The emergence on the battlefield of precision-guided rockets and missiles marks a turning point in the history of warfare. This is because they provide terror organizations and non-government militias with the means to achieve air superiority without operating any combat aircraft.
Air superiority means having access to hostile airspace while denying the enemy access to friendly airspace. It provides its possessor with the freedom of action to strike the enemy at will. This freedom is achieved through conventional air power by suppressing the hostile air force and neutralizing the enemy’s ground-based air defenses. The point of such a costly and expensive effort is not the satisfaction of shooting down enemy aircraft or destroying its air defense batteries, but the degradation of the enemy’s war-making capacity by destroying its ground and naval forces and paralyzing its economy.
Every campaign in World War II opened with a bid for air superiority. The Nazi Luftwaffe achieved air superiority in Poland, Norway and France, bringing about the swift defeat of their armies and the overrunning and occupation of their national territories by Hitler’s Wehrmacht. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve air superiority over Britain, leading to the cancellation of Hitler’s planned invasion of the British Isles (“Operation Sea Lion”). The defensive victory in the Battle of Britain had far-reaching strategic consequences, initiating the long and hard-fought process of defeating and occupying Nazi Germany.
In 1967, Israel opened the Six-Day War with “Operation Focus,” which obliterated the air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The purpose of this operation was twofold: to deny the enemy’s capability to strike Israel’s territory and armed forces from the air and to provide an umbrella for the IDF’s offensive, which ultimately defeated the opposing land forces. Egypt under Anwar Sadat unleashed a similar operation when it launched the October 1973 war, but the results were inconclusive; hence Egypt’s failure to achieve its military goals (though it succeeded in achieving its political goals). In “Operation Mole Cricket 19” at the opening stage of the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israel Air Force gained full air supremacy over Syria and Lebanon, thus largely knocking Syria’s ground forces out of the war.
Spectacular air battles, rows of enemy emblems painted on the noses of victorious fighter aircraft and video clips showing demolished air defense batteries lift the morale of the nation, depress the enemy and elevate fighter pilots to the status of media stars. But this is not the purpose of the immense effort and expenditure involved in establishing and maintaining a modern air force, nor does it justify the losses in air battles. The strategic purpose of the effort and pain is twofold: first, to deny friendly airspace to the enemy; and second, to open enemy airspace to friendly forces so they can strike its territory at will.
Ever since the early 20th century, when flying machines evolved from rich men’s toys into lethal weapons of war, all the world’s armies have invested heavily in countering the threat from the air. Initially, such efforts were focused on access denial, or in other words, preventing hostile aircraft from collecting visual intelligence about friendly troop dispositions and blocking hostile bombing of troops and cities. The response was the perfection and deployment of integrated air defenses that relied on interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery (later replaced by ground-to-air missiles). The Battle of Britain was the first victory of this access denial strategy, with Britain managing to combine radar, fighter aircraft and fire control centers into the first modern integrated air defense system.
Later on during World War II, when Britain’s integrated air defense became virtually impenetrable to the Nazi Luftwaffe, the Germans conceived the idea of bombing by missile rather than by aircraft. Since the air defenses of the time were unable to intercept missiles flying at supersonic speeds, ballistic missiles promised the penetrability that conventional bomber aircraft had lost.
This marked a major shift. In making this adjustment, Germany achieved the essence if not the form of classic air superiority—namely, the freedom to strike the enemy’s territory at will—with no loss of aircraft or pilots.
While Germany’s ballistic and cruise missiles wreaked havoc and killed thousands in Britain and later in Belgium, their poor accuracy prevented them from changing the course of the war. The disproportion between the immense effort of the Germans in developing, building, deploying and launching the missiles—a brilliant technical achievement—and their minimal impact on the war was internalized by all post-war military establishments, including the IDF. The expression “Missiles and rockets don’t win wars” blinded Israel for years to the looming missile threat.
Between World War I and World War II, several air forces—particularly the British and American—worked to achieve the second goal of air superiority, that of gaining access to enemy airspace with fleets of strategic bombers. During World War II, strategic bombing by swarms of heavy bombers caused unimaginable damage to German cities and killed at least a million civilians, but the effect on the course of the war is still up for debate. Allied air losses caused by Germany’s own integrated air defenses were unacceptably high. Only in the waning phases of the war, when the Luftwaffe’s capabilities were nearly exhausted, did the Allied bombers gain access to German airspace with acceptable losses.
Air offense and air defense clashed next in Southeast Asia, when the dense array of North Vietnam’s ground-to-air missiles, backed by the judicious use of interceptor aircraft, nearly blunted the United States’ air superiority and extracted a heavy price in downed U.S. aircraft and lost aircrew.
Another landmark—if largely forgotten—clash between air offense and air defense occurred during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Once Saddam Hussein’s plan to defeat Iran by a lightning campaign fizzled out, the conflict deteriorated into a war of attrition over the course of which Iraqi jet bombers, purchased from the Soviet Union, bombed Tehran and other Iranian cities. The Iranian air force was still equipped at the time with cutting-edge U.S. interceptor aircraft purchased by the shah prior to the Islamic Revolution. The consequence was that Iran managed to down many Iraqi bombers, forcing Saddam to call off his strategic bombing campaign.
In desperation, Saddam—like Hitler before him—turned to ballistic missiles. His fleet of Soviet Scud missiles was too short-ranged to hit deep within Iran. Using the expertise of aerospace companies in Europe and South America, he developed an extended-range version and converted most of his Scud stockpile. The new missile, dubbed Al-Hussein, was used for strategic bombardment.
Almost 200 missiles were fired at Tehran and three other major cities deep within Iran, killing thousands, destroying houses and compelling millions to evacuate the cities. The common wisdom among most analysts is that those missile attacks were the last straw that compelled Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink the poison chalice” and agree to a ceasefire. After eight years of bloodletting, Iraq emerged victorious. It can be safely concluded that in that case, missiles did win the war.
Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser also chose a strategy of using ballistic missiles as surrogate air power. Nasser was astute enough to realize the inferiority of his air force vis-à-vis the IAF after the 1956 Sinai War. When his request for Soviet ballistic missiles was rejected, he hired German experts to develop an indigenous ballistic missile that could hit any target “south of Beirut”—i.e., in Israel’s entire territory. The logic behind Nasser’s move emulated Hitler and anticipated Saddam. Because he was unable to achieve air superiority with his manned combat aircraft fleet, he strove to achieve it with missiles.
A similar logic compelled Hafez Assad, Syria’s ruler, following the trouncing of his air force in the 1982 Lebanon war, to acquire a huge fleet of Scud missiles tipped with home-developed chemical warheads. His minister of defense, Mustafa Tlass, pointed out the interchangeability between aircraft and missiles when he wrote that “the 1982 war was an air war, the next one will be a missile war.”
The non-state terrorist organizations now confronting Israel from Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively, have never had the option of acquiring air forces. Hence they have equipped themselves with huge stockpiles of simple missiles—aka rockets—and have used them to terrorize Israel’s homeland, killing hundreds of civilians and causing considerable property damage and economic losses.
Rockets and missiles as originally conceived during World War II were not very accurate, making them unfit for precision strikes. As a result, they were used mainly to saturate troop concentrations and terrorize population centers. Improved accuracy could only be achieved via heavy, extremely costly and highly complicated electromechanical guidance systems. Precision strikes thus remained the sole domain of manned combat aircraft that could close in upon targets and hit them with short-range precision-guided munitions.
Over time, however, technology has caught up. Today’s smartphones contain all the wherewithal necessary for precision guidance of vehicles, be they automobiles, drones or missiles. For about a decade, it has been possible to incorporate such technologies into even simple Grads, converting unguided rockets into pinpoint precision missiles at modest expenditure.
This technological shift makes missiles as effective as air power for precision strikes. Precision-guided missiles are being developed and deployed today by all the major world powers as well as by many smaller states. In the Middle East, Iran is leading the way; it is currently converting all its older rockets and missiles into precision weapons. It also supplies its allies in the region with expertise and materials with which to build their own precision missile capabilities—hence the Precision Project of Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in the region.
Why is Israel so anxious to frustrate Hezbollah’s Precision Project? Because once it is achieved, it will elevate Hezbollah’s war-making capability to that of a state military force. Hezbollah will possess all the advantages of an offensive air force without needing to own a single combat aircraft. Its precision missiles will be able to paralyze any vital installation or terrorize any civilian population center in Israel.
One of the biggest advantages of ground-launched rockets and missiles is their small footprint. Precision rockets and missiles enjoy the same advantage: their launchers are as small, stealthy, and hard to find and destroy as those of their more imprecise predecessors. Air power, by contrast, has the Achilles’ Heel of a reliance on huge air bases replete with kilometers-long runways, aircraft hangars, workshops, communication centers and so on.
The vulnerability of giant, stationary air bases to precision missile strikes was demonstrated during the January 2020 Iranian missile strike on the U.S.-operated Ein Assad air base in Iraq. Prior to the attack, the U.S. teams at that base had launched a fleet of Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for patrolling the base perimeter. One of the incoming Iranian missiles hit an underground communications conduit and cut the fiber optic lines between the UAVs’ control vans and the system’s transceivers. This caused a loss of ground control over the entire UAV fleet. It took hours to reestablish communication via satellite and bring the UAVs back in.
Needless to say, U.S. combat aircraft based in Iraq were powerless against this missile strike. Simply put, Iran gained air superiority over the air base by virtue of its precision missiles.
Once Hezbollah is equipped with precision missiles, it stands to reason that it will launch an “Operation Focus” of its own in the opening stage of any future war with Israel, firing salvoes of precision missiles to paralyze Israel’s air bases. Israel’s active defense structure—Iron Dome, David’s Sling and any future high-power laser defense system—will probably be able to destroy most incoming missiles, but not all of them. Active defense cannot guarantee a hermetic defense. Whatever precision missiles do manage to leak through the defensive shield could erode the IAF’s capability—witness what Iranian precision missiles did in Iraq.
Against a precision missile threat, active defense is a necessary but insufficient condition. It requires complementary measures. One such measure is passive defense, meaning the shielding of vital installations with thick concrete walls that could withstand direct hits. While technically feasible, this kind of response is very expensive and time-consuming. Even if the necessary budgets were allocated, there is no guarantee that the shielding would be completed in time.
Another response would be to diversify the IAF’s offensive capability to compensate for degradation of its offensive power during the initial phase of future war. If Hezbollah can establish an “air force without aircraft,” so can Israel.
Israel’s own Precision Project is more than a decade old. Israel’s defense industries have developed and tested a number of ground-launched precision missiles with varying ranges and warheads. To date, the IDF has agreed to buy only the shortest-range version, and even that only in limited numbers. Longer-range precision missiles, such as the recently tested LORA, are successfully exported to foreign armies, but not to the IDF.
A recent article in Israel Defense magazine disclosed that this was the product of IAF objections to the provision of Israel’s ground forces with an independent precision-strike capability beyond the range of 100 km (62 miles). If that is true, then the obstacle in the path of augmenting the air force with “air power without aircraft” is not technological or operational but rather prestige and budgetary battles within the IDF.
Such inter-service turf wars are not unique to Israel. One of the most notorious occurred in the United States, when the U.S. Air Force fought tooth and nail against the introduction of ballistic missiles into the U.S. Navy submarine fleet as they would “compete” with its own strategic bombers. It took years for the Pentagon to resolve this battle.
It is far from sure that Israel can afford that kind of time.
A proposal to establish an Israeli missile strike force to back up Israel’s aircraft strike force was mooted a couple of years ago. As far as is known, it was rejected by the IDF. The relatively short-range precision missiles now acquired are slated to provide ground forces with long-range artillery support for ground operations, not to back up and complement the IAF’s capability to conduct strategic strikes when its bases are under precision missile fire.
The received wisdom that “missiles and rockets don’t win wars,” always a dubious assertion, is now obsolete and demonstrably false. Modern precision missiles have the same punch as combat aircraft yet are less vulnerable, as they don’t rely on huge, immovable, target-rich air bases. Precision-guided missiles and rockets can paralyze the civilian and military infrastructures of entire countries, paving the way to their defeat.
Today, precision-guided missiles and rockets most certainly can win wars. Israel should do everything in its power not only to prevent defeat by such weapons but to use them to defeat its enemies.
Uzi Rubin was founding Director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, which managed the Arrow program. He is now a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.