Last Wednesday, the Israeli Air Force passed two milestones.
In the early afternoon, the first C-130J Super Hercules landed at Nevatim base in the Negev. The transport aircraft, a vastly upgraded version of the venerable Hercules that flew Israeli commandos to Entebbe for the dramatic raid 38 years ago, has new avionics, engines and radar-evading devices that will enable the IAF to drop or land special forces on secret missions far behind enemy lines.
Ten hours later, from Palmahim base on the Mediterranean coast, a Shavit launcher blasted into the night sky, taking Ofek 10, Israel’s latest spy satellite, into orbit.
Israel has had independent satellite surveillance capabilities for nearly two decades and, since the 1956 paratrooper drop at the Mitla Pass, strategic insertion of elite forces has been a hallmark of the Israeli military.
But the C-130J and Ofek 10 are major enhancements. They signal a five-year long transition for the IDF, a shift that will intensify in the near future. The backbone of the old IDF, the large armoured divisions and brigades, are anachronisms. Some are already being disbanded, with no regular Arab army in the region in a position to pose a conventional threat.
Instead, there is massive investment in guided weapons, launched from the ground, air and sea; and in drones, submarines and missile defence batteries. Money is being poured into sensors of all shapes and sizes for new kinds of surveillance systems, providing commanders with an integrated battle picture, sometimes on screens as small and portable as mini-tablets.
When the enemy can arrive from any direction — likely as a small, nimble attack force — the generals need to have at their disposable a wide array of sensors capable of detecting the threat, identifying it, acquiring its precise co-ordinates and passing them on to whatever strike force can eliminate it with the minimum collateral damage.
More and more, that threat may be an electronic one, so cyber-warfare is also becoming a top priority.
If the IAF is ever sent to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, the overriding assumption that Israel will immediately be facing numerous retaliatory attacks from Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, and these systems will come to the fore.
Most of these defensive and offensive systems are being developed in Israel, while manned aircraft and submarines are being bought from the US and Germany. But the growing number of young men and women needed to operate this new equipment will have to come at the expense of the traditional ground combat units, which are already shrinking.
With the IDF is still needed to provide thousands of soldiers to patrol the West Bank, it will only reinforce the traditional political moderation of the High Command — certainly in comparison with the current coalition — and their insistence on co-operation with the Palestinian Authority in order to keep the peace on the ground.