Press play to listen to this article
Voiced by artificial intelligence.
Brigadier General (Ret) Mark Kimmitt is a former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs and deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
After United States President Joe Biden accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of conducting an “indiscriminate” bombing campaign in Gaza last week, reports have now emerged of the IDF’s extensive use of unguided bombs.
Set against images of wounded Palestinians and demolished infrastructure seen the world over, this criticism has intensified growing calls from within the U.S. to pressure Israel into declaring a cease-fire and putting a leash on a seemingly undisciplined military.
However, this critique is largely unwarranted. And lost in the discussion are the extensive procedures the IDF uses to enforce tough standards aimed at minimizing civilian deaths and protecting infrastructure.
At the tactical level, planners consider all possible variables in terms of their impact on mission accomplishment. They take into account the purpose and reason for a mission, the action needed, and they analyze the operation’s duration, terrain and the likely opposition it will encounter — all summed up by the mnemonic METT-T (Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops and Time).
All these factors are then weighed to come up with a plan for how a force could conduct an operation.
Yet, there are strategic considerations that need to be made as well. Disciplined militaries like the IDF are restrained by stringent rules of engagement imposed by policymakers and lawyers, which define how the military forces can and will fight. And these rules serve as guardrails on battlefield conduct, ensuring coherence between tactical military objectives and strategic political aims.
Such rules of engagement are most severe in governing the conduct of aerial bombardment and the indirect fire missions of missiles, artillery and mortars. The methodical procedures used by targeteers are extensive, exacting and unforgiving. They develop target lists based on intelligence gathered from multiple sources; measure the distance from the targets to non-combatants; determine collateral damage estimates; and analyze infrastructure by size, shape and building material.
Taking all this into account, target-weapon pairing is then determined to ensure the use of optimal systems, and a constant feedback loop ensures that the effects sought in attacking a target directly support the operational goals. A separate review conducted by lawyers and policy professionals ensures that targets are attacked within rules of engagement that abide by national laws, international conventions and policies related to achieving war aims.
Yet, Gaza and Hamas demonstrate that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
If the enemy is a terrorist group that feels no obligation to abide by those international laws and conventions, operations become far more complex and difficult. Of course, Hamas’ reprehensible conduct doesn’t give any equivalent conduct by the IDF a pass, but it does go some way toward explaining Israel’s more liberal interpretation of its own rules of engagement.
For example, the IDF is being criticized for its use of unguided bombs. It’s true that when available, a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kit installed on a “dumb” bomb is (at least) 10 times more accurate, but the pace of combat has already exacted a high cost on supplies of JDAMs. The IDF has conducted nearly 29,000 bombing missions since October, consuming a large part of the 12,000 JDAMs sold by the U.S in 2015 and the additional 3,000 provided since the October 7.attacks.
Given Israel’s operational pace, these numbers aren’t enough to ensure (or expect) every bombing mission will be carried out with precision weapons. It is also unlikely the IDF would extend the war so it can wait for the delivery of additional JDAM kits — especially with troops engaging in direct combat with Hamas. Moreover, the Israeli Air Force has done much to enhance the accuracy of dumb bombs. However, if JDAMs were plentiful, then the use of dumb bombs would be rare.
This is, unfortunately, where tactical battlefield victory comes into conflict with strategic success — and this paradox is now in full view of the world. It is also on the minds of Hamas leaders.
Hamas leaders fully understand they are incapable of beating Israel on the battlefield, but they also understand that shaping public opinion in Israel, around the world and especially in America is their strongest weapon — and the West’s greatest vulnerability. Losing a battalion of the al-Qassim Brigade is a small price to pay for Hamas if worldwide media can film the prisoners surrendering, stripped naked and humiliated.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems willing to endure all the international opprobrium, the U.N. votes, the potential for a larger regional conflict and the criticism of some of his own citizens to achieve his declared war aims — to release the remaining hostages, defeat Hamas and destroy the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.
Whether it is to protect the lives of Israeli soldiers, accelerate the end of the war or send a message to Hamas that it will either release hostages or face certain death, Israel’s willingness to liberalize the rules of engagement in Gaza isn’t surprising. This doesn’t mean, however, that the bombing campaign or its tactics are illegal, punitive or malicious. And to call it indiscriminate fails to grasp the extensive lengths gone to to minimize civilian casualties, especially considering Hamas’ “human shield” policy.
While Israeli battlefield tactics may run counter to strategic war aims, calling its bombing campaign indiscriminate is a mischaracterization of both the IDF’s conduct and its intentions.