I visited the operational nerve center of the Air Force. My objective was to discover the organizational culture, the operational atmosphere and the spirit of the airmen. As a reserve lieutenant-colonel, I received official approval, on condition that I strictly follow operational security regulations and comply with requested omissions. Naturally, not all of my experiences can, or ever will be, revealed, but those described are true and accurate.
There was no parking space when I arrived. The building was packed with people, most of them reservists. Contrary to other military units, all wore blue “Class A” uniforms. What first struck me was how impeccably dressed everyone was. Even reservists looked sharp, making it hard to differentiate between them and career officers. Those who are familiar with the IDF understand that this is unique. The resulting effect was an appearance of prestige and professionalism.
I had spent the better part of the 1990s in this place. There were handshakes and slaps on the back as I entered. I knew so many people, it felt like coming home. Continuity of personnel and accumulated knowledge and experience are important assets of any military unit.
The IAF is a relatively centralistic organization. The operational headquarters is a powerful mechanism intended to analyze and assess the situation, fuse information, plan operations, disseminate operational orders to the squadrons, and monitor the execution of the missions from designated control cells.
Mission-oriented cells operate simultaneously, enabling each one to focus on its own mission-related characteristics and sensitivities. Together, the IAF supplies the ultimate mechanism for massive outputs of streamlined operations.
If passing security and entering the underground facility feels like entering a shrine, entering the control cells is like entering an inner sanctum. The place was humming with dozens of professionals working in sync. The walls were covered with high resolution screens showing a multidimensional picture of the battle space. From intelligence and operational pictures, to data links from unmanned Aerial Systems and logistics, the abundance of information was overwhelming.
It is a known phenomenon that inside operational units, there is humor that would sound heartless to outsiders. I had prepared myself for this, but to my amazement, I witnessed nothing but reserved and restrained conduct. I could also sense a touch of modesty which I had not seen in the past. It seemed as if the organization had matured. I could tell that the focus was on the mission, not on personal ego.
Frankly, I feared that I may find a bunch of trigger-happy officers, but there was no sign of it. When a bomb hit its target, I could see relief, pride and satisfaction, and no cheering or gloating. Everything about the place demonstrated severity and professional conduct.
What I saw was an implementation of the book of Proverbs 24, 17: “Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
I remember that back in the 1990s, Hezbollah fighters were sometimes referred to by a nickname which implied contempt. Not anymore. Hamas terrorists are referred to as well equipped, well trained, serious, professional and challenging rivals.
I was stunned when I saw the crowded air picture. I asked a senior air controller how they could safely manage so many aircrafts in such a small airspace. He showed me a colored chart, dividing the sky into “blocks” ranging from low flying helicopters to high altitude strategic assets. “That’s a lot of airpower,” I remarked. “You bet,” he smiled, proudly.
Operation Protective Edge is led by the Southern Command. The Air Force headquarters in Tel Aviv is connected to Southern Command via an embedded liaison team which works in full collaboration with its “green” (ground forces) partners. The integration is superb – the product of many years of combined operations, training and implementation of lessons- learned.
I attended a planning session, where a target was processed before attack. The level of detail, and amount of time and attention invested in one target was above and beyond what I had expected. Operational research engineers were consulted as to “adjusting armament to target,” as there are multiple options to choose from. Every aspect is scientifically analyzed – from the direction from which to approach and angle of penetration, to the precise point of impact and how many milliseconds of delayed detonation to set in order to ensure destruction of the target and minimize collateral damage. The various armaments allow for pinpoint targeting of individual terrorists, destruction of partial segments of a target such as a room or a floor, or the toppling of an entire building.
Legal advisors from the International Law Department at the IDF Military Advocate General serve as a strict buffer, assessing the legality of the target according to the guidelines of international laws of war, mainly ensuring that it is clearly defined as a military target, used by Hamas for terror activity. I personally witnessed a debate relating to a target which I thought would be a legitimate strike against Hamas, but the mission was postponed until a better legal case could be constructed.
Multiple other professionals are involved in the planning process, such as meteorologists and intelligence officers. The final product is an operational order disseminated to the squadrons for execution.
This meticulous and uncompromising process was carried out for each and every one of the many targets attacked during the operation (of course this does not apply to real time targeting of terrorists as they launch rockets).
I was thunderstruck by the proximity of many targets to civilian infrastructures. Hamas intentionally situated weapon caches and launch sites near (or inside) sensitive civilian institutions such as schools, hospitals and mosques.
I was also very impressed with the teamwork demonstrated. The IAF is known to be a hierarchal organization, yet when working together side by side during operations, the atmosphere is that of comradeship and professional respect.
The IAF’s operational staff is currently undergoing a dramatic re-organization, or rather – transformation, with the overall goal of boosting operational effectiveness and a remarkable boost of attack capacity, i.e. the number of targets which can be attacked every day.
Technical aspects have been made to allow swift layover between sorties, making the process look much like a “pit stop” in motorsports, where the plane is refueled and rearmed for immediate departure.
It’s not only a matter of planes and bombs. A major bottleneck in air operations has always been the ability of the operational headquarters to plan and control, and the new organizational structure addresses this.
In modern warfare, success is not measured simply by the number of enemy targets destroyed, but by rendering fighting pointless in the eyes of the enemy. Some even claim that the damage we inflict during the current conflict hardly affects the outcome of this “round” of violence, but the probability and proximity of the next one. The enemy will remember the consequences of attacking Israel, and have this as a major factor in his calculations.
Observing from the outside, it sometimes may look as if “The Landlord went crazy,” as the Hebrew saying goes (going berserk). I would say that the Air Force’s mode of operations is exactly the opposite, and is characterized by restrained, calculated and measured operations.
The IAF acts within a unique paradox. On the one hand, it employs extremely lethal capabilities, but on the other hand, it is fighting a delicate operation of surgical strikes, with a key consideration of preventing collateral damage and innocent casualties. It is therefore important to realize that this scenario does not reflect what an overall campaign would look like, when the full capabilities of the Air Force are unleashed.
I found that there is a deep understanding of the limitations of military might. Everyone knows that the military’s goal in asymmetric warfare is not to win a decisive victory, but to bring about a reality which will enable the political echelons to shape the strategic environment.
The Israeli Air Force is a key component of Israel’s defensive and offensive capabilities. It is an incredibly lethal war machine, but at its core are the most dedicated, professional and morally driven group of people I have ever met.
The writer is a former pilot in the IAF