It has been said that combat is the most unforgiving teacher. The margin for error is virtually non-existent, and the price for mistakes is often paid in human life. The history of any nation's military is, to some extent, a history of past mistakes and lessons learned from those errors.
Israel's military is no exception. The history of the IDF is remarkable in many respects; surrounded by hostile neighbors, the Israelis have triumphed again and again, using surprise, advanced technology, superior training, and innovative tactics. Left unrestrained by politicians, there is little doubt that Israel could crush Hizballah and Hamas, although the subsequent, required occupations of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip would invariably result in additional casualties and tie up elements of the IDF for years to come.
But the current conflict has also highlighted Israeli military mistakes, most notably, the Hizballah attack against an Israeli Saar-5 class frigate last Friday that killed four IDF sailors and left the ship out of action indefinitely. We have already discussed this incident in some detail; employment of the C802 anti-ship missile surprised both Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials. Despite the long-standing alliance between the terrorists and their patrons in Damascus and Tehran, there was no suspicion that Iran had transferred such a weapon to Hizballah. That slightly myopic view changed in the span of less than 15 seconds, the time required to launch the C802 against the Israeli corvette.
While the surprise attack was clearly the product of careful planning and skillful deception by Hizballah and their Iranian "advisors," it was also the result of Israeli overconfidence, and an (apparent) breakdown in their intelligence system. Late last night, I received an e-mail from an Israeli contact I've known for several years; during our "spook" days, we participated in several U.S.-Israeli exchanges, and struck up a friendship. Like your humble correspondent, the Israeli source is now retired (he spent more than twenty years in the IAF), but has a large number of contacts in Israel's military and intelligence establishment.
"We screwed up," is his blunt assessment of the attack on the Israeli vessel. He tells me that Hizballah operated the surveillance radar associated with the C802 for more than 24 hours before the missile was launched. The radar's signal was detected by Israeli SIGINT platforms, but somehow, the information was never relayed to the ships enforcing the blockade off the Lebanese coast. The corvette's anti-missile defenses were active as it patrolled off Beirut, but my source questioned whether the crew was fully prepared for the missile strike. "They weren't in the proper frame of mind for an attack," he complained. You can draw your own inferences about the ship's readiness posture from his statement.
A retired U.S. naval intel specialist believes the corvette had "up to 15 seconds of warning" between the time the missile was fired, and the moment it impacted the ship. That may not sound like much, but in an era of automated missile defenses, the crew still had a shot. Officially, the Israelis haven't revealed if the ship launched chaff, maneuvered, or attempted to engage the missile with its CIWS. From what I'm told, the missile struck a glancing blow to the large "helicopter" barn on the ship's stern, and bounced off, detonating in water nearby. The barn area was thoroughly scorched by a subsequent fire, and this is the area of the ship where the four crew members died. As we've noted previously, the ship was lucky that it didn't take a direct hit from the C802; the missile is more than capable of sinking much larger vessels.
The impact in the ship's helicopter "barn" is also signficant, since its rectangular shape provides the largest (and best) return for the missile's targeting radar.
and that raises another question: did the Hizballah gunners time their launch carefully, to coincide with a turn (when the barn would be most visible), or was the ship's captain attempting to maneuver after his missile warning system sounded, and inadvertently exposed the helicopter hangar, faciliting missile lock-on. If the terrorist gunners timed their launch for a predicted turn, then the corvette was probably being too predictable in its maneuvers. Additionally, there is also the possibility that the ship's position may have masked its Close-In Weapons System (CIWS), which can engage anti-ship missiles at ranges out to one mile. One more lesson learned the hard way.
The IDF has proven adept at learning from past mistakes. Surprised by Egyptian and Syrian SA-6 SAMs in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the IAF developed tactics and electronic countermeasures that erased their adversary's advantage in the Bekka Valley campaign in the early 1980s. Deployed Syrian SA-6 sites were destroyed on the first day of the campaign (thanks to effective UAV employment), and from that point on, the IAF owned the skies. In the weeks that followed, the Israeli Air Fore shot down 82 Syrian MiGs without losing a single aircraft. It remains one of the most lop-sided victories in the history of aerial warfare.
Likewise, Israel's navy will learn from mistakes made in last Friday's missile attack. Hizballah and their Iranian chums should enjoy their "victory," because they won't get another free shot at an Israeli warship. At last report, IDF naval assets were still enforcing the blockade of Lebanon, but outside the range of the C802. Israel also scored a major success on Monday, when it estroyed a long-range Zelzal rocket (also made by Iran) before it could be launched. As with the C802, there were no prior indications that Hizballah had obtained the Zelzal. Israeli efforts to destroy that missile on the ground suggest that the the IDF is addressing problems in its ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) efforts, and timely information is reaching combatant commanders in a more timely manner. The Israelis are clearly learning from their early miscues, and that's bad news for the terrorists-and those who support them.