An Air-ground Revolution in Gaza

The role of the air force as a service provider was replaced by preliminary planning of operations, as opposed to the principles of centralization practiced by IAF commanders for decades.

In October, after the disengagement, Brigadier General Amir Eshel will be appointed chief of staff of the Israel Air Force. Eshel will replace Brigadier General Ido Nehushtan, the Prime Minister's Office's candidate for the position of the Sharon's military secretary and for promotion to major general. Brigadier General Yohanan Loker will be appointed group air commander, deputy commander for operations, in place of Eshel. The round of appointments will place Eshel at the head of the list of the three candidates for next commander-in-chief of the IAF toward the end of 2007, with Nehushtan a close second and Loker trailing them.

These officers have in recent years been involved in improving operational output in the Israel Defense Forces by means of a unique combination of air and ground forces, an innovation the U.S. Air Force would like to imitate. Together with a handful of division commanders in the regular army, they are also designated to lead the entire IDF at the end of this decade and into the next.

Tomorrow in the Negev, Eshel will meet with officers from his operations division, including the IAF "project officer" for the evacuation of Gaza and northern Samaria, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, and additional commanders in the division and in the units preparing to safeguard the evacuation of the settlements.

The meeting will deal with the plan of action should Palestinian groups in Gaza try to shell civilians and soldiers, who will be crowded together and exposed - in the settlements, on the few and busy roads and in the thinly protected encampments.

In 2004, Eshel, along with Kochavi's predecessor Brigadier General Shmuel Zakkai and a handful of colonels in the air staff and in Gaza - headed by Golani Brigade Commander Erez Zuckerman and Givati Brigade Commander Eyal Eisenberg - led a revolution in combined activation of air and ground forces.

The role of the air force as a service provider, helping a client from the ground forces in times of distress, was replaced by preliminary planning of operations, based on the relative advantages of each element in the force, and dual command, as opposed to the principles of centralization practiced by IAF commanders for decades.

The war room became the room where two different metals were welded into a new entity, more efficient than in the past, especially in terms of casualties to the IDF and innocent Palestinians. Instead of sending a brigade to Khan Yunis, with aircraft on call to help if necessary, the objectives of the brigade and the aircraft are decided on ahead of time, based on their relative advantages.

Without much enthusiasm, the IDF uses the awkward term "shiluviyut" ("combined efforts"). A more correct alternative could be "hashlav" - meaning "combined efforts and maturity" - because the belated success was awaiting a breakthrough in awareness along with suitable technology and the right people in the air, on the ground, and in the General Staff.

The IAF, which excelled in its own war bringing down planes and destroying the Arab air forces at their bases, disappointed the ground forces during the war of attrition and afterwards.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the IAF failed to redeem the IOUs scattered by major general Mordechai Hod, who had been its commander for seven years up to May 1973. Hod caused the Artillery Corps to atrophy, by promising that the planes would be "flying artillery," and he refrained from purchasing anti-tank missiles that were available from the Americans.

The Egyptian network of ground-to-air missiles was captured in the end by the Tank Corps, which crossed the Suez Canal westward, so that the ground forces protected the air force, rather than the other way round. In Lebanon, until the end of the 1990s, combat helicopters and planes were activated as an incidental addition, rather than an integral part to an operation.

A notable improvement, which came years later, was recorded in Lebanon during the period of "blue-green," the cooperation in the Northern Command against Hezbollah, led by Eshel - then a colonel and head of air operations - and Giora Eiland, then head of the operations division in the General Staff. The lessons learned were later helpful for the targeted assassinations, but were barely applied during the fighting in the territories. We can only imagine how much slaughter could have been avoided in Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin had the forces been activated there with the method refined last year in Gaza by Eshel and Zakkai.

If Gaza should heat up during the coming days and weeks, the mutual understanding between Eshel, Kochavi and their officers should create a unified and purposeful ground-air campaign. The understanding was achieved during many hours when the brigade commanders were present in the air force "pit" and the pilots were rumbling in an armored combat vehicle along the Philadelphi route, following the rule of "experience, not arrogance."

In a similar manner, the Northern Command is preparing for the Lebanese border. Adoption of this approach in the Central Command is slower. There, they have yet to recognize the need to adopt the air-ground revolution that began in Gaza.