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The air offensive began midweek. A lone pilot launched precision munitions, the kind that split off to strike multiple targets. The first signs of smoke came from the Finance Ministry building, which was struck, but bombs also slammed into General Staff headquarters, the armored corps, the navy and the Home Front command. The additional front of the Iraq war - the Israeli front - had opened.

The attacker (though he may consider himself the defender) was the commander of the Israel Air Force, Major General Dan Halutz. Halutz is now completing his third year as air force chief; he will retire at the end of 2003 or in April 2004. Now is the time for him to leave his mark, while he holds one of the key positions in the state system and is a confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. The military secretaries of those two officials, along with the chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, and other generals, were among the recipients of Halutz's letter, though none of them has as yet responded to it.

Halutz looked at the campaign being fought in Iraq - and saw the IDF. Not actually there, but at home, in the light of a harsh political, military and budgetary reality. This is an opportunity to bring about a major turning point in the structure of the army, he concluded. After all, a strong army is going to be needed even after the completion of the American mission in Iraq, when rulers across the region feel its shock waves. If strong regimes like Saddam's can fall, then in certain circumstances regimes that are friendly to Israel could also fall.

The mission of the air force, as proposed by Halutz and approved by Mofaz and Ya'alon, includes "taking the campaign" to enemy states that do not border on Israel. True, even after the defeat of Iraq, countries such as Iran and Libya and perhaps other countries in Asia and Africa, under whose auspices terrorism is planned and activated, will remain on the list, though the immediate needs will undoubtedly be reduced. Therefore, in a self-inflicted preemptive strike, Halutz agrees to cuts in the air force, in equipment more than in people and their terms of service; but this is a smaller concession than what is intended for other bodies. And even after all the mobile launchers of Iraqi missiles are destroyed, the cuts are not aimed at the systems needed to reply to that type of threat in any distant arena.

The air force believes that the opposition to such systems - which is now coming from the treasury's Budget Department and from the chief of Army Headquarters, Major General Yiftah Ron Tal - is shortsighted and does not take into account the contribution to production and export of the military industries, whose top people will scatter in every direction without projects and a challenge. Foreign partners, who are ready to work with military plants, will be scared off if they discover that in Israel developments of this kind have been abandoned.

In classifying the security threats to Israel, Halutz placed the regular armies at the bottom, ranking above them the extremities, those that are below and above guerrilla warfare - terrorism and nonconventional weapons (nuclear, chemical, biological, missile). They share top billing, but after Iraq and the American effort to disarm Iran and its allies, terrorism will be the most acute of the threats.

The recommendation that follows from this situation appraisal is to cut back on the systems that are intended to cope with the Arab armies and with the danger of chemical and biological agents. Without speaking to each other, the air force and the treasury reached a rare agreement: to volunteer a slash of the armored forces. Halutz prefers light, rapid, mobile forces under cover of air power, he prefers special forces to large formations, when employed far away. He thinks a special battalion is better than a division, and a brigade of special forces, as distinct from a collection of reconnaissance units and paratroop battalions waiting around for brigade-level training, is the preferred method for operating in the territories, and not only there.

Sources outside the IDF claim that no official authorization was ever given for the production of Israel's Merkava Mark IV tank. Everyone agrees that the production line must be kept intact for possibly stepped-up need in an emergency. However, critics of the armor buildup maintain that there's no need for the number of tanks now being produced yearly and that there are other ways of economizing that would maintain the combat vehicle industry, such as by privatization, more exports and a change in the proportion of new to refurbished tanks. If the American Abrams tanks succeed in crushing the Iraqis, we will hear more voices in the IDF urging that the Merkava shekels be saved and that Israel buy the Abrams with U.S. grant funds, even though it's more expensive.

Theater teamwork

In the period between the two Iraq wars the Americans put the ax to their land force, continuing the gradual shrinkage that began after the Vietnam War. They now have 13 land divisions (including three of the Marines), down from 22. In Iraq they are allowing themselves to make do with a land force that is quantitatively inferior to the defense deployed against it, and not only because they enjoy technological superiority and air supremacy. The great American advantage lies in command and control and in flexibility that allows plans to be changed as needed.

In 1991, the U.S. had more than five months to deploy in the air and another month on the ground. They enjoyed, or suffered from, a large political and military alliance that provided world and regional cover but made coordination difficult and set a rigid operational framework. Ousting Saddam was not designated a war goal. The relations between the theater commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, and his superiors (especially the defense secretary, Richard Cheney), were strained. Schwarzkopf ignored the commander of his land force, and the joint air command suffered from operational problems.

The working relations in the current campaign of U.S. Central Command are far better. The theater commander, General Tommy Franks, gained experience in Afghanistan and had a year and a half to polish his war plans under the scrutiny of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the top brass in the Pentagon. Unlike Schwarzkopf, he maintains the chain of command.

One arena in which things have gone less smoothly, after initial success, involves the Patriot antimissile deployment in Kuwait and Iraq. The main competition, for reputation and contracts, was between the most advanced model of the Patriot, the PAC-3, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, and the PAC-2, built by Raytheon, which is better than the 1991 version but less advanced than the PAC-3. The Iraqis fired short-range missiles; at Fort Bliss, Texas, the mother base of the Patriots, they put up a chart showing three intercepts by PAC-3s and one by a Kuwaiti PAC-2. Missiles that were calculated to be heading for the sea or the open desert were not intercepted.

However, the chart disappeared after three serious mishaps involving the Patriot: the downing of a British Tornado aircraft, the capture of soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company, which is based at Fort Bliss, and a violent confrontation between a mobile battery and an American plane. These are soldiers of General Stanley Green, the commander of Fort Bliss, who is in Israel at the head of the expeditionary force of surface-to-air missiles (the Patriot batteries and the Aegis vessel), which are beefing up Israel's deployment of Arrow antimissile missiles. Despite the mishaps, the good news from the Patriot's successes in Iraq is that the chances of intercepting the short-range surface-to-surface missiles in the hands of Hezbollah have improved.

In the months preceding the Iraq war, the Israel Air Force was considered - and rightly so - to be gung-ho on the northern border, to the point of being eager to take action to remove the threat of Hezbollah's rockets and missiles during a period in which the Arab capital making the headlines would be Baghdad and not Beirut. Those tendencies have abated, and the air force now appears to have aligned itself with the mainstream of the defense establishment, which advocates maximum quiet in the north and in the Palestine arena. The main exponents of this view, with Ya'alon's blessing, are the Planning Branch and Military Intelligence - in the face of the skepticism of the Operations Branch - are also willing to give the new Palestinian leadership, under Abu Mazen, political credit.

One of the ideas that has taken shape in the moderate corner of the defense establishment is to stop insisting on closely linked mutuality in the sequence of political and security steps required of each side according to George Bush's "road map." That is, instead of making every Israeli move contingent on the completion of the Palestinian move that is supposed to precede it, Israel would agree to a certain overlap, as long as the overall sequence shows that the Palestinians are keeping their word.

No `golden information'

Israeli restraint in the 1991 Gulf War provoked much weeping and wailing in some circles about the future loss of deterrent capability. The fact is, though, that the very fact that the Iraqis fired missiles at Israel reflected a failure of deterrence, as it followed decades in which Israel retaliated for every attack on it. The Scud missiles (which carried stone warheads) that tried to hit the nuclear reactor at Dimona came 10 years after Israel destroyed the Iraqi reactor near Baghdad in June 1981. Although the Americans praised the so-called "Begin Doctrine" - the supposed innovation by Menachem Begin to thwart nuclearization by Israel's enemies - this was actually the policy of many of Israel's leaders, and the dispute was more over the method to be used.

In fact, Begin was preceded by another regional leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, on whose orders Iranian planes tried to destroy the Iraqi reactor on September 30, 1980 (and if Begin had not rushed to take credit for the attack, it might have been possible to hint at Iranian responsibility). The difference was that the Israeli spies and pilots were better.

Since Khomeini's death, Saddam Hussein has headed the list of the most dangerous of Israel's enemies. For a dozen years, it has been accepted as gospel that if Saddam believes his end is nigh, he is liable to fire chemical or biological missiles at Israel. This is a logical conjecture, which is based, in part, on an appraisal of the psychic makeup of the Iraqi leader and of his self-appointed place in the history of Assyria and Babylon. However, when the question is put to the best-informed and most authoritative members of the Israeli intelligence community, the response is surprising. It's just a conjecture, an evaluation, a forecast, a prophecy - everything but solid intelligence - though it could be right. There is no "golden information," as a senior intelligence person puts it, that this in fact is Saddam's plan.

It may be asking too much for intelligence to provide a firm factual basis - not circumstantial or inferential - for its forecast of what a ruler will do. But, after all, the forecast that Saddam, if pressed to the wall, will use nonconventional weapons against Israel, underlies the attempt by the authorities to frighten the Israeli public into adopting protective discipline - an attempt that failed and this week fomented the masked revolt.

The explanation lies in the failure of the intelligence assessment in October 1973, the failure that the Agranat Commission attributed to the "conception" (Syria will not go to war without Egypt and Egypt will not go to war without new warplanes and surface-to-surface missiles). Military Intelligence vowed never to make the same mistake again. Perhaps MI was unthinkingly jolted to the opposite pole. If so, it will be a far cheaper error than the previous one, but still an error (though not necessarily a mistake).