F-16s vs. M16s? Gaza Conflict Revives Old Debate
Nov. 19, 2012 - 06:04PM By BARBARA OPALL-ROME Defense News
TEL AVIV — With some 70,000 Israeli troops poised for prospective ground war
in Gaza, political leaders here are again grappling with the costs versus
benefits of supplementing standoff strikes with boots on the ground.
The old argument of “F-16 versus M16” — coined by retired Lt. Gen. Gabi
Ashkenazi, former Israeli military chief of staff— will likely be settled in
the coming days, if not sooner.
But unlike Israel’s last combined air-sea and ground campaign to protect the
homefront from Gaza-launched rockets, this time proponents of standoff-only
attack have a new arrow in their quiver: the nearly 85 percent effective
rate of Iron Dome intercepting batteries.
Commanders from Israel’s 2008-2009 Cast Lead operation surmise that had
then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert been able to protect the homefront with an
active defense system like Iron Dome, he would not have opted to supplement
eight days of largely precision standoff strikes with a grueling, two-week
“In Cast Lead, we didn’t have the breathing space provided by Iron Dome. We
didn’t have the full benefits of precise and selective early warning and we
didn’t have a disciplined homefront,” a former top Israeli military
commander told Defense News.
“Then they didn’t have a choice. The political echelon determined that the
only way to take care of the rockets, impose quiet and bolster deterrence
was through a combination of F-16s and M16s. But now, it’s a different
story,” he said.
According to the former commander, Israel has not yet realized the maximum
effect of airstrikes.
“We haven’t yet squeezed out the full effectiveness. If conditions allow us
another two or three days of intensified and punishing standoff attacks, we
should be able to end this without getting back into Gaza.”
1,400 Targets Destroyed
At the end of day six of Israel’s so-called Operation Pillar of Defense, the
Israeli military says it attacked some 1,400 targets throughout Gaza, most
of them from the air, with support from Israel Navy missile boats.
Attack operations started with the aerial assassination of Hamas Military
Commander Ahmed al-Jabari, followed by strategic assaults on most of the
60-kilometer range Fajr-5 missiles smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Iran.
By late last week, after hundreds of attacks on weapon storage sites,
including underground stockpiles of 40-kilometer-range Grad rockets, Israel
stepped up targeting operations against command posts, communications
centers and public buildings viewed as symbols of the Hamas government.
In the past few days, in parallel with continued attacks on weapon sites and
hunter-killer operations against rocket-launching squads and other so-called
targets of opportunity, Israel began making phone calls to residents of
specific buildings, warning them to evacuate before striking private homes
of Hamas leaders.
As of late Nov. 19, Gaza’s Ministry of Health had reported 95 killed, 26 of
them children, in the standoff attacks. And while the ministry does not
differentiate among militant fighters targeted by Israel and uninvolved
innocents, the death toll from 1,400 attacks appears to mark a new record
for precision strike operations.
In comparison to the previous air war in Gaza, in which precision munitions
were used in 81 percent of aerial attacks, 140 militants along with another
37 innocents were killed in just the first day of airstrikes.
In a Nov. 19 interview, Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian professor at Bethlehem
and Birzeit universities in the West Bank, acknowledged that casualties thus
far appear to be much lower than Israel’s last war in Gaza.
“Yes, the casualties are lower than ever before. But even if it’s true that
Israel has changed its tactics — which I don’t believe — most Palestinians
will not appreciate it. They’ll judge from their prior experiences with
Israeli brutality,” said Qumsiyeh.
“What we’re seeing is a historic precedent for precision-strike operations,
and it proves that the strategy of maximum damage with minimum victims is
working,” said retired Israel Air Force Brig. Gen. Assaf Agmon, director of
the Fisher Institute for Strategic Air & Space Studies.
“Each target is checked multiple times, the weaponry is carefully selected
and the intelligence is persistent and precise. If they’re able to keep this
up, it appears that operational objectives can be secured with our
legitimacy intact without the need for ground forces,” said Agmon.
Nevertheless, experts and analysts warn that the option for ground invasion
remains very much alive, and could be triggered if just one Hamas-launched
missile manages to leak through the Iron Dome and extract heavy Israeli
“We can’t get addicted to Iron Dome and we also need to remember that a
70,000-strong ground force cannot remain waiting at the border
indefinitely,” another former Israeli commander warned.
According to the retired major general, Israel’s ground option will remain
viable for only a few more days before economic and other pressures force
either a political green light for a ground invasion or cancellation of
reserve call-up orders.
“Several things can still happen that will drag this into a much bloodier
story,” he said.