Warplanes: Israel Gets Closer


September 25, 2014: In the last decade Israel has made many changes in how its aircraft hit ground targets. This includes targets near Israeli troops as well as those deep in enemy territory. In the 2014 war with Hamas the Israeli air force demonstrated how, with the new procedures and technology aircraft could drop unguided bomb much closer to friendly troops. For example, the “safety distance” for 2,000 pound bombs used to be 1,000 meters, now it is more like 300 meters. For smart bomb and smaller bombs it’s even closer. The Israelis picked some of these new techniques from recent American experience and used that to revamp many aspects of how warplanes support ground troops.

It’s long been known that, when it comes to air delivered bombs in direct support of your own troops, smaller and more accurate is what the infantry prefer. That's because, right after the bomb goes off, the grunts want to get in there and capture or kill the survivors before the shell shock wears off. The blast radius of larger (500, 1000 and 2,000 pound) aerial bombs, especially unguided ones, means friendly troops have to stay several hundred meters away. Israel still uses some dumb bombs and about five percent of the 6,000 targets hit by aircraft in the recent Hamas war were dumb bombs and because of better technology and coordination with the infantry the ”safety distance” was much less than in the past. One reason for that was that during much of the 19 days ground troops were in Gaza for the recent Hamas war each combat brigade had at least one F-16 assigned to it (just to that brigade). This sort of thing makes a difference. For example, in the past it took 20-30 minutes for an F-16 to show up to answer a call for ground support. With the new procedures it is ten minutes or less. Then there were also the new procedures than enabled the Israelis to keep over 40 aircraft over the small north Gaza battlefield at one time and not suffer any collisions.

Meanwhile the U.S. has found that the ideal weapon for ground support is often be GPS guided shells, something the Israelis have not bought. Since 2007 American cannon (155mm) artillery units have been using GPS equipped "Excalibur" smart shells. Infantry commanders are particularly fond of this 45 kg (99 pound) shell, as it allows their troops to be as close as "across the street" from the target.

The U.S. Air Force has responded with new bombs that are nearly as useful as Excalibur. The new FLM (Focused Lethality Munition) bomb  uses a composite (carbon fiber) casing and replaces some of the normal 127.2 kg (280 pounds) of explosives with 93 kg of explosives surrounded by high density filler (fine tungsten powder). A regular 500 pound bomb has a blast radius (injury from blast pressure out to 13 meters, with dangerous fragments lethal out to 40 meters). The FAM would cut these distances by at least half. Meanwhile, the filler makes the bomb deadlier within the smaller blast radius. FAM, of course, is GPS or laser guided.

All this goes back to the Israeli experience in 2006 where this war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon made Israel realize two things; its military was still superior to Arab forces and its military was not as superior as Israel believed it was. The major Israeli deficiency was communications. What the Arabs, or at least Iran-backed Hezbollah, had done was learned to move faster and more resourcefully than the Israelis expected. What really shocked the Israelis was that although they could spot and track these Hezbollah moves they could not get artillery, aircraft or ground troops moved quickly enough to take out a lot of identified targets before the enemy managed to change position. All the different levels of Israeli headquarters and combat units could actually communicate with each other, but not fast enough to hit a target that had been identified and located but was not staying put long enough for the completion of all the procedures and paperwork required to get the strike order sent to the unit best able to carry it out.

The solution was new technology and procedures. Since 2006 Israel has built a new communications system that is faster and able, according to Israeli claims, to hit five times as many targets as the 2006 era forces could manage. Much of the solution had nothing to do with radical new hardware but to simply standardizing the procedures everyone had long used to call for fire, or to deliver it. Now commanders at all levels can see the same data and call for and receive fire support quickly. Thus when a target is identified the bombs, shells or ground attack follows quickly.

All of these post-2006 changes showed up in Gaza recently and most of them worked. So now Hezbollah has to take another look at its own tactics. That may take a while for at the moment Hezbollah is tied down in Syria and won’t ready for another go at Israel for some years.





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