The Next War Will Make No Allowances for Political or Covid Constraints | by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

"Prepare for it as if it will happen tomorrow", instructed IDF Chief of Staff Kochavi at a large-scale exercise in the north, and reminded commanders what perhaps the Knesset has forgotten: on Israel’s northern border, the quiet can be deceptive. Israel’s lawmakers must rise to the occasion, remove security issues from the healthcare and political crises, and help advance IDF readiness for the next campaign, before it is too late

  • originally published as an "INSS Insight" No. 1412, December 7, 2020

The prolonged tension in the north between the IDF and Hezbollah suggests that the two sides are actually only a few faulty or miscalculated moves away from a clash that is liable to escalate rapidly into a full-scale war, with little warning that would give the IDF time to prepare. At the same time, Israel is grappling with a Covid-19 crisis and a prolonged political crisis that has delayed essential IDF force buildup processes, particularly the budget and procurement of aircraft and battle systems, as well as the IDF's training program. The political crisis has also disrupted the ongoing dialogue between the government and the army, which is a critical element in Israel's ability to make decisions on both force buildup and, no less importantly, on force application. Despite the pandemic and the political crisis – and as was underscored recently by the IDF's retaliatory operation in Syria in response to the explosives laid in the Golan Heights – the IDF should train and prepare for escalation, despite the risks of infection from the coronavirus, so that it will be ready for war.

In mid-November 2020, the IDF reported it had launched a large-scale air attack in Syria. As described by the IDF spokesperson, the attack was in retaliation for explosives laid close to Outpost 116 in the Golan Heights under the direction of Unit 840 of the Iranian al-Quds force, which uses Syrian volunteers in terrorist operations. The IDF struck eight targets, including weapons stores, ground-to-air missile batteries, an al-Quds headquarters, and the headquarters of the Syrian 7th division. A number of Syrian and Iranian soldiers were killed in this attack. Since last July, the IDF Northern Command has been on increased alert against Hezbollah, following an attack in Syria attributed to Israel in which a Hezbollah operative was killed.

Following the latter attack, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared that the organization would exact a price in human life for each Hezbollah operative killed in Lebanon or Syria. Hezbollah has tried a number of times to impose this equation on Israel, with no success. For example, in August, Hezbollah snipers fired at an IDF force on the Lebanese border near Manara. The IDF responded from the air, attacking Hezbollah positions near the Lebanese border (in contrast to the response in a previous event, when a squad of Hezbollah snipers crossed the border at Mount Dov, and the IDF allowed the Hezbollah squad to flee). Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, head of the IDF Northern Command and a former paratrooper, said that the Israeli attack was designed to show Hezbollah that "you lost two positions when you fired and caused no casualties. This shows you how we will respond to a shooting attack that causes casualties". A number of additional attacks against bases of Iranian forces in Syria were attributed to Israel – a signal to Nasrallah that his equation has not deterred Israel. The tension, however, has not abated, and Nasrallah has since repeated, and emphasized, that the price will be exacted.

Although the tension continues at a low level, as has occurred in the past on both the southern and northern fronts, the two sides are only a few steps away from escalation that might develop into a war. As with the Israel-Hamas dynamic, it appears that Israel and Hezbollah have adopted the approach that any escalation will be limited to a few days of battle that can be contained and controlled. The potential damage from escalation on the northern front, however, is far greater than the potential damage that Hamas can inflict on Israel. This could make it even more difficult for Israel and Hezbollah to control developments and prevent their escalation into a major conflict.

In addition to the ongoing tension, any assessment of Israel's strategic position should factor in additional variables, among them the forthcoming transition in United States administrations. An American attack on Iranian targets in the region is possible, either in response to attacks against US forces in Iraq and eastern Syria or in order to damage Iran's nuclear project. Such an attack is likely to spark an Iranian response against Israel utilizing Iranian proxies, at a time when Israel continues to weather the Covid-19 pandemic and a political crisis.

Israel is a strong country, with stable and functioning government systems. The political stalemate in the decision making process, however, including in defense matters, has a negative impact on the defense establishment's preparedness for escalation in the security situation. No budget has been drafted or approved in the six months since the current government was formed, including for the defense budget. Procurement of new combat systems and weapons has not yet been decided, and the Tnufa (Momentum) multi-year plan proposed by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has not yet been approved. As stated by Ministry of Defense director general Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, adaptation of the processes of training, procurement, receiving, and absorbing new combat systems and aircraft takes time, and some of Israel’s aircraft, for example helicopters, are in operational service far longer than what the manufacturer intended.

Furthermore, as revealed in the course of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to Saudi Arabia and the political process that led to the signing of the Abraham Accords, senior ministers and the IDF General Staff were excluded and did not take part in the preparations, or in the process itself. A proper, regular, and ongoing dialogue between the government and the army is a vital element in Israel's ability to make critical defense decisions on force buildup, and no less importantly, on the use of force. In the event of escalation on the northern front, the ability of army commanders and senior political leaders to conduct a quick and well-organized dialogue based on trust and knowledge is essential for Israel's ability to manage such escalation successfully.

Given this situation, the insistence of Chief of Staff Kochavi on carrying out essential parts of the Tnufa program, as well as conducting Lethal Arrow, a multi-system exercise, which in late October simulated a conflict on more than one front and included participation by reserve forces, is praiseworthy. In addition to this drill, regular army and reserve forces conducted additional exercises, and more drills are scheduled to take place in the coming months.

Israel's airpower comprises effective and lethal force capable of especially large attack output. The air force has formulated a concept of large-scale high-precision strikes in which each strike is designed to cause destruction and damage to the enemy far in excess of its expectations of the IDF's capabilities and intentions. These strikes are planned to damage enemy systems that are critical to its operational performance and strategic plans. The objective is to bring about multi-system failure, thereby forcing the enemy to devote most of its resources to defense and reconstruction.

At the same time, it is quite possible that in addition to airpower, Israel will have to conduct supplementary rapid and aggressive land operations against enemy soldiers in their territory that will unseat them physically and emotionally, and will also expose targets to attack with precise firepower. According to the IDF, ground maneuvers in recent years revealed two main problems: the ability to provide a response to rocket and missile fire aimed at the Israeli home front, and the ability to neutralize capabilities, rapidly and continuously, in the enemy's centers of gravity. The IDF ground forces have therefore devised a ground combat doctrine of buildup, detection, convergence, strike, and assault, in which the ground combat forces have access to enhanced intelligence and detection capabilities. This will enable them to locate the enemy, attack it, and neutralize its capabilities through precise firepower and rapid and deadly action by land forces.

In any case, the large areas in Lebanon and the densely populated urban areas in the Gaza Strip require large orders of battle, and certainly in a multi-front war. This mandates the use of reserve forces, because the regular army by itself will not be sufficient. In turn, this points to the third deficiency in IDF preparedness – the combat fitness of its forces. Making the IDF fit for combat on land, despite the constraints, requires combat exercises, lest Israel find itself with an inadequate response to the threat. In a talk with Paratroopers Brigade commanders before the exercise in the Galilee, Chief of Staff Kochavi said, "It is impossible to triumph over our enemies without land operations." He warned against the illusion that the next campaign would be far in the future, and told the commanders that they should "prepare for it as if it will happen tomorrow".

In addition to a high level of readiness, regular maneuvers on a reasonably high level have always been a challenge to the IDF, because the IDF has almost constantly faced concrete threats. Conducting training during the Covid-19 pandemic, however, is an especially difficult challenge, because the possibility of infection during exercises has been added to the usual constraints affecting reserve soldiers, led by their need to balance between employment and family needs on the one hand and service in the IDF reserves on the other. Concern about contagion is well founded, as people have been infected during training.

Nevertheless, as the Chief of Staff said, Israel's enemies will have no regard for its Covid-19 or political constraints. The IDF must therefore arrange a clear procedure as soon as possible that will include appropriate compensation for soldiers who become ill and those who are forced to quarantine as a result of reserve service, and must insist on conducting drills. This arrangement will make it clear to soldiers serving in the reserves that the IDF regards them as a vital asset, and will reinforce their trust in it, while making them realize the importance of training. Conducting combat exercises, combined with IDF-initiated offensive action on the various fronts, strengthens Israel's deterrent image and clearly demonstrates its readiness for war, even though it does not wish for one.

In conclusion, despite the prevailing assumption that the probability of war at the present time is low, especially before the new administration settles into office in the US, it is essential to maintain the IDF's fitness and preparedness for unexpected developments, especially those involving the Iranian-Shiite axis on the northern front, which includes Lebanon, Syria, and western Iraq. The IDF's role is that of a responsible adult – especially at this time, when the political decision making and governmental mechanisms in Israel are underperforming. A high level of preparedness and a high and prominent operational profile will help deter the Shiite axis from efforts to confront Israel with harsh defense challenges having the potential to escalate into a large scale conflict.

An IDF Multi-Year Plan for the Ground Forces | by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

As part of the economic crisis facing Israel, the IDF too is expected to face budget cuts. When the army is forced to make budgetary changes, it must remember: there is no substitute for the capabilities of ground forces, and failure to maintain them could have a very costly outcome

  • originally published  as an "INSS Insight" No. 1344, July 12, 2020

In a recent speech, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said that even during the coronavirus crisis, "the IDF continued to prevent and uproot threats", and to provide Israel with security and stability. This activity, he stated, is likely to be taken for granted, because of the "defense paradox: when there is security tranquility and stability, people are inclined to forget how difficult it is to achieve them", and they make the mistake of thinking that spending on defense needs can be reduced. The Chief of Staff warned that many countries, including Israel, have committed this error and subsequently paid a heavy price. His remarks were apparently in response to the economic recession in light of the coronavirus crisis. In view of the economic and budgetary distress, it is likely that all government ministries, including the Ministry of Defense, will be asked to accept smaller budgets. However, a smaller defense budget is liable to impact negatively on the army's capability, and particularly the ability of the ground forces, to provide effective security in peacetime and in an emergency, especially in war.

What sort of campaign is the most important? Is it the ongoing campaign between wars, which in part is designed to prevent war, or is war itself the principal campaign? Is the IDF's primary task to continue its force buildup and improve readiness in preparation for full-scale war? In today’s region, the opposing sides will usually prefer to stay below the threshold of full-scale war. On the other hand, there are situations that feature a chain of successive responses by the two sides with unforeseen consequences that are likely to culminate in escalation or even war. The IDF must therefore maintain its readiness for both the campaign between wars and for all-out war. 

Before the Second Lebanon War, for example, the ground forces’ fitness was severely affected by the 2003 budget cut. However, the theory was that the ongoing intensive operations against Palestinian terrorism would preserve the army's operational readiness. This misconception ignored the fact that fighting terrorism is different from what is likely to occur in a campaign like the one in Lebanon. Indeed, the "less than satisfactory" way, as a senior IDF officer put it, that that ground forces operated in the Second Lebanon War demonstrated that neglecting their fitness was a costly decision. The conclusion is that training the ground army for the purpose of maintaining battle fitness for an emergency requires the continuous investment of resources. This conclusion is also supported by the lessons of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014, which highlighted the same dilemma, although in a less severe way. The fact that almost the entire regular army taking part in maneuvers fought in this operation was also due to the unfitness of the reserve forces, which did not undergo the necessary training and required a long time to make them combat ready.

There were good explanations for the cuts in both of these cases. The second intifada and the economic crisis on the one hand, and the 2011 social protests on the other, resulted in a decision to cut the defense budget. The IDF, most of whose budget is inflexible and tied to payment of salaries and pensions, regular maintenance, procurement, and force buildup projects, makes cuts where it can, usually in training, based on how it assesses the risk of war.

While the value ascribed to the ground maneuver, which requires a major logistics endeavor and almost always includes casualties, faded, the importance of firepower (mostly precision, but not exclusively) rose. The reasons are obvious: airpower, for example, is available for immediate and defined action on the other side of the border, and its use falls below the war threshold. Airpower makes full use of Israel's technological and military supremacy, and utilizes precision-guided weaponry, which reduces the risk to IDF forces and uninvolved civilians.

The IDF currently possesses very effective firepower and intelligence capabilities for combined operations, and the air force is capable of attacking thousands of targets a day. These capabilities were highly impressive against the threat posed by Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2014. Then too, however, precision firepower, boosted by timely and accurate intelligence, was not enough. The enemy became accustomed to it and learned to evade it, while continuing to launch missiles and rockets at the Israeli home front. The ground maneuver and firepower did not stop the barrages against the Israeli home front, but they did disrupt and lessen them. The combination of the two is capable of bringing the campaign to a close and leading to a situation in which Israel will be able to force its terms on its enemies – a state of affairs that Israel will seek to maintain for as long as possible.

The use of firepower is essential. It injures and disrupts the enemy's operational capabilities, deprives it of strategic assets, inflicts severe and destructive damage, deters it from another campaign for years, and forces it to invest its resources in repairing the damage. On the other hand, Israel cannot afford the luxury of prolonged campaigns because of the threat to its home front posed by the enemy. Although the fighting should not be halted before Israel's firepower is used in the attacks, Israel should aim at shortening the campaign's duration as much as possible. One of the tools available to the IDF to shorten the campaign is the ground maneuver, because it poses a concrete threat to the enemy's survival and ability to function, and is likely to cause it to terminate the campaign.

What this means is that the army needs supplementary land capability, including regular and reserve forces that can be called up and used as a spearhead in a lightning land campaign that will disable and damage the military power of Hezbollah and Hamas. A ground force composed of combined combat teams smaller in size than those of the IDF's past traditional and awkward structure is needed. The old structure relied mainly on divisions as combat teams. What is needed are brigade-size forces able to move rapidly from theater to theater and conduct raids with speed, flexibility, and tight inter-branch coordination, integrating elements of firepower and intelligence, while initiating direct contact with enemy operatives and conducting effective attacks against them. These forces, which will be based on the ability to process intelligence rapidly, will be able to track down an elusive enemy that makes every effort to avoid direct contact with the army by staying protected in tunnels and bunkers.

The IDF’s most recent successful land campaigns were in Operation Defensive Shield, when Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi commanded the Paratroopers Brigade, and Operation Cast Lead, when he was head of the Operations Division of the Operations Directorate. It appears that this experience taught him that a land campaign should aim to destroy the enemy's assets and military power. In his view, "If all you did was reach a certain line without destroying the rockets, anti-tank missiles, and headquarters on the way, the enemy entrenched in the urban area will continue operating as if the land operation or counterattack had no effect on it".

Even in a campaign initiated by the IDF with powerful and impressive firepower, targets lower their signature within a short time, and the enemy vanishes from the battlefield. In order to track down the enemy, attack it, and bring it to the surface, so that it can be hit with a barrage of firepower, ground maneuver and direct contact with the enemy's strongholds and hiding places are necessary.

The IDF must now undergo force buildup processes that address a range of scenarios – some of which are already evident – including annexation in the West Bank, a second wave of the coronavirus, an economic recession accompanied by a deep cut in the defense budget, and, as always, the possibility of an outbreak of unrest in the West Bank or a conflict in the Gaza Strip and the northern theater (and possibly both). The multi-year plan will have to create optimal readiness in the army for the various scenarios, while setting in motion force buildup processes for the future and cutting some portions of the budget. Therefore, it would be a mistake to devote most of the investment to intelligence and firepower capabilities, at the cost of preparedness and buildup of ground forces.

The previous multi-year plan, "Gideon", which was carried out during the term of former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, emphasized preparedness of the ground forces, "our Achilles’ heel", as described by Major General Aharon Haliva. During Eisenkot's term, training of ground forces increased; substantive reform was conducted in the ground forces arm, in which tens of thousands of unneeded soldiers were discharged from reserve duty; and a distinction was made in the fitness of units, with priority being given to the combat brigades, even at the expense of force buildup and procurement. In addition, the IDF's ability to operate deep in enemy territory was upgraded through the establishment of a commando brigade. The political deadlock of the past year, however, which prevented the creation of a regular budget framework and caused a cut in training (exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis), means that the Achilles’ heel is still a weak point.

By nature, armies are conservative organizations. The fear that the army will have to engage in combat before the change is complete means that the processes of change will be relatively slow, but these must be persistent. Another variable is the inherent tension in force buildup processes between the desire to improve weak points and the desire to strengthen the IDF's relative advantage. The difficulty in strengthening the ground forces stems from the size of this arm in manpower, combat platforms, and equipment. The cost of consolidating a quality effect is larger and more substantial that that required for procuring precision weapons. The result is that the army will usually choose to strengthen its qualitative advantage. On the other hand, the fact that the regular and reserve land army is shrinking as time goes by makes it possible to strengthen its strike forces, as was done under the Gideon plan.

Because of the expected defense budget cut, the next multi-year plan, "Tnufa" ("Momentum"), should build the most suitable plan for Israel and the challenges before it, and should in effect continue the previous multi-year plan. The threat from both the Gaza Strip and the northern front, which includes a grave threat to the home front from batteries of rockets and missiles and raiding forces designed to penetrate and operate in Israeli territory, requires making the ground forces much quicker, more flexible, and capable of operating on both defense and offense. This joins the necessary enhancement of firepower capabilities and their lethalness.

Some of the measures were indeed taken over the past year. In the IDF Southern Command and Northern Command, Major Generals Herzi Halevi and Amir Baram, both originally from the Paratroopers, initiated a series of training maneuvers and threshold tests, so that all the regular and reserve IDF battalions undergo training simulating a campaign in the south and the north. These training maneuvers are important, because, as the Chief of Staff said, "If there is something significant to combat soldiers crossing the border, it is a sense of capability and confidence". Although the test of fitness is a step in the right direction, a major investment must still be made in the ground forces, because the combination of firepower and an effective and energetic land campaign can shorten the duration of the next conflict, and also achieve a decisive outcome.