The brief May 2021 war between Hamas and Israel differed both from previous wars in 2014 and a similar one in 2006 with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran was involved in all three of these wars and believed its advice and technology would give Hamas and Hezbollah an edge. Iranian efforts did upgrade Hezbollah and Hamas weapons and counterintelligence (catching spies), but Israel always seemed to be developing its own new surprises.
Hamas and Iran were particularly alarmed by the unexpected tactics Israel used in 2021. The result was dozens of key Hamas and Islamic Jihad (the smaller Iran supported terrorist group in Gaza) personnel killed. Nearly 70 percent of those killed in Gaza were Hamas and Islamic Jihad members and that was no accident.
The Israelis attributed their success to their first wartime use of new communications and intelligence collection and analysis systems used with new software whose full potential had been hinted at during recent training exercises. Hamas and Iran may have belittled these new Israeli capabilities at the time but after a ten-day live demonstration during the May war, the Iranian attitude has shifted. The Iranians were particularly shaken because they were already paranoid about the Israeli success in identifying, locating and acting against key Iranian leaders and facilities. At the same time Iran has found it nearly impossible to retaliate against Israel. These new Israeli capabilities are not revolutionary but evolutionary because since the 1980s new surveillance, intelligence and weapons technologies have been developed and implemented, often without much publicity or media attention.
Israel took the lead in developing UAVs that the U.S. later adopted as the Predator and Reaper. Same with intelligence technologies and predictive analysis that the Americans quickly adopted because of their campaigns against Islamic terrorists after 2001. The Israelis were the first to show that going after leaders and technical personnel was crucial in defeating Islamic terrorists. The U.S. and Israel exchanged technology in all these areas, something that has been going on for over half a century.
In some areas Israel followed the Americans because tech like SLV (satellite launch vehicle) rockets and space satellites were not as essential for Israel. In fields like ABMs (anti-ballistic missile) and air defense, Israel had different threats to deal with and developed unique ABM systems (like Arrow) and air defense tech like Iron Dome and AUD (anti-UAV tech) systems which the Americans later adopted. A less publicized area of technology where Israel led the way was integrated battlefield management of intelligence, target selection and allocation of firepower, especially air and artillery weapons. The U.S. took the lead in developing smart bombs and artillery shells as well as deep penetration bombs.
There was one area where the Americans invented new tech that was never used in combat. Back in the 1980s the fear of decapitation attacks on military and political leaders using extremely accurate ballistic missiles became big news when Russia was visibly alarmed after the United States deployed its upgraded Pershing ballistic missile to Europe. This was in response to Russia deploying more short-range ballistic missiles to East Europe, each one with a nuclear warhead. The smaller (7.5 ton) U.S. Army Pershing missile had an 1,800-kilometer range, and could put its nuclear warhead within 30 meters of its aim point. This was possible because the guidance system had its own radar. This kind of accuracy made the Russians very uncomfortable, as it made their underground command bunkers vulnerable. The Russians eventually agreed to a lot of nuclear and missile disarmament deals in order to get the Pershing systems decommissioned before the end of the Cold War. Now Iran fears that Israel may adopt this technology to surprise Iran as Hamas was surprised and badly damaged in 2021 by the precise attacks on military targets and key Hamas personnel.
What the 1980s Russians feared was “decapitation attacks” that could kill senior military leaders and their staff specialists. Russia had built many underground bunkers for these leaders and their staff personnel to use in wartime. These bunkers could survive most nuclear attacks because existing guidance systems were not accurate enough to have the warhead explode right on top of where the underground bunker was. The Russians knew that American satellite and high-altitude (SR-71 and U-2 aircraft) surveillance had pinpointed where these bunkers were and noted the drills Russian forces conducted as their senior leaders quickly moved to the bunkers as they would in wartime. Russia considered decapitation attacks as their most serious vulnerability because wartime control of the armed forces was based on a lot more centralized control than Western forces. In the West subordinate commanders were trained to operate on their own, but Russian units were not.
This precision strike capability grew enormously during the 1990s making it practical to arm the new UAVs being used to find and identify terrorists, or any other combat opponent. That led many people to assert that this was not effective, fair, or whatever. Some called it murder. But war is murder, and for centuries those involved have recognized that going to war is a messy business, especially if you are in the midst of it. In war the survivors quickly learn two things. Those who kill first are less likely to be killed and those who can kill more of the opponent's leaders are more likely to win the war.
It wasn’t just the late 1990s UAVs that made it possible to find and identify key enemy personnel. Existing space satellites and high-flying, long endurance recon aircraft (like the U-2 and SR-71) could already do that. What the UAVs made possible was persistence, as in searching a specific area all the time. The new UAVs could stay in the air over twelve hours at a time and had high resolution digital video cameras. Before the armed UAVs came along there was no way to quickly act before the individual or small group you were looking for disappeared into a wooded or urban area. Many opportunities to kill key enemy personnel were missed. The late 1990s solution was to put existing Hellfire missiles on UAVs and add a laser designator to the UAV so the distant operator could aim and fire the missile. First developed for use from helicopters, the laser guided Hellfire and similar missiles were ideal for UAVs. This enabled you to promptly kill the enemy you had finally found. Some pundits declared this unsporting, morally indefensible or otherwise wrong. For military personnel risking their lives fighting a determined enemy, it's just another way to kill key enemy personnel, especially leaders, before the enemy succeeds in carrying out attacks. Civilians are sometimes killed and that is nothing new, but the far lower civilian casualties associated with UAV missile attacks was unique. Before the use of guided missiles, a lot more civilians died as “collateral damage". For example, during the allied invasion of France in 1944, the several months of fighting required to destroy the German armies in France employed a lot of allied artillery and airstrikes. These killed a lot of Germans, along with 15,000 French civilians in the invasion area and more than that in the rest of France. The Germans did not normally try and hide among French civilians, while Islamic terrorists did. The Germans knew they would be attacked no matter where they were. Islamic terrorists do sometimes get away because of the risk of killing civilians. This attitude ignores the civilians who die because terrorists escape to keep killing. In war if you avoid killing civilians to the extent that it gives enemy personnel immunity, that just gets more people killed down the road.
In contrast the American CIA UAV campaign against Islamic terrorists in Pakistan has been one of the more effective decapitation campaigns. In similar efforts Al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan were rendered impotent by all the losses to leadership and technical personnel, especially bomb builders. Because of this, between 2008 and 2014 most of the UAV missile attacks were against Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders in Afghanistan. After 2014 the main target was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) operatives throughout the Middle East.
The targets were located through various means, one of the most important being a network of informants on the ground, as well as the UAVs and satellites. Israel did not use armed UAVs as much because targets their UAVs found could be quickly hit by nearby helicopter gunships for fighter-bombers armed with guided weapons.
This “decapitation” tactic was successful in Iraq and earlier in Israel, where it was developed to deal with the Palestinian terror campaign that began in 2000. The Israelis were very successful with their decapitation program, which reduced Israeli civilian terrorist deaths from over 400 a year to less than ten between 2000 and 2005.
American troops have used similar tactics many times in the past, like World War II, 1960s Vietnam, the Philippines over a century ago, and in 18th century colonial America, but they tended to forget those after a generation or so. After the Palestinian terror offensive began in 2000, the Israelis developed decapitation tactics customized for use against Islamic terrorists and did not forget because that threat remained constant. That was copied by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some critics say this approach motivates more Moslems to support terrorism. This ignores what media, and popular opinion in Moslem nations, has been preaching since the 1980s. The Arab message was consistently very anti-West and pro-Islamic terrorism. That opinion only changes when the terrorists lose. That's when Islamic terrorists eventually become unpopular in Moslem majority countries. Despite more opportunities to attack non-Moslems, over 90 percent of their victims are Moslems. This is unpopular with nearby Moslem civilians, as it was for over a thousand years whenever there was an outbreak of fanatic “defend Islam” activity where the deaths were about 99 percent Moslems. These people know that Western tactics kill far fewer Moslems than those of Islamic terrorists but have long been reluctant to dwell on that.
Decades of strident anti-West ("they make war on Islam") propaganda makes anything the West does, even defending itself from attack, evil to Moslems. There is a failure to communicate here because many Moslems do believe that the September 11, 2001 attacks were all a CIA/Israeli plot and that Moslems are not attacking Western civilians. Yet, whenever Islamic terrorists succeed in attacking the West and killing lots of civilians there are open celebrations in Moslem countries. This happens even when there are Westerners around to witness it. But most media in the West refuses to deal with this quandary. It is indeed a major failure to communicate.
Now Iran is seeking Western sympathy when Iranian terrorists and nuclear weapons scientists are killed by Israelis who take seriously decades of Iranian efforts to kill Jews and destroy Israel. Iran fears the decapitation attacks are getting more effective against Iranian terror leaders and propagandists inside Iran. Given the Israeli track record, and the dismal performance of Iranian defenses, there is much to fear. This played a role in recent decisions by Arab states to diplomatically recognize Israel as an effective ally against Iran. The Arabs discovered that just buying modern weapons was not enough, you had to come up with effective ways to use them against a historically innovative foe like Iran. Foreigners don’t understand the local situation as fellow Semitic nation Israel does. After all, 20 percent of Israelis are Arab Moslems and about half the Israeli Jews look like Arabs because all Jews were originally all Semites and when Israel was formed in the late 1940s half of the Jews moving in were from Arab countries that expelled their Jewish citizens, despite many of those Jews having been residents since the Romans expelled most of the Jews from their homeland nearly two thousand years ago. Slowly the hatred of Israel changed to respect, then admiration and finally acceptance because Arabs needed a local high-tech ally and realized they already had one.