Importance of IDF Ground Forces in new army appointments | by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

The indication of the importance of a field is measured by the resources allocated to it, and to the people who lead it

Recently, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to appoint Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick as commander of Ground Forces. This right step shows the importance the chief of staff sees in upgrading and strengthening those forces.

During the tenure of Gadi Eisenkot, there was a significant force buildup that improved its operational capability. But the claims raised by former IDF ombudsman Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick prove that much more work is still needed in order to bridge the many gaps in the readiness of the Ground Forces.

The indication of the importance of a field is measured by the resources allocated to it, and to the people who lead it. The appointment of Strick, who commanded the Givati Brigade, the Galilee Division, the Home Front Command and the Northern Command, brings with it a possibility for change. But he will also have to come with the promises of authority, budgets, backing and support from the chief of staff.

Strick’s replacement in the Northern Command will be Maj.-Gen. Amir Baram (my battalion commander in the paratroopers, whom I highly respect). The Lebanese scene is familiar to him from long years of fighting. About 25 years ago, Baram led the Paratroopers Brigade anti-tank company in a complex operation near the Lebanese village of Kafra, during which the force directed attack helicopters that killed four Hezbollah operatives. A few years later, he was called in to command the brigade’s Reconnaissance Company, after its commander Eitan Balachsan was killed in a skirmish in southern Lebanon.

Baram rehabilitated the company and managed to lead its soldiers in a successful skirmish with terrorists, shortly before the IDF withdrew from Lebanon. During the Second Intifada, he commanded the 890th Battalion, and later commanded the Maglan Reconnaissance Unit, the Samaria Brigade, the 35th Paratroopers Brigade and two divisions. Baram, an old subordinate of the chief of staff since the time Kochavi was his company commander in the Paratroopers Brigade, is expected to be an important member of the General Staff. Unlike some senior members of the defense establishment, Baram is a firm believer in the ground maneuver.

"I love the Iron Dome system, but in the end, it will reach its limit. There comes a time at which each dome will need a hammer next to it, and then we will have to recall what we did in Defensive Shield," he once said. In the case of a campaign in Lebanon, Baram will be required to command a large-scale ground maneuver. Strick would be the one who would be required to close the gaps in competence and make sure the Ground Forces are capable and ready to carry it out.

Two other officers promoted in the round were Brig.-Gen. Itai Virob and Brig.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, who will be appointed IDF attaché in the United States. Virob, who successfully commanded a reserve Paratroopers Brigade in the last days of the Second Lebanon War, as well as the Gaza Division, will replace Baram as commander of the military colleges.

Fuchs, who commanded the Nahal Brigade and replaced Virob at the Gaza Division, is a talented officer. However, it would have been better if the most senior defense representative to Israel’s strategic alliance would not be a general in his first position, however talented, who lacks experience in the General Staff echelon and in Israel’s strategic floor.

Sixteen years ago, journalist Avihai Becker (himself a former Golani Brigade company commander), published an article in "Haaretz" about Benny Gantz, the general who later became chief of staff, on his appointment as the commander of the Northern Command. "Somehow it happened that all those officers who used to gather around the conference table of Paratroopers Brigade commander Col. Shaul Mofaz, today head all the most sensitive and important sectors in the IDF," Becker wrote. 

He did not lack examples: The commander of the Judea and Samaria Division was Yitzhak "Jerry" Gershon, who was the commander of Battalion 202 in the brigade and fought under Mofaz in the raid on the Hezbollah stronghold in Maidun in 1988; the commander of the Galilee Division was Meir Kalifi, the brigade executive officer in the raid; Israel Ziv commanded the 50th Battalion at the same time; and Gantz himself commanded Battalion 890.

"It does not matter how you look at the phenomenon: The question arises as to how all military intelligence and professionalism stem from only one source – Mofaz’s Paratroopers Brigade," Becker wrote.

With the appointment of Kochavi as chief of staff, this question arose again, as three generals who served under him as battalion commanders are sitting around his General Staff table: Amir Baram, the Military Colleges commander; Aharon Haliva, head of the Operations Directorate; and Miki Edelstein, the IDF attaché in the United States. They will soon be joined by Itay Virob, who served as the commander of the brigade training base under Kochavi. (And it is not as if there are no more paratroopers in the General Staff, such as Herzi Halevi and Moti Baruch, who did not serve under him).

Worthy commanders were promoted to positions where they will be able to bring their advantages and experience to an optimal realization. But in order to prevent the danger in which the General Staff table will seat only commanders who think in the same way – because they all served in the same unit and went through a very similar career – preferably the next appointments will have room for those who grew up in the Armored Corps, Artillery and perhaps even Combat Engineering. 

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", February 21, 2019)

מודעות פרסומת

Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water | by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

The unit has a tradition during which the soldiers are required, in a kind of courage test, to jump from a moving jeep without a helmet into thorny bushes

Recently, a series of mishaps were uncovered in the elite Maglan unit, which is part of the IDF’s new commando brigade. It turns out that the unit has a tradition, which is not part of the official training program, during which the soldiers are required, in a kind of courage test, to jump from a moving jeep without a helmet into thorny bushes. One of the soldiers who tried to accomplish the test was seriously injured in the back and may suffer disability for the rest of his life. In another case, a soldier from the unit was injured during hand-to-hand combat training (Krav Maga).

I did not serve in Maglan or one of the other units in the brigade, but the service in the paratroopers and later in reserve in an elite paratroopers brigade in the 98th Paratroopers Division has brought me together with many who served as soldiers and commanders in the unit and gave me some insights into the experience, training and operational activities of Maglan and similar units.

Since their founding, elite units like Maglan have developed such traditions to prove what seems to be clear in advance, that they are the boldest and toughest in the military. Ehud Barak’s acceptance test for Sayeret Matkal, for example, included an exam of his ability to read a map and what was defined as the ultimate test of courage – jumping from a jeep during a drive at 50 kilometers per hour. A moment before Barak (who for his courage as commander in the unit was later decorated with five citations for bravery) jumped; the driver grabbed him and stopped the vehicle. It turns out that the unit knew even then to stop in time and the test only examined whether Barak would be ready to jump.

In these units, in which high-quality personnel serve, there is a different discipline than the one practiced in the “big army.” The soldiers are educated to be self-disciplined and to take charge. The reason why commanders don’t deal with issues such as proper military appearance and dry orders is based on the perception that with such good men it is possible to deal mainly with operational activity and preparing for war, and rely on them to know to uphold those orders on themselves. Most of the time that approach proves itself, and the IDF manages to produce a great deal from its elite units, even though the soldiers are relatively young and the training period is short compared with what is customary in various Western armies. During the Second Lebanon War, for example, a Maglan unit carried out “Operation Beach Boys,” considered one of the most successful special operations in the war, in which 150 targets were destroyed, including 40 rocket launchers, in the western sector of southern Lebanon. The US military would have carried out such a raid with a much more experienced force, Delta force or the Green Berets, whose soldiers would not be 19 or 20 years old as in the IDF, but at least 25.

Nevertheless, there are those who sometimes exploit this lack of supervision by the commanders in these units in order to create such invalid traditions as that courage test. It is good that the IDF decided to conduct a thorough investigation, headed by Brig.-Gen. Itai Virob, who commanded a reserve Paratroopers brigade during the fighting in Lebanon in 2006, but one must make sure not to “throw out the baby with the bath water.” The commando brigade is still, despite the mileage it has made in exercises in Israel and abroad, as well as operational activity carried out by its units separately (two months ago, for example, a team from a Maglan unit killed eight Hamas operatives on the Gaza perimeter fence under construction). The brigade commander, Col. Avi Blut, a paratrooper who commanded Maglan and is about to serve as the military secretary of the prime minister, is constantly working on the force buildup processes that would unite these units from “a mass of units that have no common ground,” as MK Ofer Shelah, a former paratroop company commander, once defined them, to one brigade.

In the next confrontation, the IDF will need to have a high-quality, flexible and available force capable of operating quickly in order to attack Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon or other targets. The transformation of the commando brigade into such a force is the challenge of its commanders, and will continue to be such a challenge for Blut’s replacement, Col. Kobi Heller, who did most of his service in the Golani Brigade and commanded the Duvdevan unit during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The conclusions of the examination committee led by Brig.-Gen. Virob, which will certainly lead to the tightening of supervision and control in the area of safety and discipline, should not harm the spirit of these units, since it is a critical component of their creative, daring and combative nature.

And a word about the unacceptable norm of courage tests such as the one colloquially known as “beheading” that have become common here. I know the current commander of Maglan; we served together in the same paratroopers company, where he was a squad leader and I was a young recruit. After I was discharged, I heard that he had taken command of a company whose commander had been wounded in the Second Lebanon War and that he was considered a well-respected company commander. That did not surprise me; he was always an excellent man and an excellent commander.

For the last three months, he has been in charge of the unit and is responsible for everything that happens there. Responsible, but not necessarily guilty. It is not at all certain that in this short period he was able to recognize every procedure and folly that occurs in it. This also applies to the brigade commander, who is much higher in the chain of command. The assumption that the dismissal of those responsible for failure will solve the problem turns out, more often than not, to be a mistake. More than once, the failure is far more systemic than personal and the army loses good commanders who should have continued to use their skills and lessons, learned from a difficult event. They will know how to deal with malfunctions and return the unit to proper working tracks.

The writer is founder and operator of the blog "In the Crosshairs" on military, security, strategy vision and practice.

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", August 09, 2018)