A sober analysis of the first 15 days of Israel’s war, up to Saturday evening, shows that the country is now in great danger. This is not because Hamas is capable of defeating Israel militarily. The total military force available to Hamas and Islamic Jihad at the beginning of the war was no more than around 23,000 rockets and perhaps 46,000 terrorists, as summarized by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Given that the IDF has mobilized 360,000 reservists, in addition to the regular army, and that it possesses weapons ranging from 39 F-35 stealth fighters to 350-gram (12-ounce) Spike Firefly (“Maoz”) miniature loitering munitions capable of flying through windows, Israel is capable of applying overwhelming force. The problem, growing worse with every passing hour, is that Israel is doing everything and anything other than applying such force. It is doing so even though, as described by the present author, there is no alternative to changing Israel’s decades-long practice of limited war and there is ample justification to act very differently.
Israel has chosen to bow its head to international, and particularly American, pressure and is fighting yet another limited war. The results are already deeply unsatisfactory. After two weeks of supposedly “intense offensive activity” by the Israeli Air Force, the terrorists in Gaza retain long-range rockets and fire them at Israel. On the Lebanese border, the situation is deteriorating from one day to the next. Hezbollah now conducts multiple attacks every day, the latest of these yet another anti-tank missile launch yesterday evening. One Hezbollah propaganda video after another shows the terrorists firing at IDF positions with impunity. Israeli casualties, gradually being announced by the army, are increasing. Hezbollah can simply shrug off the loss of about two dozen terrorists that it and its allies in Lebanon have so far suffered.
The helplessness that the IDF is displaying in the north may well lead Iran and Hezbollah to conclude that it is time to open another front against Israel. This would immediately throw Israel into chaos. The same INSS report estimates Hezbollah strength at 50,000 men and around 200,000 rockets, many of these long-range weapons with heavy warheads. This represents a military challenge an order of magnitude more dangerous than that posed by Gaza. What is worse, this war has underlined how extraordinarily dependent Israel is on its air force, as the ground forces are still only preparing for an offensive, two weeks after Hamas rampaged through Israeli kibbutzim. The air force is vulnerable, because it has only seven fighter aircraft bases, and their precise locations are known to anyone with a computer. Even if the aircraft shelters will withstand rocket hits and no aircraft will be destroyed, which is far from certain, the operational efficiency of all these bases may severely deteriorate following repeated attacks, as support buildings and equipment will be damaged or destroyed.
The danger is compounded by the fact that Israel has sought to think as little as possible of the great war in Ukraine, which began not yesterday, but 605 days ago. That war has produced a continuous stream of videos of attacks by simple, mass-produced First-person view (FPV) drones, with prices ranging from 380 to somewhat more than 500 dollars, destroying a very wide variety of much more expensive military equipment. Equally effective have been multicopter drones, which by now are capable of dropping Soviet 11-kilogram TM-62 anti-tank mines on targets from above, and are equipped with high-quality night vision cameras. Similar converted agricultural drones are advertised by their Ukrainian producers as costing just $15,000. By way of comparison, a single Israeli Spike-LR anti-tank missile cost around $150,000 in 2015, while the long-range Spike NLOS cost the US Army $249,966 in 2022, as reported by the Teal Group. These price differences, compared with the equipment successfully employed in Ukraine, cannot be described as anything other than obscene. A single Spike missile can destroy only one tank, by definition, but costs up to 650 times more than a Ukrainian FPV drone, which can achieve the same effect. The newest Spike NLOS is equipped with complex sensors and has a 25-kilometre (16-mile) range, but this still cannot justify its cost, which makes its large-scale employment unaffordable for any military.
In Ukraine, the effectiveness of cheap attack drones and artillery is being demonstrated in high-intensity combat right now, with the Russian army having lost at least 23 tanks and 61 other vehicles destroyed or abandoned in a single, so far unsuccessful, 11-day offensive against the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. Destroying the same number of targets even with the cheaper Spike-LR missile, making the generous assumptions that only a single missile would have been needed per target and that the missile’s price has not increased with inflation since 2015, would have cost at least $126 million. Israel is very lucky that it is not at war with an army the size of Russia’s, and so such calculations retain only hypothetical relevance, for now. However, another calculation is of immediate concern. Israel’s primary defence against Hezbollah attacks, so far, have been drone strikes by Hermes 450 (“Zik”) armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In 2018, four of these drones and their supporting equipment cost Thailand $30 million. It is unsurprising, given such prices, that only a single squadron, 161, operates these aircraft in Israel. When this unit decided to spend its time on a ‘Tetris challenge’ in July 2021, it displayed a total of 21 Hermes 450s. Even if the unit has a considerably greater number of aircraft, its strength is completely insufficient for fighting Hezbollah, with its many thousands of rocket launchers, anti-tank missile launchers and other equipment.
Israel needs to attack its enemies with much greater force, and at much greater scale. This requires two things. First, a political decision to significantly loosen the rules limiting air force strikes, in order to destroy Hamas rocket launchers with greater speed and effectiveness. Second, the rapid acquisition of thousands of the FPVs and multicopters which have been so effectively used in Ukraine, and which are necessarily much easier to manufacture than the Spike missiles and Hermes drones, of which Israel simply does not have enough. In case of a full-scale war with Hezbollah, the ability to destroy many targets quickly and at limited cost will make the difference between victory and defeat. Hezbollah may well be thinking along these lines, and should it already have a significant number of cheap and effective drones, Israel’s position is even more precarious than that suggested by the size of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal alone.