Israel's Ground Forces Want Their Own Air Power, Just Like the U.S. Army Has

Sure there's the U.S. Air Force, but the army too has its own planes, helicopters and drones. Israel's ground forces chief says his country's security depends on just such a setup

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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A soldier holds a drone near the Gaza border after the 2014 Gaza war.
A soldier holds a drone near the Gaza border after the 2014 Gaza war. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Maj. Gen. Yaakov Barak, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Ground Forces, returned Wednesday from a visit with the U.S. military. Barak was certainly pleased by the medal he received from Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army. But he was also jealous of his American colleague, whose army has its own air force: attack and transport helicopters, reconnaissance planes and drones. Barak wants his own air force too, separate from the Israel Air Force, even if only in miniature.

Barak challenged the air force’s (almost) total monopoly on everything that flies in the IDF, including the helicopters operated from the Ramat David air base in the north for the navy – though not including the small Skylark drones operated by the Artillery Corps’ Skyrider Unit and directly attached to combat ground forces. Barak was writing in English in the Dado Center Journal published by the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, which is under the auspices of the IDF’s Operations Directorate.

Barak noted that the air force has its own land-based commando unit, Shaldag; it’s similar to Military Intelligence’s Sayeret Matkal and the navy’s Shayetet 13, which is similar to the U.S. Navy SEALs. If all three of these branches, none of which answers to the ground forces, have special land-based units supporting their operations, “why should the ground forces not have their own multidimensional capabilities?” Barak writes.

“The ground forces must operate in the air, from the air and towards the air,” Barak writes in the article titled “The Sky is No Longer the Limit: The Need for a Ground Forces UAV Fleet and Multi-Dimensional Warfare Capabilities.”

This is nothing new; after all, paratroopers jump from planes but are part of the infantry, but Barak says the ground forces need their own air capabilities separate from the air force. The air force’s monopoly can no longer do the job alone, he says.

This new situation is a “spherical threat” — ground forces are endangered not only on the ground but from beneath it from tunnels and from above. But from such a close distance, a few dozen meters, the air force isn’t available, flexible or agile enough. Below and above, the invisible enemy lies in ambush, attacks and disappears.

“The low-altitude air dimension holds important potential that, when realized, would enable the maneuvering forces of brigade combat teams to increase their operational effectiveness in all fields,” Barak writes, referring to the joint infantry, armor, artillery and engineering units that would operate in Gaza or Lebanon.

Barak’s menu has three courses. “The ground forces need independent air and anti-air capabilities to enable them to implement three critical objectives, three capabilities for these three objectives,” he writes.

“The first capability is a fleet of micro UAVs to identify the enemy and its infrastructure that allows it to hide. This objective can be achieved by using miniature aircraft that could serve a single commander, or a pack of aircraft that would enable greater systematic control of an area.”

Barak deliberately uses the term UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle, in what could be seen as an act of defiance against the air force, which calls its drones RPVs, remotely piloted vehicles. He also discusses “new defensive capabilities that would facilitate the interception of air and rocket threats to the maneuvering forces, and the immediate destruction of enemy sources of fire.”

As Barak puts it, during the 2014 Gaza war, “the enemy identified as successes (from its perspective) its strikes on the ground forces while they waited in assembly areas, traversed essential crossing points or were deployed prior to an assault, among others. Influenced by the fighting in Syria and Iraq, as well as the lessons learned from Operation Protective Edge, there is an increasing trend to develop heavier rockets that can cause greater damage, whose purpose is to strike IDF forces engaged in combat . A ground forces defensive capability is required, a type of mission-specific Iron Dome that could provide tactical protection for assembly areas, for forces preparing for an assault and for forward command centers and others.”

Such a system would be used against Hamas and Hezbollah. The Palestinians’ use of drones and gliders goes back 30 years to the Night of the Gliders in 1987, when Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine sent two men on hang gliders into the Galilee and killed six Israeli soldiers.

Barak’s third goal is the “maximization of a new air combat dimension that includes UAVs and robotic autonomous drones for critical support roles such as combat logistical supply to the forces.”

Changeover at the air force

Barak, one of the IDF’s most experienced officers, was previously a tank officer and headed the Operations Directorate. He then headed logistics before taking up his current post. Because of this experience, he prefers to avoid dependence on the air force’s logistics for supplying the ground forces from the air.

Israel’s incoming air force chief, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, will take over from Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel on August 14, so Barak is challenging the air force just before the changeover. And that’s not all the chutzpah: The article was published in a double issue marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and focusing on air power and the air force’s great success in destroying its enemy counterparts.

Eshel, the son of a lieutenant colonel in the infantry, was one of Israel’s most influential air force commanders, but he was born too early. If he had been just a little bit younger he would have been an excellent candidate to become the next IDF chief of staff. As head of the Operations Directorate during Israel’s last days in Lebanon and as head of air operations against Gaza in the first half of the previous decade, he and his ground forces counterparts improved the integration between ground troops and the air force.

In his own article in the journal, a preface to the double issue and only a bit before Barak’s piece, Eshel tries to be descriptive without bragging. The air force in 2017 is much more powerful than that of the Six-Day War, and as then it's capable of a preemptive strike. Still, a preemptive can’t prevent the enemy from continuing to fight, and the enemy will still have great firepower to attack Israel’s home front, Eshel says. He thus supports increased spending on defensive measures – heresy to offense lovers in these years of simplicity and shortage in the air force.

Assuming that Norkin continues Eshel’s policies without too serious a deviation, and with the arrival of the F-35 and other systems planned and budgeted over the next five years, the question from Barak’s challenge is how important it is to the air force to insist on owning everything that flies, glides and hovers.

Barak knows the history of the organization of the U.S. military. He knows that its air force, which grew out of the Signal Corps a century ago and reached its maturity during World War II as the Army Air Forces, is celebrating its 70th anniversary of independence from the army this September.

The property settlement between the divorced couple left the air defense troops (anti-aircraft guns and later ground-to-air missiles), along with light reconnaissance planes to direct artillery fire, with the ground forces. In an attempt to create something out of thin air, the army adopted the helicopter and enhanced its operations for attack and transport. This would never have happened in the U.S. Air Force, where they sanctified bombers, fighter planes and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The ground forces kept short- and medium-range missiles – in an arbitrary decision.

The IDF was different. While the General Staff is also the headquarters of the ground forces – it has a command structure, corps and divisions – the IDF has no real ground arm in the true sense of an “army,” even though it unified the Ground Forces Command with the logistics branch that serves it.

At the same time the air arm, which espouses centralized command and control, owns all the planes and helicopters, the air defense forces (which were once part of the Artillery Corps), satellites, missiles (except for the ground forces’ rockets in the artillery), and pretty much everything else. Its mission encompasses everything from outer space to inner space, including tunnels, on every continent and over every sea. Just add a tiny bit more and it could be said that the air force is really the IDF.

Flexibility among the forces

Alongside the hypermarket air force, Barak wants a proverbial app for every battalion commander being bombarded or shot at to order up a counterattack. The order would be forwarded without delay to the planes and helicopters in the air, or the missile boat along the coast and the nearby artillery batteries. The best force for the job would fill the order.

The idea is convincing, and it might even work in training exercises, but in real life every group looks out for itself, and the combat ground forces are shoved to the bottom of the food chain. Maj. Gen. (res.) Benny Peled, the air force chief during the Yom Kippur War and the next four years, expanded his empire so his authority would reflect his responsibilities. The air force took control of much more, at the expense of the riflemen. Pilots took care of pilots, and for the generals the combat soldiers remained at the bottom.

Over the past few years things have improved a bit in this area. The unit in charge of cooperation between the air force and the ground forces has improved. Air force squadron commanders and the combat battalion commanders have traded experiences, not just words. A new air force group was established for cooperation and helicopters – the second incarnation of the air force helicopter unit set up in 1997 after the collision of two helicopters transporting troops to Lebanon in which 73 soldiers died.

The combination of cooperation (in land and sea battles) with the helicopter group was one of Eshel’s initiatives as part of the air force’s changes to its operational staff structure. This didn’t satisfy Barak; he wants to be the host and not the guest, the Benny Peled of the ground forces. For now he’s one of the three generals who share paternity over the new commando brigade, along with Central Command chief Roni Numa and Depth Corps chief Moni Katz. This is a land-based brigade, but when it recently conducted a training exercise in Cyprus with helicopters, the air force used the opportunity to run a separate training exercise for its own units, the Shaldag commando unit and the 669 airborne rescue unit. Because when the air force wants to it cooperates, and when it doesn’t it’s independent.

Barak’s plan for a ground air force was published even before it went through the Via Dolorosa of staff work in the IDF’s Planning Directorate, where it would collect the reservations of the air force, operations branches and command, control, computers and communications branch – and long before it was presented to Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

Eisenkot isn’t looking for new shocks in the IDF to pile on top of the Gideon multiyear plan, which is taking advantage of the lower Iranian nuclear threat and the agreement between the defense and finance ministries to set a multiyear budgetary framework for the IDF. If Barak can be jealous of Milley and his army, which spends $137 billion to keep about a million soldiers in the regular army and reserves, it’s certain that Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is jealous of Eisenkot for his budgetary stability. After all, Milley has to plead with Congress to give him a well-planned budget, not a politically motivated patchwork.

In the end, the combat soldier fighting in Jabalya in Gaza or Bint Jbeil in Lebanon doesn’t care whether the drone operators wear air force blue or army green. All that matters is for them to carry out their mission the best they can. The police used drones for the evacuation of the illegal outpost Amona in February.

The first operational test of using drones in the IDF was given to the Central Command’s Nitzan combat intelligence battalion. Such a trial is usually called a pilot, but in this case of course it doesn’t mean a real air force pilot, or even a navigator, God forbid. Just a “controller.”

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