How Israel fears its qualitative military edge will be undercut

Throughout its almost seven-decade existence, the leaders of the State of Israel have long worried that their far larger Arab neighbours would one day brandish more advanced weapon systems against them, effectively combine those weapons with their superior numbers and erase the qualitative military edge Israel has over them and defeat it.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

This fear saw Israel come out in staunch opposition to the Americans decision in the early 1980’s to sell Saudi Arabia advanced E-3 Sentry AWACS surveillance aircraft since, in the wrong hands, they could potentially have alerted an enemy to where Israelis aircraft were operating and could in turn compromise the element of surprise for Israel in a future war, a crucial element for its victory against Egypt in the June 1967 war. [1]

Presently the Israelis are concerned about the tiny oil sheikdom of Qatar buying a fleet of F-15 jets from the US. An interesting situation considering that Israel hasn’t been concerned about Saudi Arabia’s manic military build-up over the course of the last decade given the fact it perceives Riyadh as a bulwark against Iran, its number one regional adversary, and the salient fact that Qatar is a trusted US ally. This is primarily due to the fact that Qatar has been supportive of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in recent years and is therefore seen as too untrustworthy and volatile to Israel to possess advanced military hardware.

While its opposition and lobbying in United States Congress to stop the Qatar deal is reminiscent of its opposition to the Saudi-AWACS deal, there is another respect to which the Israelis have increasingly feared that its qualitative military edge could be undermined. That being the acquisition by formidable non-state actors of hi-tech weaponry which could undercut the technological edge the Israeli military wields against its enemies.

Historically Israel’s greatest battlefield victories have been achieved against conventional adversaries. The aforementioned 1967 war was such a stunning success given Israel’s ability to knock out the air power of its adversaries and take speedy control of the skies. Air superiority over the Sinai Peninsula enabled the Israelis to strike convoys of the Egyptian Army out in the open and effectively neutralise the threat posed by that army. Egypt tried to prevent a repeat of that defeat in the ensuing 1973 Arab-Israeli war by establishing a network of surface-to-air missiles to prevent its ground forces from being decimated from the air before advancing in a failed bid to recapture its lost territory.

Locations_bombed_Aug13_no_fact_boxBy the time the Israelis began fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, they found themselves facing a vastly different enemy. Facing off against an elusive guerilla enemy has invariably proven more difficult for the Israeli military than facing off against a conventional enemy in the open. To effectively cripple a group like Hezbollah, without risking a large ground deployment and a large number of casualties, entails directing firepower against Hezbollah positions without harming civilians, which has proven extremely difficult given the fact that Hezbollah is deeply embedded and entrenched among the population. Meaning that to even cripple the group militarily the Israelis would risk killing large numbers of civilians.

Add to this the fact that Hezbollah has amassed many more surface-to-surface missiles since its last war with Israel ten years ago. Weapons which could do considerable damage to Israel itself. To quickly destroy those weapons the Israelis would be unable to warn civilians in areas it targets to minimize innocent casualties without risking losing the all-important element of surprise.

One Israeli official last year outlined how frustrating this has proven to be. He pointed to 200 Shiite villages in southern Lebanon which constitute military strongholds and would need to be quickly razed in the event of another war to prevent rockets from being fired into Israel. “It is a win-win situation for Hezbollah,” the official pointed out. “If we attack them, we kill civilians, If we don’t attack because there are civilians, it is good for Hezbollah as well.”

In the last round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah approximately 1,200 people in Lebanon were killed. The first sign that Israel’s qualitative technological edge over Hezbollah is at risk of being undermined took place when the Israeli naval vessel, the INS Hanit, was badly damaged by a Chinese-made Hezbollah C-802 anti-ship missile (see also Mark Mazzetti, “Striking Deep Into Israel, Hamas Employs an Upgraded Arsenal“, The New York Times, 31.12.2008). Similarly Hezbollah guerrillas also managed to hit eleven of Israel’s advanced Merkava tanks during Israel’s limited ground incursion into south Lebanon, killing 12 soldiers, in the latter phase of that war using Kornet anti-tank missiles.

AT-14_07 AT-14_15
Boxes with Russian 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles seized in the South Lebanese village Ghandouriyeh. Click on the image to enlarge.

While its forces were threatened on the ground and in the sea the Israelis still dominated the skies and were, albeit with the risk of increasing the civilian death toll, able to rapidly bomb Hezbollah anywhere in Lebanon (see the map of Israel’s bombings during the 2006 Lebanon War above).

That superiority could also be undermined sometime in the future and Israel is well aware of it. Since the war in Syria began, Israel has launched air-strikes into that war-torn country numerous times, all of their raids appeared to serve a single purpose: Prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missile systems. Such weaponry in Hezbollah’s hands could further undermine Israel’s ability to rapidly get the upper hand against the group in any future war since it could significantly undermine its superiority of the skies.

This is one scenario Israel has had to fear the most in recent times, the day it has to deal with a large conventional adversary are essentially gone. The threat of the elusive, guerilla adversary garnering the means to undercut Israel’s long-held qualitative military edge is likely what keeps the minds of many military strategists in Jerusalem preoccupied.

Footnotes
In July 2015, the US have begun to upgrade Saudis E-3 Sentry fleet with the new Interrogator Friend or Foe (IFF) systems, as part of the fleet’s Block 40/45 upgrade program (for more details about the upgrade see “Saudis Seek E-3 Fleet Upgrades“, Defense Indutry Daily, 31.07.2015).

This entry was posted in English, International, Israel, Proliferation, Saudi Arabia, Security Policy.

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