A Brilliant Dawn is an excerpt from Tal Keinan’s “God Is in the Crowd” (Penguin Random House). The book presents a general theory to explain the survival and governance of the Jewish people over the past two millennia. Keinan posits that the essential code of Jewish governance is now broken. Without it, Jewish history will soon end. Keinan’s bold and innovative plan to rewrite that code has inspired thinkers and religious leaders, from multiple faiths, to reexamine the fundamental assumptions on which their communities are built.
Throughout the 1990s, the deadly standoff on Israel’s border with Lebanon was constant, often flaring into open warfare. Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia’s principal mode of operation was rocket fire on northern Israeli towns from within Lebanese villages. Israel Air Force (IAF) battle doctrine, which traditionally relied on preemptive action against enemy air forces and armies massing on Israel’s borders, was not suited to this scenario. We often had good intelligence on the locations of Hezbollah rocket stores, but these were almost always located in the basements and garages of Lebanese civilian homes and schools. IAF rules of engagement precluded targeting these weapons stores from the air. These rules were broad and inflexible, and that was clear to Hezbollah planners. We watched, powerless, as Hezbollah weapons stockpiles swelled in preparation for recurrent rounds of open hostilities. In the interim periods, we could only do our best to deter and prevent sporadic rocket fire. This typically meant trying to identify rocket crews in the act of deploying or launching, and targeting them on the spot, or as soon as possible after launch, provided we could intercept them at a safe distance from civilians and United Nations observers. This required fighter jets, which could get on station quickly, versus attack helicopters, which moved more slowly. Unfortunately, at the time, fighter jets were armed only with large-diameter munitions with a wide kill radius. Technology and doctrine to contend with this type of challenge evolved extensively over the 1990s, but for much of the decade we had few options.With the exception of some specialized tactics, largely experimental and very expensive at the time, we were forced to operate in a primitive fashion, identifying our targets visually and attacking within a very tight set of constraints dictated by the threat environment, the target’s distance from civilians or UN observers, and the weather. We used iron bombs (dumb bombs). There was no way to conduct these operations without risk. The policy challenge to planners in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was addressed in part by pushing decision making down the chain of command to formation leaders. This required a high degree of trust in a common set of values across the organization, balancing conflicting imperatives such as mission success, rules of engagement, crew safety, and personal moral frameworks in real time, typically with imperfect information.
We were sleeping in the ready room when the siren went off just before first light. My wingman (I will call him Dan) was an older reservist, a documentary filmmaker in his day job. Dan and I had flown together for years and knew what to expect from each other, but he was going through a demanding time professionally and had not flown much in the preceding weeks. We both knew he might be rusty, one of many considerations to keep in mind. The scramble code called for us to get directly to the aircraft and launch immediately. There was no time for a target briefing. We did not know where we were headed, but we carried heavy satchels of intelligence data, including satellite photo books, to be used as aids for in- flight briefing. We slept in overalls, G suits, and flight boots. It took just a few seconds to strap into torso harnesses and helmets, grab the intelligence satchels, and step out of the ready room into a waiting transporter. The weather was as bad as it gets in Israel’s coastal plain, driving rain and hail and a low cloud ceiling. Visibility across the airfield was limited. We drove down a dedicated lane to the alert hangar, hail pellets hammering the van’s roof. We pulled into the brightly lit underground cavern, each of us jumping out as the transporter passed his aircraft. The hangar was buzzing with the choreographed hustle of the scramble, blue-suited mechanics and green- suited weapons technicians darting economically around the machines, finalizing preparation for launch. We were configured for endurance ground attack: a two- thousand- pound centerline fuel tank, two six- hundred- gallon wing tanks, Mk-84 two-thousand-pound general- purpose (dumb) bombs, laser targeting pods, and air- to- air missiles for self- defense. With an additional seven thousand pounds of internal fuel, we would be able to stay airborne for a long time and bring significant firepower to bear. We were also very heavy, which necessitated a long takeoff roll and high rotation and liftoff speeds. At our takeoff weight, the aircraft would accelerate gradually, eating up most of the runway before liftoff. With the surface slick and wet, we would be hydroplaning early. At that point, heavily loaded, it would be impossible to abort takeoff safely. I thrust my satchel into the hands of a waiting ground technician and started up the cockpit ladder, a cockpit technician at my heels. As I straddled the cockpit rails, the technician yanked me down into the ejection seat by the G-suit hose, plugging it into a cockpit socket. As he connected my shoulder straps, I attached myself to survival harnesses, closed my lap belt, and plugged in my oxygen mask. I engaged Main Electric Power, initiated Inertial Navigation System calibration, and pulled the Jet Fuel Starter knob. The starter turbine burst loudly to life. The cockpit technician wedged the intelligence satchel into the cockpit beside me, removed ejection seat pins and canopy pins, and disappeared down the ladder handrail. The jet starter’s now deafening howl echoed in the hangar. Further communication with the ground crew would be through hand signals. I initiated the main engine start sequence. The cockpit technician detached the ladder and pulled away from the aircraft as the F- 16’s massive engine groaned, then began spooling up eagerly, first purring, then thundering. The canopy came down, seals locked, and the roar cut out abruptly, replaced by a familiar cockpit song. The Radar Warning Receiver chirped as it came up and initiated a self-test sequence. Weapons seekers growled and beeped. Dan’s voice came in over the red radio, along with that of the squadron’s tactical manager. The control tower came in over the green radio. We received clearance and departure instructions before the engine start sequence was complete. I engaged parking brakes and signaled the ground technicians to remove wheel chocks and back away from the aircraft. With systems still initializing, I applied power and rolled out of the hangar into the darkness, up a short taxi ramp and onto the runway. Dan lined up to my left. I could make out his helmet’s silhouette in the pale green glow of his cockpit. The yellow runway lights stretched out in front of us, dissolving into the storm hundreds of meters ahead. I finished my takeoff checklist, armed the ejection seat, locked shoulder harnesses, and activated the anti-ice system. I opened full throttle, and the aircraft lunged forward. Afterburner engaged, the rainy night lit up around me, the surge of acceleration pressing me back into my seat. Beads of rainwater that had covered the canopy streaked backward as the runway lights running along either side of me blended into a blurry line. Rotation, liftoff, wheels- up. The runway lights receded below, then abruptly disappeared as low clouds swallowed me. Eyes on instruments. It was five minutes since the siren had sounded in the ready room.
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We received a target sector during climb- out and banked north through the storm. We understood that we would be operating within the Syrian missile umbrella, and conducted a test of onboard electronic warfare systems. At around 20,000 feet, still climbing through clouds and heavy turbulence, we made contact with two other combat formations, heading north from a different base. Our missions were coordinated. Dan and I began drawing intelligence material from the satchels. At about 25,000 feet we broke out of the murk into smooth clear air and a brilliant dawn. White light bathed the cockpit. We began establishing landmarks and anchors on the satellite photos and coordinating tactical vocabulary between us. We switched to encrypted radio channels early, and began getting a detailed intelligence stream. Our controller relayed that this was a high-value target, a designation meant to inform the attack formation leaders’ decision making. My bias would be to take on greater risk in the face of obstacles to mission success. As it stood, my own formation’s target would be a bridgelike section of winding road just below a mountain pass. The other two formations, carrying precision-guided munitions, would be striking after us. We knew that our aim point could change, depending on a number of factors. There was heavy cloud cover over most of the region. We would need a big hole in the clouds to acquire our target visually, as laser designation would be ineffective in this weather. While we waited for a clear view of the target, we would be maneuvering around the towering cumulonimbus cells blowing east off the Mediterranean. I checked wind velocity at 30,000 feet. It was well over 100 knots from the west, which made for a dynamic situation. A hole in the clouds, even a large hole, would slide past quickly. If we did get a clear view of the target, it would be brief. We would have to hit it fast. The wind also limited our attack angle. Our target was on the east face of a ridge. Because of the steep terrain, our bombs would have to come in at an oblique angle, ideally with an east-to-west component. But headwinds this strong would steepen the bombs’ ballistic trajectory significantly, lowering the aim dot on a CCIP (Continuously Computed Impact Point) bombsight. This could lead to a delayed release, jeopardizing accuracy. Attacking from north to south would throw the sights far to the left, also compromising accuracy. The best alternative that the high winds would accommodate was a west-to-east bombing run in a very steep dive. I would not have liked this solution if the target had been farther south. The steep dive, in our “dirty” configuration (heavily loaded with munitions and fuel tanks), would take us to low altitude on pullout, expanding our window of vulnerability to ground fire. But this particular region had a lower concentration of Shiite towns and villages than the southern region. The weather also played in our favor in that we might quickly be obscured by the clouds after pullout. We would also be the first formation going in. We would be the ones waking people up. The second and third formations would be at greater risk. On the other hand, a west-to-east bombing run would take us deeper into the Syrian missile umbrella. In this configuration, we would be slower and more vulnerable to a long- range missile shot during pullout and ascent. As long as we remained in Lebanese airspace, there was little chance the Syrians would fire on us. They had not in a long time. Still, it was an uncomfortable place to loiter. We were plainly visible on radar to multiple Syrian missile battery operators, all having watched us for several long minutes before the attack, a trigger pull away from SAM (surface- to- air- missile) launch. If we were hit and forced to eject, the strong westerly winds would blow our parachutes into Syrian territory. In Lebanon, we had a chance of evasion and extraction, especially if we were far from population centers, or if we fell into Christian hands. Syria was more complicated, and rescue would be less likely. I considered jettisoning external fuel tanks, which would make the aircraft lighter, but we were already flying over populated areas. We were stuck in a dirty configuration for now.
The target area was almost completely covered in cloud as we came over it. We began circling at around 20,000 feet, waiting for a break to get a look at the terrain below. Occasionally, peering through small gaps, I thought I could make out some of our landmarks, but it was difficult to confirm identification with certainty. After a few minutes, our Radar Warning Receivers began chirping, indicating we were being tracked from the east. We held a defensive formation, scanning visually for SAM launches, still trying to gain a clear view of the target area. I was conscious of being gradually dragged eastward with the storm as we circled. We were in a confined operating space and might easily drift into Syrian airspace inadvertently if we lost track of our position. That would provoke a volley of SAMs. We spotted a gap in the clouds about ten miles west of us. At the prevailing wind speed, the gap, if it held its form, would be over our target area in about five minutes. There would not be much time to identify the target, coordinate with Dan, and attack before the hole blew past, but this looked as if it might be our best shot. I was concerned that if we missed this opportunity, we might end up compromising the missions of the formations behind us, or aborting altogether. I took the formation west from the target area. My intention was to circle over the cloud gap and start identifying landmarks west of our target. It was better than circling over the obscured target area. This way, we might have some of our westernmost landmarks already identified by the time the gap blew over the target, possibly shortening the process of getting our bearings, confirming target identification, and attacking. It was also more comfortable to hold beyond the fringes of the Syrian missile umbrella. We dug out satellite map sheets of the western area and coordinated major landmarks between cockpits. We both identified a distinctive bend in a deep river gorge as the most prominent feature on the pages. Once we could identify that bend visually, we might be able to jump to a smaller landmark farther east, and from that landmark to another, hopefully connecting the dots all the way to our target as the cloud gap blew toward it. But the sun was still low in the east. Most of the terrain beneath the hole was still shrouded in the darkness of the stormy dawn. Only its westernmost segment was getting sunlight. I realized this would complicate my plan of attacking west to east. We would have an even shorter window than I had hoped for. I was also disappointed to find a layer of icy mist below the hole. We could see through the mist from the east looking west, but as soon as we passed overhead and turned back east, the low sun, reflected on the ice crystals, made the layer nearly opaque to us.
We were more than twenty minutes into the mission. Other formations were in holding patterns off the Lebanese coast, waiting for us to engage our target and vacate the operating area. Time was running out. Still, we would need a solution to the visibility problem. I decided to make a brief pass beneath the clouds and mist to try to establish solid bearings. Until now, we were only imagining the dark world underneath. A low pass would give us a sense of the altitudes and dive angles at which we could expect the target to become visible enough to provide a clear aim point. I would also try to get that bend in the gorge into the center of my head-up display (HUD) and execute a corrective position fix of the aircraft’s Inertial Navigation System (INS). Due to the rush of the scramble, we had not conducted a full alignment of our INSs. Significant drift might have set in by now, making INS positioning less dependable. I entered the coordinates of a specific point on that bend in the gorge and maneuvered to a position in which my dive would have me more or less pointed at it. I instructed Dan to stay above the clouds and track me by radar. I planned for him to make his own pass separately. Positioned at the western rim of the hole, I rolled into a shallow dive to the east. My Radar Warning Receiver chirped reassuringly as Dan locked on me. The terrain became discernible at about 10,000 feet. Colors and features were always a bit different from what one imagined from above the clouds. In the seconds it took to orient myself, I was conscious of the silhouette I was casting down to hostile observers on the ground, a black dart streaking earthward against the backdrop of an overcast sky. My instinct was to get back above the protective cloud base immediately, but I needed to continue lower. I spotted the bend in the gorge, farther north than I had expected to find it. At this point, I must have been at around 8,000 feet above sea level. Rugged wet terrain slid by just beneath me. I banked left, brought a prechosen rocky ledge on the rim of the gorge to the center of my HUD, and took the fix. As feared, my INS had drifted. It was now centered, but it would continue to drift in the coming minutes. I looked east to see if I could identify any of the secondary anchor points on the way to the target. I could not. It was too dark under the clouds, and the viewing angle was too acute at this low altitude. I pulled up sharply at full dry throttle and allowed the clouds to swallow me. In a few seconds, I was back in the morning sunlight, about two miles north of Dan. We turned and repeated the maneuver, I now trailing him.
As hoped, within a few minutes the high winds had carried the gap in the clouds over the target area. It seemed the mist layer had also dissipated somewhat. We still had not made out the local anchor points, but we happened to be pointing at the target zone as we approached from the west. I took the opportunity to briefly aim my nose at the target marker in my HUD and was surprised to spot the snaking strip of road. I recognized the crescent- shaped bend, whose center point was our target. Luck has to be on your side sometimes, I thought. Pulling my nose wide to the left, I turned back to enter a shallow right bank, my eyes glued to the spot. I trusted Dan was scanning eastward as our Radar Warning Receivers began to tweet again. I flew a pattern that allowed me to keep the target in sight through occasional cloud shreds. This was not best practice. Ideally, we would have insisted on first identifying our local anchors visually, methodically working our way from landmark to landmark, corroborating our observations until we could confirm that we were both looking at the same target and that it was indeed our intended target. But time was short and it looked as though this might be our only shot. I had just a few seconds to make a decision.
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The Radar Warning Receivers whined insistently. Multiple SAM sites were tracking us. My cockpit was strewn with papers and satellite photos. My clockwise arc had now taken me west of the target, and I was finding it increasingly difficult to keep my eyes fixed on it through the haze and the cloud shreds. I briefly lost sight of it for a moment but managed to pick it up again. I had descended in a spiral to about 11,000 feet, a good altitude for commencing an attack. I was positioned appropriately for the steep dive I had planned. If we performed another 360, I might lose sight of the target for good. I made my decision. I would attack now, and alone, with Dan scanning for launches. Master and weapons switches were already armed. I ran a final check of release intervals and fusing, then rolled onto my back, pulling down sharply. The earth quickly consumed my field of view and began to rise toward me. I initiated a flare sequence as a decoy against heat-seeking missiles, advanced the throttle to full dry thrust, and rolled 180 degrees to wings-level in a steep dive. I would need to accelerate to about 0.9 Mach for release. Other than very short glances at altitude and airspeed in the HUD, my vision was now tunnel- focused on the bend in the road. The CCIP sight line was straight and short, as planned. I began leading the aim dot up toward the target. My dive angle was close to 60 degrees, altitude 8,000 feet and descending fast, speed 0.87 Mach and rising. Conditions in place, I entered a familiar zone. Time slowed abruptly. I disengaged from the chain of events that had led me here and lost any sense of a future beyond this moment. If there were missile launches or ground fire coming up at me, I would not see them. If my wingman shouted a break warning, I would not hear it. It would be stored somewhere in my head for replay as soon as this moment passed— in about a second.
The left-right jolt of Mk- 84s breaking off of my wings shook me back to the present. The aim dot was on target, wings level, 1.0 G, good launch conditions. I kept my thumb pressed down on the weapons release button. My throttle was already in idle, the engine cooling. I was low but had to pull out of the dive gradually. The external tanks were not yet empty, which imposed tighter than normal G limits. My nose crossed the horizon at low altitude but good speed. I gradually advanced the throttle to full dry thrust and continued pulling into a steep climb, looking over my shoulder at the target, waiting for impact. What I saw startled me. There was a cluster of small structures about five hundred meters north of the bend in the road. I had not noticed them until now. They had not appeared on the satellite photo sheets. Something was wrong. The road extending north from the aim point also looked straighter than it should have been. The awful reality struck suddenly and unequivocally. This was the wrong bend. Maybe even the wrong road. Overcome with nausea, I held my breath waiting for the inevitable flash of my bombs’ impact between the flares streaming out the back of the aircraft. It came without mercy. I went to full afterburner on instinct, now accelerating almost vertically. I could not see any launches, and I began to scan the road I had just hit for civilian vehicles. Our intended target was far from any village, calculated to be lightly trafficked at this hour. But this was a more populated strip of road. I saw vehicles farther south. I tried to scan the impact zone but could not get a clear view. Much of it was now obscured in a thick mushroom of smoke, debris, and flying earth. I desperately wanted to know the damage but could not indulge the impulse. The clouds swallowed me.
Back in the sunlight above the storm, I took a moment to push down a welling fantasy of replaying the last thirty seconds. I would confront my failure and its consequences later. At this point, there was nothing I could do for anyone on the ground below me. We had not closed our target, and we still had four thousand pounds of munitions on the aircraft. The mission was not over. I reported our situation to the controller and told him we would be remaining on station for another ten to fifteen minutes. The formations off the coast would have to continue to hold. I took our formation west again, reordered my cockpit, and swung back around, intent on working by the book this time and hoping the weather would cooperate. It did. The cloud gap had expanded, and the mist continued to dissipate. We were able to make out our ground anchors and eventually identified the target. It indeed looked similar to the now smoldering section of road I had hit, but it lay almost a mile east. I should have noted their similarities and their proximity on contiguous satellite photos as we were studying, especially as we were approaching from the west, and both would be in the same field of view. Dan attacked and closed the target.
It was a long flight home. Dan sat about two miles off my right wing, suspended in silence. We had switched from combat channels to a traffic control frequency flying down the Israeli coast. It was still early in the day. We were alone on the network and I was grateful for the silence. There was nothing to say. The damage would not be known for a long time. It might never be. I would not have the privilege of demanding that knowledge. The doubt would be mine to keep. The debriefing was long and painful, conducted first alone with Dan and then with the entire squadron. I summarized our findings and submitted them to be published for review by the entire IAF flight crew community. This had been a personal failure for me, and a professional blow. More critically, my hands were now dirty. For the first time, I had caused injury to people we had intended not to harm. I was not alone. Sitting around the table in the squadron dining hall, we spent a lot of time debating the moral implications of fighting a war in civilian areas. Under the prevailing conditions, it seemed we had no choice but to continue contending with the moral dilemmas and the ambiguity. We could not stand idle as rockets were fired at the Israeli civilians we were charged with protecting. We could only prosecute this war as humanely as circumstances permitted, and accept that unintended tragedies would inevitably occur, considering the sheer volume of missions we were flying. This was just the reality. We already knew that future action in the more densely populated Gaza Strip was a possibility. Some, at the time, said they would refuse orders to attack in these areas if it ever came to that. I understood this position; it resonated with me as well. But a looming break in the hierarchy was a frightening prospect. We would be put to that test before long.
To purchase God Is in The Crowd by Tal Keinan, please click here.