The accuracy and destructive force of Israel's air power has increased since the 1970s. This time its effectiveness is limited

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Lebanon conflict, Israel's attempt to inflict a rapid and crushing defeat on Hezbollah again shows the awesome destructive power of targeted air strikes - and their ineffectiveness against a motivated and mobile urban guerilla force.

After 16 days of sustained bombardment and countless sorties into southern Lebanon and south Beruit, Israel last week seemed no closer to its objective of quashing its enemy's ability to launch missile attacks at will against its northern cities and threaten troops patrolling its border.

Despite the fact that Israel has one of the most sophisticated arsenals of weaponry and air forces in the world and is facing a rag-tag militia armed largely with undirected rockets, pipe bombs and Kalashnikovs, winning modern wars is about more than might and technology.

Hezbollah is no chaotic Iraqi-style grouping of suicidal thugs - it has its own political party, television station and spin doctors. But neither is it a country, with a centralised command and control network that can be taken out, military bases that can be destroyed or a head of state that can sign an act of surrender.

Instead, the organisation functions as a state within a state, embedded into the civilian population and political system, fed with weapons by Iran and Syria and - with the ultimate aim of wiping its neighbour off the map - no qualms about striking blindly at civilian targets.

Depending on even the most fearsome air power to deliver a body blow to this kind of enemy, while minimising civilian casualties and other collateral damage and winning the war for hearts and minds in the international media is an almost impossible task. History has shown this on numerous occasions, from Suez to Kosovo, Iraq to Vietnam.

Although air power was a key contributor to Israel's rapid victory in the 1967 Six Day War, the circumstances were very different. Then Israel launched a pre-emptive and crushing attack on several fronts against its neighbours' conventional armed forces. In the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict, Israel was caught by surprise and again air power was integral to the response against a massed invasion force.

Today, the governments running the countries surrounding Israel lack the reason or the military wherewithal to even contemplate an attack on their neighbour. To that extent, Israel has neutralised the threat it faced from hostile states since coming into being in 1948.

However, tanks, air forces and soldiers in uniforms have been replaced by Hamas suicide bombers in Levis milling in bus queues and cafes, and Hezbollah guerillas ensconsed in the slums and villages of southern Lebanon, armed with mobile rocket launchers and crude missiles.

Israel, traumatised by its experience in the 1980s, is understandably reluctant to commit ground troops to Lebanon on a massive scale. But its dilemma is telling: continuing the air war now will, at best, reap rapidly diminishing returns; stopping will leave an emboldened Hezbollah and embittered Lebanese population amid the ruins of that country's faltering attempts to build an independent state.

Source: Flight International