Has the F-35 gone to war?

A surprising Twitter-thread by Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot Tuesday stated that the F-35 made its combat debut already in January, when it would have taken part in an Israeli raid on Damascus.

Unfortunately, I do not read French, but Air Forces Monthly published a nice overview of the info, found here.

The raid has been known from before, and was directed against Mezze Air Base (alternative spellings include ‘Mazzeh’ and ‘Mezzeh’) in the western outskirts of Damascus, around 45 km from the armistice line marking de facto Israeli territory post-1973. The base is clearly visible in Google Maps. Notable observations include:

  • The base seems to house mainly military helicopters, though a few fast jets are visible,
  • A number of hardened-aircraft shelters are found, naturally it is impossible to tell if more aircraft are housed in these,
  • Several of the revetments at the ‘amoeba’-area in the middle of the field seems to have been hit. Several small marks could indicate either cluster munitions, secondary explosions/shrapnel/fires from aircraft standing there being hit, or salvos of (light) mortar fire.

The base has been hit several times by the Israelis, including in December last year. Then the alleged weapon of choice according to Syrian news agency SANA was a surface-to-surface missile system fired from a position close to Mount Avital (or Tal Abu Nada). As a side-note, I find the claimed firing position somewhat dubious. SANA claimed in the January attack as well that the weapon used was a surface-to-surface missile, but fired from close to Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Another interesting raid allegedly took place in December 2015. Here, a Syrian source claimed that the Israelis fired four Spice-2000 stand-off precision guided munitions from inside Israeli airspace, to take out the convicted Hezbollah-associated terrorist Samir Kuntar in his sixth-floor apartment in Damascus. While it seems certain Kuntar died in an explosion at his apartment, the exact circumstances are unclear to say the least.

What is certain is that in the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force completely dismantled the Syrian ground-based air defence network, and then followed it up by destroying the fighters that the Syrian Arab Air Force scrambled. After this, the Israelis has proved a number of times that they can operate inside Syrian airspace more or less with impunity. The single most famous raid was Operation Orchard, the raid that destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in 2007, and which included both fighter jets and helicopter inserted special forces. This haven’t changed despite the Russians bringing modern surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, though whether this is due to Israel only operating outside their range, the systems not being as capable as they are rumoured to be, or due to behind-the-scenes politics between Russia and Israel over the head of the Syrian government is unclear.

Air Mobility Command enables delivery of Israel’s first F-35s
One of the first two F-35’s being refuelled by a Tennessee Air National Guard KC-135 During their trans-Atlantic flight. Source: U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Erik D. Anthony via Wikimedia Commons

The first two F-35’s arrived in Israel last December, and they have seen heavy use by the Golden Eagle Squadron based at Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev desert. Officially the aircraft undertook their first night flight on the evening of 16 January (or 15 January, the wording is somewhat unclear).

The IAF article on the event is interesting in many ways. The squadron commander, Lt. Col. Yotam, has nothing but praise for the aircraft. “We are performing a night flight very quickly in comparison to other aircraft that were integrated in the IAF”, he notes, while at the same time maintaining that they “in every mission, we operate slowly and in a supervised manner, while performing in-depth risk management”.

This event took place a few days after the alleged use of the Adir over Syria.

“The ‘Adir’s ability to fly in threatened areas is allowed not only thanks to the dark”, explained Lt. Col. Yotam. “We plan to fly without constraints of time or space, so it is a scenario we want and need to train for”.

Despite the aircraft officially still being in test and evaluation use in Israeli service, the IAF has built up a reputation as just the kind of force to throw out the rulebook and go with a ‘whatever gets the job done’-philosophy. The ability to penetrate air defence networks to hit high-value targets is certainly there for the F-35, with the F-35A having the ability to do so (against static targets) already with the current state of software and weapons integration.

However, there are numerous things speaking against an early combat debut. The aircrafts would have spent barely a single month in Israel at the time of the raid, which despite the previous testing done in the US and the mission-centric philosophy of the IAF is a very short timespan. They also lack proper integration into the Israeli combat network, as the IAF will fit a number of indigenous systems into the aircraft on top of the aircraft’s own code (the changes are large enough that several sources, including the IAF, refer to the Israeli F-35A as the F-35I). This job has not been done yet, making some question whether the IAF would risk operating the fighters over enemy airspace outside of the Israeli command and control network.

Perhaps the main issue is the fact that Israel demonstrably has no urgent need to push the Adir into harms way. The Air Force, as well as some ground based systems, can reach Mezze even from within Israeli territory, and even if there would be a need to get closer for better precision, this has been shown to be possible with ‘legacy’ fighters such as the F-15I and F-16I as well.

It is of course possible that the Israelis saw the use of the Adir as a means in itself, showing not only Syria but other potential adversaries as well that the Israel’s newest tool is a true weapon system bringing new capabilities to the Air Force and not just an expensive toy (or perhaps to convince doubters high enough in the Israeli command structure/politics that they receive access to info on the raid). It might also have been decided to use the Adir as part of its test program, to measure its current capability.

Still, at the end of the day, there is no denying that the schedule simply seems too tight, and I find the claim that the Adir would have seen combat a month after its in-country arrival too far-fetched.

Another question is whether it would have made a difference if the Adir had taken part in the raid or not? In theory it wouldn’t. The baseline F-35A reached IOC last year with the USAF, and considering its performance both during the evaluations and in post-IOC exercises a mission 50 km into a relatively lightly defended airspace such as this is nothing spectacular. In practice however, the marketing value of the ‘Combat Proven’-stamp shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, it was Israeli combat use fifty years ago that provided some of the groundwork for the huge export success enjoyed by on of the truly classic fighters of the last century.

An Update to the IDF OOB in Gaza

It appears that there are several more units in Gaza than I thought when writing my original post.

Apparently the Givati Brigade is operating inside the Gaza Strip and not simply securing the Israeli side of the border. This became evident when the IDF spokesperson published a short video clip of a booby trapped housed the brigade found near a UN school in Gaza. The Givati, nicknamed ‘Samson’s Foxes’, have a solid history of operating in Gaza, and I was somewhat surprised when it first seemed that they would not take part in this operation. Exact place of operation remains unknown.

The Sayeret Maglan special forces unit also appeared inside the Strip in a tweet by IDF spokesperson. Their presence was perhaps less of a surprise than the fact that their presence was confirmed openly by the IDF.

The 77th “Oz” Battalion, of the 7th Brigade, concludes a military exercise at the Golan Heights in 2009. Photo by Michael Shvadron, IDF Spokesperson’s Film Unit, via Wikimedia Commons.

The 7th Armored Brigade is also apparently in full use in the central regions of the Gaza Strip. The brigade is best known for its stubborn defence in the opening hours of the Yom Kippur War, when in spite of large losses it managed to stop the vastly larger Syrian force trying to force its way through the northern parts of the Golan Heights. Then-battalion commander Avigdor Kahalanis account of the battle, “The Heights of Courage”, is widely seen as a modern classic of tank warfare.

A lone IDF Centurion/Sho't stands guard over the former battlefield at the Emek HaBakha (Valley of Tears). Photo by author.
A lone IDF Centurion/Sho’t stands guard over the former battlefield at Emek HaBakha (Valley of Tears). Photo by author.

All in all, there now seems to be at least three infantry brigades (Golani, Nahal, Givati), two armored brigades (7th and 401st), as well as a single paratrooper brigade operating inside the Gaza Strip. It seems that both armored brigades are operating in the central area of the strip, where the terrain is more open, with the 401st being the northernmost of the two.

Update 30th of July:

The location of Nahal and the paratrooper brigade has become somewhat clearer. Nahal is operating in the northern parts of the Gaza Strip, according to this video released by the IDF.

The paratrooper brigade, on the other hand, is operating in Khan Yunis, according to a Haaretz interview with the brigade commander.

…And perhaps the last of IDF’s more well-known brigades, the 188th ‘Barak’ armored brigade, is also in the strip (or at least their infantry), bringing the toal up to three armored brigades.

Update 1st of August:

The 188th seems to be the southernmost of the armored brigades, operating around the northern outskirts of Khan Yunis. This is based on the fact that their presence in Eshkol has been confirmed, as it was there five of their soldiers who were killed by a mortar strike earlier this week.

Note that with the figure for IDF personnel killed in action already over 60 and climbing, it is over halfway to the corresponding number of losses IDF suffered during the Second Lebanon War.

A rough estimate of the IDF order of battle in Gaza

This is a brief try at creating an OOB for the IDF units involved in the ground offensive in Gaza as part of Operation Protective Edge. As usual, everything is based on open sources, mainly published in English.

To begin with, as noted earlier, Haaretz listed that three brigades were mobilized on the border as part of the calling up of over 50 000 reservists. However, a far larger number of units involved in the fighting has since been identified. My guess (keyword) is that two task forces have been created around the Nahal and Golani brigades respectively, in the tradition of the Israeli Ugda (the IDF take on a divisional combat team, usually somewhat smaller than a regular division, but varies greatly in size depending on the mission). Units identified so far:

Golani Brigade: Hebrew: גולני. Often seen as the premier Israeli infantry brigade, it has seen battle in all of Israel’s major wars since its independence in 1948. In recent times, the brigade not only fought in the Battle of Bint Jbeil in 2006, described as the heaviest fighting in the Second Lebanon War, but also took part in Operation Cast Lead, the IDF incursion into Gaza in 2009. During Cast Lead, it was also deployed to the northern parts of the Gaza Strip, meaning that at least for some of the officers, it is a familiar battlefield they are coming back to.

Having met the hardest resistance, the unit has also suffered numerous casualties. An APC attached to the unit was destroyed in a widely publicized incident in the hard battles in Shejaia, with the brigade losing 7 soldiers, the body of one still being unaccounted for. It has been claimed the vehicle was a Zelda (M113), but this is unconfirmed as remarkably little details of the incident has surfaced, and I have not been able to find any photos of the wreck.

Among the brigade’s wounded are two high-profile cases, namely the (unnamed) commander of the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit (Hebr. Yehidat Egoz), the brigade’s special forces unit, as well as the brigade commander himself, Col. Rassan Alian, who suffered light-to-moderate shrapnel injuries, including to his eyes, but sources claims his vision was undamaged. He has since returned to Gaza to resume command of the unit. Of note is that Col. Alian is not Jewish, but an ethnic Druze.

Nahal Brigade: Hebrew: הנח”ל. Alternative transcription Nachal, is an infantry brigade which has its roots in the Nahal movement, which was a youth program created by Israel’s first (and very much socialist) prime minister David Ben-Gurion, where young people combined agricultural work and setting up new farming villages with military service. The brigade itself was created in 1982, and while the current brigade is more “standardized”, it still maintains a somewhat unique character through the inclusion of a large number of foreign volunteers (Hebr. “Mahal”), as well as having a battalion focusing on integrating soldiers from lower socio-economic communities into the army.

While this might sound like an unlikely candidate for use as part of the frontline troops, the Nahal also has a good track record in combat, tracing its roots to the Nahal airborne battalion which prior to 1982 fought as a reserve unit in the paratrooper brigade. As such, it counts the battles of the Mitla Pass in 1956 and unification of Jerusalem in 1967 amongst its traditions. The special nature also ensures that it has a cadre of volunteers with high morale, and in addition to the Second Lebanon War it has served in the West Bank, thus becoming familiar with fighting in an urban environment.

A rough sketch of my estimation of the positions of the main combat units on the frontline. From north to south: Paratroopers, Golani, 401st Armoured (?), Paratroopers, Nahal. The dividing line between the possible Ugdas is nothing more than a guess based on confirmed locations of units and studying of the map.
A rough sketch of my estimation of the positions of the main combat units on the frontline. From north to south: Paratroopers, Golani, 401st Armoured (?), Paratroopers, Nahal. The dividing line between the possible Ugdas is nothing more than a guess based on confirmed locations of units and studying of the map. The ‘X’ marks the spot of the Shejaia neighbourhood.

Additional units: A number of additional units are also in the general area, either operating in support of the infantry brigades, or securing the Israeli side of the border.

Paratrooper Brigade (Tzanhanim): Hebrew: הצנחנים. After going into battle by jumping out of plane went out of style, the IDF paratrooper brigade has been used as an elite light infantry unit in all wars since the Suez Crises of 1956 (where it performed its one and only operational combat jump). So far little has been leaked about the employment of the brigade, and the losses reported have been light. Picture number 4 in this slide show places their staging area in Sderot, and apparently they are supported by M113’s. However, this article places at least some paratroopers in northern Khan Yunis. This might indicate that the brigade is split into smaller components to provide added infantry support to the infantry brigades as needed.

401st “Iron Trails” Armored Brigade: Hebrew: הברזל. The unit is confirmed to be in Gaza. During Operation Cast Lead, the 401st led the advance through central Gaza Strip, and reached the Mediterranean Coast, cutting of Khan Yunis from Gaza City. The main equipment of the brigade is the modern Merkava 4 MBT, protected by the Trophy active anti-missile system. The article quoted earlier gives the impression that they are operating close to El-Wafa Hospital, which would place them in Gaza City. The natural place for the brigade would be the gap between Gaza City and Nuseirat, opposite Netivot, the same area where they operated in Cast Lead. It is also possible that the 401st is operating in an idependent role. The Armored Corps lost two company commanders Tuesday evening (22nd of July), at least one of whom fell to sniper fire, but it is unknown if they came from the 401st or if more units are in the area.

The Engineering Corps are naturally heavily involved, intermixed with regular units. At least one soldier from the Engineering Corps has been reported as a casualty. This happened in the central Gaza Strip, and it is mentioned that his Puma heavy combat engineering vehicle was hit by anti-tank rocket fire.

The Givati Brigade, the brigades of the territorial Gaza Division, and the officer training base Bahad 1 have all taken part in some fighting, with the commanding officer of the Gefen Battalion of Bahad 1, Lt.-Col. Dolev Kidar, being killed in action during a tunnel infiltration by Hamas terrorists [1], [2] & [3]. Most likely these units are deployed to guard against Hamas infiltration attempts.

The Artillery Corps are supporting the operation with M109 155 mm self-propelled howitzers.

A short note on Gaza, genocides, and the Israeli strikes

There are a number of opinions about what both sides in the current conflict should and shouldn’t do, and wether the Israeli response to the rocket barrage unleashed by Hamas (and some smaller groups) is in accordance with international laws and general ethical principles. These can be, and indeed are, discussed for hours, something which I wont do here.

However, there have also been outcries about the supposed genocide of Palestinians taking place, and these are out of line to the extent that they warrant a response.

According to the IDF, they have, as of the evening of Wednesday the 16th of July, struck a total of 1 872 targets inside the Gaza strip. According to Palestinian sources cited by western news agencies, a total of 220 people have died from these attacks [AFP]. Both sides seems to be in a general agreement on the order of magnitude of these numbers.

Consider this: The Israeli Air Force, widely viewed as one of the best equipped and trained aerial forces in the world, has in a concentrated campaign achieved a ratio of people killed/strike of just under 0,12. In other words, on an averege, 7 attacks out of 8 does not kill anybody.

If the IDF was indeed deliberatly trying to kill civilians in Gaza, the whole operation is an utter failure.

If you ever happen visit the region, take half a day off to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum, located just outside Jerusalem. It is a rather sobering experience, and gives a good idea about how a genocide looks.

The current round of fighting in and around Gaza may be a lot of things, but a genocide it aint.

Operation ‘Protective Edge’

Things are heating up fast in Gaza, and while I two days ago thought an Israeli incursion into Gaza with ground forces unlikely, it seems a very real possibility today.

As the event s are unfolding fast, this will not be an in-depth analysis, as chances are it would then be outdated by the time I publish it, but rather a few rough points. Keep this is mind, as I believe there is a somewhat higher than normal probability that the information and analyses presented here might be outdated or flat-out wrong. Note that I rely mainly on Israeli sources, as I believe these generally are of a higher quality.

Brief background: The current round of violence started after three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered during mid-June, with Israel publishing the names of two Hamas-associated persons it believes are responsible. The brutal murder of a Palestinian teenager followed, with six Israelis being arrested and charged with the murder in a joint operation by the Israeli police and internal security service Shin Beth. In the meantime, accusations surfaced that another teenager, a Palestinian holding a US passport visiting his relatives, had been beaten by soldiers or riot police as they arrested him for rock throwing. Both the rock throwing charges and the cahrges against the people involved in the arrest are now being processed by Israeli authorities, and the verdicts are still open.

However, the Hamas barrage is not a new thing, as rockets and mortar shells have been falling continuously over Israeli territory (ie. territory inside the 1948 armistice line that is generally regarded as the international border of Israel), with March being the busiest month of the beginning of the year with 65 rockets and mortars fired in 23 different attacks. See the Wikipedia list of incidents found here.

Currently, large parts of South and Central Israel, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and Beersheba, have most everyday activity suspended. This means that schools and universities are closed, and that most businesses are either partially or totally shut down. To this loss of income comes the direct damage caused by the rocket barrage, with the Israeli Tax Authority having received 99 claims for property damage (35 vehicles, 52 buildings, 12 agriculture-related) since Saturday, for a total value of over 2 million Euro [jpost.com].

Naturally, a host of mental problems amongst the targeted civilians, such as PTSD, are also caused by the ongoing attacks.

Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz states that three brigades are grouped outside of Gaza, with the Nahal Brigade being named [haaretz.com]. The Nahal Brigade is usually subordinated to the 162nd Division stationed on the West Bank. Before the information arrived, my personal guess had been that either the Paratrooper Brigade or the other infantry brigade of the 162nd , the Kfir Brigade, would be the striking force together with an armoured brigade and the Givati Brigade (infantry), but with the transfer of the Nahal the Kfir seems set to remain on the West Bank. The Golani Brigade is mentioned as having called up reserves for an offensive into Gaza, but whether or not this elite infantry unit is one of the three now deployed is not completely clear [haaretz.com]. All in all, the IDF have received permission to mobilize 41 500 reserves, not all of which necessarily will be called up, and not all of which belongs to the frontline units about to take part in the possible ground war [jpost.com].

Hamas has once again brought out its proverbial big guns, including the Syrian M302 (an Israeli designation), a 302 mm artillery rocket developed in Syria from the Chinese WS-1B. A crude rocket by western standards, the 150kg warhead is still capable of causing considerable damage to soft targets like civilian buildings, if it actually manages to hit something. This very much holds true for the rest of Hama’s arsenal as well, which includes the “homemade” Qassam light and M-75 heavy rockets, as well as different medium rockets manufactured for the Soviet BM-21 Grad MLRS and Iranian heavy rockets of the Fajr-series. This lack in accuracy is one of the reasons why Hamas has chosen to target Israeli population centers in pure terror bombings, instead of trying to take out military targets or strategic infrastructure.

It seems that the strategy of Hamas is to try and drag Israel into a ground war, where the Israeli technological and tactical edge will not be as deciding as it is in the current rocket/air-campaign. In addition to being able to target Israeli ground forces at closer range, the collateral damage likely to stem from such a campaign will most likely benefit Hamas in international media, especially as Hamas has placed likely targets in the midst of the civilian population [IDF].

What is noteworthy is that Hamas is trying to create a more total war, targeting Israeli communities further away than before, with Hof HaCarmel Regional Council just south of Haifa being the northernmost target as of Wednesday evening [jpost.com]. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Hadera have also been targeted, as well as the Israeli nuclear power plant in Dimona [jpost.com]. The most spectacular new angle of attack was the seaborne insertion of terrorists on the beaches close to Zikim, which were eliminated through a combined ground, sea and air operation by the IDF. The released videos, [1] & [2], show the incident from both the air and the sea, and while the operation as such was a failure due to the swift and determined response, it seems in the video that it was in fact combat swimmers that Hamas had sent across the border, and not the “traditional” tactic of sending terrorists on jet-skis or highs-speed boats. An abandoned parachute have also been found close to the village of Yad Mordechai, possibly linked to an airborne insertion from nearby Gaza [jpost.com]. A second seaborne attack on Zikim took place Wednesday evening. This time the IDF confirmed that the attackers were in fact divers [jpost.com].

A wedding in Ashdod being disrupted by rocket fire from Gaza.

The Israeli strategy, meanwhile, seems to be to try and target both active launch sites as well as the infrastructure and logistics behind the operations, including Hama’s armories, depots, homes of leading figures, staff buildings, and key personnel. Rockets launched that are deemed dangerous are intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system, creating a number of spectacular YouTube-clips in the meantime. The Israeli government seems to hope that this response will either cause Hamas to run out of rockets or force them to call for a cease-fire, something which Abbas have already called upon Sisi to do [jpost.com]. On the other hand, Israeli analyst Daniel Nisman have noted a lack of reports of successful attacks by IDF on the stockpiles of Hama’s heavy rockets, which might indicate that the air campaign is not producing the desired results [@DannyNis]. In any case, as stated above, the IDF continues to prepare for a possible ground assault, in case it is deemed necessary.

As have been seen before, the end of this “battle” will be determined by at which point Hamas is ready to stop its rocket barrage, either due to a perceived victory /obtaining certain goals, due to running out of rockets, or due to the pressure of the Israeli response. When Hamas stops (or deescalates) its shelling, the IDF usually quits its retaliatory strikes, meaning less suffering on both sides. Exactly why Hamas now launched their offensive and possibly the kidnapping operation is unclear, but the creation of the new Palestinian unity government this spring is probably involved in the reasoning in some way. Hamas might be trying to make sure that their hardliner-appearance is unscathed while teaming up with a more moderate partner. Another possibility is that the kidnapping was simply executed to take advantage of the fact that Hamas can freely operate on Fatah-controlled area again, and that the rest was more or less improvised from there. A third alternative is that they are trying to force Abba’s hand, by heating up the conflict, and thereby forcing him to take a hard stance on the Israeli answer or risk losing political support at home. Obviously, it might also be a combination of the three.