August 28, 2006:
The Israeli Air Force learned in Lebanon that there are limits to what you can do from the air. The U.S. Air Force has been learning the same lesson for several generations, but this is the first time the Israelis have run into it. The basic problem is that aerial intelligence was not sufficient to shut down a rocket firing campaign, based on operating from residential areas. Hizbollah knew that the Israelis would not indiscriminately bomb civilians. Since Hizbollah controlled the civilians in south Lebanon (whether they were pro-Hizbollah or not, and many were not), they were able to hide thousands of small 122mm rockets (each of them nine feet long and weighing 150 pounds). The launchers weighed even less, and Hizbollah had nearly a thousand of these.
It appears that the Israeli air campaign actually was a lot more successful than the mass media gives it credit for. Although some 85 percent of the Hizbollah rockets were short range (6-30 kilometers, most being 20 kilometers or less), they did have over a thousand longer range rockets (40-100+ kilometers) that could hit more densely populated areas deep inside Israel. There were relatively few of these long range rockets actually used, and that's mainly because Israeli air reconnaissance, and bombers, were all over the longer range rockets. Most were apparently destroyed, because Hizbollah did try to use them. But the larger rockets had to be moved by truck, and fired from a special launcher on the truck. These trucks were rather distinct targets from the air.
Some 90 percent of the 4,000 rockets fired were the smaller 107mm and 122mm ones. These could be hauled out of basements at night, quickly placed into their portable launchers and fired. The launch crews, who were well trained in this drill (and the Israelis had spotted them at it over the past few years) would then try to get away with the portable launchers before Israeli artillery, missiles or smart bombs hit the launch site (which lit itself up quite distinctly when the rockets took off). It's not known, for obvious reasons, if the Israelis had an accurate count of the Hizbollah launch crews. Moreover, it was not always possible to know if a launch crew was wiped out, or took a lot of casualties when the counterfire arrived. And counterfire itself could backfire, because the launch crews knew that, by launching the rockets in residential areas, civilian casualties were likely. But civilian deaths were a plus for Hizbollah, because they also had media crews, ready to film civilian casualties, and bring in foreign media to add plausibility to what were often mock (staged) 'atrocities.'
The Hizbollah rocket firing campaign had no military objective, but it did have several political ones. By continuing to fire rockets into Israel, day after day, Hizbollah could claim that it was the first Arab fighters to 'carry the war to the Israelis.' Actually, that is not true. The recent Palestinian terrorist bombing campaign killed far more Israelis. The 4,000 Hizbollah rockets killed 39 civilians and a dozen or so soldiers. That's less than one civilian per hundred rockets. The casualties declined as the campaign went on, because the launch teams were depleted, and under more pressure from the Israelis. In the last day of the campaign, 250 rockets were fired, and killed only one Israeli. Arab commentators are now noting this, and pointing out that the Israelis eventually defeated the Palestinian terrorists, and would have done the same to Hizbollah if the ceasefire had not arrived when it did.
But now the Israeli Air Force has to confront the fact that people on the ground are not easily defeated just from the air. Maybe someday that will be possible, but that day has not arrived yet.