First-Rate in the Air, a Halting Beginning on the Ground
In the first ten days of the Lebanon war, the Israeli Air Force carried out an average 500 bombing missions a day. Because the warplanes had no enemy to contend with in the air and was not threatened by air defenses on the ground, all the crews had to do was to go down the list of the targets assigned them and hit them one by one.
This was accomplished with speed and efficiency. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that in four days, they had exhausted the entire bank of targets handed the air force by Israeli military intelligence.
At this point the intelligence-sharing benefits of the global war on terror came into play.
Jerusalem had no sooner informed Washington that its air force had run out of targets, when a rush of intelligence data on Hizballah locations in Lebanon was received from many different countries, including some Arab governments.
It was the first time Israel has ever been granted intelligence assistance from undercover Arab sources for striking targets in an Arab country. Clearly, their object was Iran – not just Hizballah.
Despite this intelligence largesse and the smooth, almost clockwork performance of Israeli warplanes (until Thursday night, when two military choppers collided and crashed over Galilee), a number of shortcomings soon became apparent.
Hizballah’s logistical infrastructure took a severe beating, but Hassan Nasrallah‘s fighting strength came out with relatively few losses – 180 dead by the time this issue was ready to go. Less than half, 79, were hit from the air.
Secondly, just as the US air force failed to prevent Saddam Hussein‘s Scud missiles from reaching central Israeli cities in the 1991 Gulf War, so too Israeli warplanes fifteen years later were of little avail in knocking out Hizballah’s rocket launchers before they shot across the border and targeted 35% of Israeli territory and its northern population.
The number of rockets destroyed from the air was 23, whereas Hizballah succeeded in launching nearly 2,000.
Furthermore, Israel’s ground forces suffered from inadequate air support in combat.
This shortcoming was most marked in the fierce two-day battle Israeli and Hizballah fighters fought over the Maroun er Ras mountain village of south Lebanon opposite the small Israeli village of Avivim north of Safed. The IDF deployed its crack 551 Maglen Unit to storm a series of small, fortified, well-camouflaged bunkers cut into the mountainside Wednesday, July 19. By late Thursday, the engagement was not over.
Air support inadequate
First, the Israeli force was ambushed by a special Hizballah commando unit. Each time the Israeli troops captured one bunker, Hizballah reinforcements sprang out of another and attacked. What the Israel unit needed badly to tip the scales of this major engagement was help from flying gunships to wipe out the enemy, or at least slow it down. The high command decided to hold the choppers back for fear the Hizballah forces were equipped with Iranian anti-air shoulder-borne missiles to shoot them down.
From Day One therefore, the helicopters were ordered by the IDF high command to stay on the Israeli side of the border and not stray across, thus denying the ground forces close air cover.
Problems were also encountered in fielding tanks in mountainous terrain. When Israeli casualties began to mount in the Maroun er Ras battle – two killed, 9 wounded on Wednesday; another four killed, 9 injured Thursday – Chariot-3 tanks were pushed across. Their tasks were first to recover the casualties and second to silence Hizballah fire coming out of the bunkers by shelling the openings.
The tanks were soon found to be unfitted to operating on the rugged mountainous terrain. Hizballah had densely booby-trapped it in advance with extra-large 50-300 kilo bombs. A tank which ran over one of these bombs exploded and its four-man crew was killed. Hizballah fighters did not wait to be shelled but opened up on the tanks out of the bunkers with 120-mm mortars, 122-mm Katyusha rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, RPGs. Soon the tanks instead of supporting the ground troops were in trouble themselves.
What Israel’s top brass and national leaders learned from the painful setbacks of the Maroun er Ras battle was that five years of counter-terror action against the Palestinians had not polished the performance of Israel’s special operations forces but rather compromised their once legendary capabilities. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts explain this by the poor professional fighting caliber of Palestinian terrorists. The special tactics Israeli commandos developed to counter them met the case. But in Lebanon, elite Israel units came in for a rude awakening when they encountered the professionalism of Hizballah guerrilla fighters trained at Revolutionary Guards facilities under commanders who graduated from Iranian officers’ schools.
Israeli forces therefore face an ordeal by fire in the next ten days or two weeks of combat before they develop new combat tactics and techniques to stand up to the Hizballah.