Minimal air defences mean coalition forces should not base long-range weapon planning on lessons learned in Gulf

A high-ranking Israeli air force officer says the UK and USA should be careful when absorbing the lessons from the recent Iraq war, because they were not faced with a fully engaging opposition.

The official says Israel's experience shows that the distinction is important "as it is very different if there are full air defences. If you operate in an environment which is really protected, then you need a long-range capability." As the Iraqi air defence system was minimal, the senior officer says that "all-in-all there probably are no lessons for long-range weapons". He describes Iraq as "relatively calm", adding: "Iraq launched hundreds of SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], but many were ballistic, unguided."

The official says each air defence system has to be considered in its own right. For instance, he says, Syria has more than 200 SAM batteries, many 30-40 years old, but "still they are operational, and are a good system". To operate against such defences, an air force needs to know how to attack the system, how to use electronic warfare and self-defence systems, and how to suppress and destroy enemy air defences. Planning therefore needs to be "relevant to the theatre, each case has to be taken on its own", says the officer.

If the air defences are good, he says, "an air force has to take time to erode the air defence, otherwise it will suffer heavy losses. Then very long-range missiles are good."

The arms race over the past 40 years between anti-aircraft and counter-anti-aircraft systems means some countries know they cannot ensure air superiority over their territory. They rely instead on protecting some of the air defence system so that some threat remains to the attacking forces. Experience has shown, says the officer, that if a threat remains "it keeps the [attacking] pilots more alert and reduces their freedom to be effective".

Iraq had followed this strategy, says the source, as since 1991 its air defence system has been attacked many times. Iraq had become "a master of disguise… even after 12 years the USA and UK didn't have all the batteries", he adds.

Time-critical targeting continues to be an issue in high- and low- intensity conflicts, says the officer. "You need to close the loop in a short time. We saw that in Iraq." If the period between collecting intelligence and launching an attack is in minutes "that's good, in hours it is poor", he says.

He continues: "The key is integration, not specific industrial technologies." Real-time sensors have been available since the 1980s, "Being able to collect and transmit the data is not new. It's a good start, but not the end." What is needed is the right command and control, processing capability "and it all has to be harmonised", he concludes.

Meanwhile, the officer is awaiting the service introduction of the Lockheed Martin F-16I multirole fighter at the end of the year. The aircraft was selected over the acquisition of more Boeing F-15Is, and will be equipped with conformal fuel tanks to extend range to match the larger fighter.

"Payload [of the F-16I] is less, but we have more aircraft. Range can't be improved with more aircraft." He adds that initially the air force will study how to use the aircraft within its mission profiles.

Source: Flight International