Review by Takis Diakoumis.
Helion’s @War series has quickly established itself as the go-to reference on global conflict over the past century with the people and machines directly involved providing a focal point for study. Conflict in the Middle East has dominated geopolitics since the end of the Second World War and at the critical centre has remained the Israeli armed forces and in particular the dramatic exploits of the Israeli Air Force. Bill Norton continues to add to the growing Middle East @War collection with this second of three entries covering the Israeli Air Force (IAF) since its creation with the Israeli state in 1948.
Norton’s second volume covers IAF activities from 1973 with a slight peek into the future up to 2023, which would mark 75 years since the creation of Israel. One of the problems often found in a number of reference texts about Israeli Armed Forces, and the IAF in particular, is the often exaggerated presentation of the people and the events that have shaped the small nation since 1948. While there is no denying the effectiveness of Israeli forces in keeping its enemies at bay, deep and critical examinations of its activities have been few and far between. Norton very deliberately peers well under the covers to explore the IAF and its rapid development into what is without doubt one of the most effective fighting units in the world.
The Yom Kippur War in 1973, which caught Israel by surprise, would result in significant losses before an eventual uncertain victory. By 1975, this wake-up call had Israel spending more of its budget on defence and weapons than any other nation in the world; a quarter of its population was also working either directly or indirectly in defence activities.
By the end of the decade, framed around land-for-peace negotiations, the US was contributing billions of its own money to Israel’s security, first in funding the extensive withdrawal from the Sinai and later, into the 1980s, constructing new air bases across the nation in addition to the establishment of enormous American stores of munitions, spares and associated items throughout the Israeli state.
The years that followed would see the continuing development of Israeli defence industries where, in addition to the nation’s acquisition of the latest American jets with the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon/Netz, they would also evolve the earlier Mirage into the initially troubled, but eventually effective, Kfir with an American engine and vastly enhanced air-to-ground capability. Introduction of the Eagle and the Netz would help establish Israel’s strategic prowess, demonstrated to lethal effect in the 1981 strike on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor just outside of Baghdad. This critical turning point would firmly establish Israel as the dominant power in the region with the willingness and capability to carry out large deep-interdiction strikes in the protection of its interests.
Norton’s careful dissection of IAF activities through the 1980s is especially good. Detailed analysis of Israeli actions in Lebanon and the critical role played by IAF helicopter units in what was by now a low-intensity conflict between nation states, played out by high-intensity fighting between Israel and the growing insurgent groups across the region, particularly within Israeli-occupied Southern Lebanon. Of interesting note here is the firm establishment of almost counter-insurgency tactics focused around the direct employment and support of small, specialised units, not unlike what the US itself would employ so many years later in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new century would present the IAF with not only a new headquarters in Tel Aviv but also with a brand new name as the Israel Air and Space Forces (IASF). While direct threat by surrounding state actors receded, the growing asymmetrical threat of small, well-organised and equipped groups would continue to challenge the IASF. Advanced technologies, many locally grown, would see the addition of large numbers of unmanned surveillance and strike vehicles to the IASF arsenal, in addition to greatly enhanced early warning capabilities that include space-based systems.
Almost 20 years into this new century, Israel’s defence spending has shrunk – now at around 5%, though it remains well within the global top ten. Recent multi-billion dollar acquisitions of further advanced F-16s, as well as the introduction of the F-35, will ensure Israel’s aerial dominance in the region continues as most of its traditional enemies continue to be distracted by their own internal conflicts. Of all the challenges surrounding the nation, Iran remains the most problematic as the IASF continues to train for a possible strategic strike on that nation’s nuclear ambitions.
Norton’s examination of Israeli air power is a critical study and fundamental read for any student of Middle East conflict. He openly includes Israel’s retaliatory and disproportionate force application, adding also what was the growing discomfort with aircrews destroying entire buildings and other collateral damage to target single individuals. In any case, the IAF/IASF has remained consistently superior in a troubled region never without conflict and is a testament to its effective training and leadership fostering creative thinking and experimentation.
The simple reality remains that the Arab states, more often than not, failed to effectively coordinate their operations and even more-so to overcome their inherent distrust of each other enough to succeed. Israel’s ability to convince the US to supply it with the most advanced weapons available, even to sometimes temporarily divert resources from its own American units, has always stood in stark contrast to the Arab patron who would only send lower-rated versions of its front-line machines.
As with all @War series books from Helion, this second volume is jam packed with photos, maps and stunning aircraft profiles. Bill Norton is an accomplished scholar on a complex subject and brings his enormous experience and unparalleled critical eye to this exploration of Israeli air power.