April 7 is an important date in the history of the Israel Air Force. In 1967, that was the day six Syrian planes were shot down in dogfights over Damascus and the Kinneret's eastern shore, and the countdown began to the Six-Day War. Last week it became important for another reason: It marked the first intercept of a Grad rocket by the Iron Dome system.
In the 44 years between those two milestones, the Arab-Israeli war has changed. The air force no longer downs enemy planes because those planes don't take off to do battle against it. For three decades, from 1955 to 1985, Israeli pilots clashed with Egyptians and Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis, and roundly outdid them in numbers of downed aircraft.
Arab efforts have now been diverted elsewhere. There are fewer regular armies of countries and regimes and more sub-state organizations. Tanks and planes hold their fire, while explosives, anti-tank missiles, rockets and surface-to-surface missiles are let loose.
Israeli pilots, with their special attributes, training and Western planes, as well as the development of original systems, had a great advantage over their Egyptian and Syrian counterparts, back when the MIG-21 was just as good as the Mirage, and certainly thereafter. But the gap between the Hamas militant firing a missile or a rocket, not to mention a suicide bomber, and the soldier, police officer or Shin Bet operative trying to stop the attack is not that great. In any case, it's not great enough to dull the cumulative sting of attacks, whether carried out directly in the street or on a bus, or indirectly with high-trajectory fire.
The response to the terror campaign in the early part of the last decade was a combination of offense and defense. Defense involved the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence improving intelligence and extending the security fence in some places east of the Green Line as a partial and tardy imitation of the southern fence around Gaza. The offensive response was Operation Defensive Shield. In the south, the Israel Defense Forces is moving in the opposite direction, outward, while aerial and other terror persists from the Gaza Strip - shooting, explosives and attempted abductions.
The praise for the soldiers operating Iron Dome is in fact a reproach of our political and military leaders. Not so long ago, people who are now boasting about the achievement, and their predecessors, were against investing in systems to intercept short- and middle-range rockets. When developers and experts from outside the military establishment offered quick solutions, they were arrogantly and blithely rejected.
Arguments against such solutions, in light of ongoing funding constraints, came from the realm of strategy. (Better to focus on attack and flexible and multipurpose methods, particularly aircraft, for air battles and ground attacks ). These arguments also came from combat doctrine. (The enemy's knowledge that lacking defenses, Israel must attack, will help deter that enemy ). Finally, there was the tradition of the organization. (In the air force, manned planes lead; unmanned aircraft and ground weapons to intercept aircraft are shunted aside ).
The story of Iron Dome, like the Patriot against the Scud 20 years ago, confirms how true it is that wars must not be left to generals to manage, in or out of uniform. And they made up our entire leadership, in government as well, during the years of refusal to develop those systems.
Senior officers were trained to fight at the front; they don't have abundant skills when it comes to understanding the civilian population. While air defense systems will not lead to the elusive resolution of the armed conflict, they will help prevent escalation and reduce civilians' anxiety, which in turn relieves the pressure for us to embark on a major offensive operation. In contemporary media-soaked warfare, which draws international attention and is subject to legal constraints, civilians have an impact no less than divisions and squadrons.
Along with a decisive resolution of the conflict, early warning and deterrence, calm is a fundamental component of security. It's only partial, because shooting down a Grad rocket is not the be-all and the end-all - there is no defense against a Kornet missile aimed at a bus or a window in a kibbutz house, and in the end Israel may still need to act to bring down Hamas.
But there is a big difference between "in the end" and "from the start," between necessity and overenthusiasm. And that difference marks the deficiency in leadership from which Israel suffers.
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