'First-strike Capability' Raises Questions for Israel, Air Force Chief Says

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IAF Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, speaking in Herzliya, January 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said on Wednesday that whether or not Israel has the ability to launch a surprise attack on its enemies or not is still a relevant question. The commander compared the 2015 model to that of 1967, when Israel started the Six-Day War.

“Some claim that because the enemy can better attack Israel’s home front, the issue is more relevant than ever,” he said, at a Tel Aviv conference held by the Kinneret Center on Peace, Security and Society.

Eshel highlighted a number of changes the air force has undergone since 1967. First, he said, there’s the strategic question: Does Israel even have the legitimacy to strike preemptively?

“The State of Israel, in contrast to that period, is perceived as strong. Israel’s military actions require international legitimacy,” he said. “A surprise action – is it deemed legitimate? I think it’s a significant change. Then, we were weak. Today, we are in a different place.”

Eshel stressed that the enemy has “dramatically changed” compared to 1967. If the issue of unconventional weapons is ignored, he said, “I don’t think we are at the point of existential threat.”

The air force chief added that the scope of surface-to-air missiles [SAMs] possessed by the enemy, endangering Israeli warplanes, has grown immeasurably since 1967.

“Since then, they’ve built SAM batteries intended to prevent [surprise attacks],” said Eshel. “They’re active 24/7, waiting for someone to arrive. To reach targets, you have to beat this – not necessarily physically. But that’s certainly a challenge: attacking the targets and beating all that protects them.”

The commander did not utter the word “Iran” once, but did assert that the air force has to defend Israel both against neighboring countries and what he referred to as “the third circle” – countries that are further away geographically.

According to Eshel, the air force has greatly improved its ability to strike targets within a short time frame in the intervening years, and the Israel Defense Forces can attack thousands of targets from the air daily.

“From a pure military standpoint, there is a very big advantage [in a preemptive strike], because of what you achieve – assuming you have the ability,” he said. Still, Eshel questioned the air force’s ability to make a preemptive strike without it being discovered. “We are a people that talks a lot, and I am talking about a major operation – not about more narrow matters,” he noted, asking, “Will it leak out? Will signals of one kind or another get out because of external forces that want to influence the process?”

Eshel added that activating protection against any retaliatory reaction, such as deploying Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, could also betray a surprise attack. “If the enemy can hurt us with fire and rockets, how ready are we to be less prepared on defense for such an attack? It’s a very difficult dilemma,” he said. Eshel also stressed that a good defense system could frustrate the ability to make a surprise attack.

Talking about any potential future conflict with Lebanon, the commander said he was “convinced that air force bases will be the number one goal of Hezbollah if a confrontation begins.”

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