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On Target: Eighty to nil: Israel and the first networked air war

Dr Alan Stephens 'On Target: Eighty to nil: Israel and the first networked air war' in Australian Aviation May 2018 p. 111

“Network-centric” warfare has become something of a cliché in advanced defence forces, especially for today’s “fifth-generation” era of capabilities. Put simply, the term implies knowledge dominance, real-time command and control, and the immediate provision of tactical information to the fighter who needs it now.

The prototype was revealed by the Israeli Air Force overhead Syria’s Bekaa Valley during the First Lebanon War in 1982.

The war started on 5/6 June when the Israel Defence Force invaded southern Lebanon. While the ground war was to end badly for all concerned, including the Israelis, the air war in the Bekaa Valley, site of the Damascus to Beirut highway, was a triumph for the Israeli Air Force. Network-centric operations were the key.

As the aphorism has it, time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. The IAF had been caught off-guard by its Egyptian and Syrian enemies in the October 1973 War, but this time it had done its homework. In addition to collecting information from fixed-wing reconnaissance flights and US satellite imagery, the IAF made skilful use of its new remotely piloted vehicles (RPV). In the months preceding the war, RPV flights into the Bekaa Valley were used to trigger Syrian air-defense radars, enabling the Israelis to plot the position of surface-to-air missile batteries and compile a library of electronic data from which countermeasures (such as jamming) could be constructed.

Meticulous planning characterised every aspect of the IAF’s campaign. A pleasing feature for military strategists was the extensive use of deception.

At around 2:00 pm on 9 June, Syrian radar operators detected large formations of enemy aircraft at various locations around Lebanon. Immediately, however, a blanket of electronic-countermeasures was thrown over Syria’s command and control network. More confusion was created by Israeli decoy RPVs, which panicked Syrian air defence operators into making wasted SAM launches.

The opening strikes against Syria’s SAMs were made by some twenty-four F-4 Phantoms, launching television-guided high-explosive bombs from a range of thirty kilometres. With the Syrian system in disarray, the main IAF strike force of about forty aircraft arrived and attacked SAMs, AAA, radars, and headquarters buildings. Orbiting at a safe distance from the battlespace, E-2 Hawkeye AEW aircraft coordinated the many components of the IAF’s integrated force; while EW B-707s jammed command and control services. As soon as the attack had finished, the IAF flew battle-damage assessment missions to determine the results and, if necessary, redefine reference points for the next phase.

The Syrians’ reaction was fascinating. Prior to the IAF strike, Syrian Arab Air Force fighters had been flying combat air patrols in the area. A customary response would have been to direct those pilots to engage the Israelis. Instead, they were ordered to withdraw, apparently with the intention of creating a free-fire zone in which Syria’s SAMs and AAA would be able to shoot at anything they saw without having to identify it. This decision indicated that the Syrian commanders either doubted their fighter pilots, or were confident in their ground-based air defences. If it were the latter then their confidence was misplaced. Within two hours, all SAM batteries had been either destroyed or badly damaged, and Syria’s strategy had been shattered.

The question now was whether SyAAF fighters would be called-up to try to regain control of the air over the Bekaa Valley. Several factors indicated that they were likely to struggle.

Israel’s fighter pilots were the equal of any in the world and were flying leading-edge F-15s and F-16s and very good Kfirs, armed with advanced air-to-air missiles. They were operating as one component of a networked system featuring centralised command and control, real-time battlespace management, ECM superiority, and information dominance. By contrast, the Syrians’ standards were modest, their MiG-21s and -23s were obsolescent, and they were effectively fighting blind because of the destruction of their early-warning radars and communications, and the inadequacies of their network.

The air war was personally managed by the IAF’s chief, General David Ivri, from his command post in Tel Aviv, some 300 kilometres away. Although the IAF had about ninety aircraft committed to the fight, Ivri preferred to vector separate waves of four-ship formations into the combat zone, where engagements with courageous but confused Syrian pilots would generally last only a minute or two.

While the battlespace may have been small, General Ivri and his staff managed an extremely complex situation with a degree of real-time control never before achieved in air warfare. Ivri later provided a neat musical analogy: rather than “playing” a set of individual instruments that more or less supported each other, he was “conducting” the full orchestra.

By the end of the first day almost thirty SyAAF fighters had been shot-down for no IAF losses; by the time a cease-fire was called six days later, the ratio had increased to eighty to nil. The IAF had, among other things, shown air forces everywhere the power of networked warfare.

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On Target - 201805 - May - Eighty to nil
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