Capability and daring in the IDF | by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

To the extent possible, let ground forces operate across the border

Conclusions of the investigation into the death of Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, which occurred during a solitary navigational exercise of the Paratroopers Brigade Reconnaissance Battalion, were recently presented to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi. The chief of staff wrote in the summary of the investigation, "The central expression of the responsibility of the IDF commanders [is] for the lives of their people [and] the professionalism and accuracy with which they must approach every small or large task, in routine or in war."

The media reported that the chief of staff would feel uncomfortable severely punishing those involved in the mishap, even though it resulted in the death of a soldier in a training accident, because he himself did most of his service in the Paratroopers Brigade. Apparently that was not the case, and he decided to dismiss the battalion commander and the entire chain of command that was subordinate to him. The brigade commander, Col. Yaki (Yaakov) Dolf, was not exempted, and a command reprimand was issued. It seems that the chief of staff decided to use the tragic training accident to send a message to the army.

In general, the working assumption that the dismissal of those responsible for failure will solve the problem, turns out 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 lesson. This time, in light of the facts, it seems that there was no escape from this. But it’s better not to turn it into a routine. The chief of staff himself escaped from the sword of dismissal after a difficult operational incident, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, and it seems that the IDF only benefited from it.

Col. Dolf, did most of his service in the brigade since enlisting to the 890th Battalion in 1994. He was a company commander in Lebanon, the brigade’s executive officer in the Second Lebanon War, and led the 890th Battalion in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Dolf is considered a talented commander, and it’s possible that the command reprimand he suffered will not harm his promotion.

But it’s reasonable to assume that the chain of mishaps found by the investigative team – as a model for the manner in which things cannot be done, and especially Yosefi’s unnecessary death – will go with him. In such a case, the army would benefit from a commander who erred, learned from it, and will teach others. Despite the tragedy, training for paratroopers and combat units in general is designed to simulate war, and includes a dimension of risk and danger (which, needless to say, should be controlled as much as possible), because war is dangerous and risky.

In an article published in Maariv, veteran security commentator Alon Ben-David said the IDF’s senior command is hesitant to use ground forces. Although the elite units of the IDF are constantly operating in secret operations, these units are not the main part of the army, far from it. The actions they carry out are essential to Israel’s national security but do not affect the esprit de corps of the entire army.

AND VICE-VERSA. When only the Israel Air Force and Special Forces operate on the other side of the border, the message to ground forces is that their role amounts to ongoing security, policing in the West Bank and possibly, just possibly, to a limited ground maneuver in the next campaign.

"Imagine what a raid of the Commando Brigade on the Iranian airport in T4 in Syria would have done for the self-confidence of the IDF," wrote Ben-David. When he talked about such ideas with field commanders, they looked at him as if he was crazy. "The paratroopers, who knew how to steal an entire radar from Egypt 50 years ago, or to destroy dams and power stations, are now looking at Israel’s borders as if they were impassable."

Alongside realistic training, the raids – which have operational profit inherent in them – also serve force buildup, and instill a sense of capability and daring in commanders and soldiers. That’s not valid only for special operations, such as the raid on the Soviet radar in Egypt in 1969. The spirit built in these operations also affected the willingness to carry out high-risk moves such as crossing the Suez Canal in 1973.

The need to show courage on the ground is therefore very important to the army. But the strategic dimension should also be considered. It’s easier to be nostalgic and say the army used to be better. But the truth is that there was another reason for the raids. The IDF had no other means, such as precise guided munitions fired from the air, to carry out the mission. Today, when it has them, the dilemma is much more difficult. Moreover, the failure of such raids may have the opposite effect on the forces, and mainly on those who are supposed to approve them, at the senior military and political echelon.

In his article, Ben-David ignored the fact that the raids he proposed will almost certainly lead to an escalation. If the goal is to reach a direct confrontation with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, then this makes sense. But if not, and Israel strives to harm Iranian forces in Syria without a large scale confrontation, then one must ask whether these proposals are a tail that wags the dog, without serving the strategic goal.

The southern front, on the other hand, in the Gaza Strip, is a completely different story. Israel is in a tense security situation against Hamas, and the intelligence assessment of 2019 is that the organization aspires to reach a confrontation with Israel. In such a situation, the IDF’s senior command may regard the ground raid of "regular" forces from the combat brigades as an opportunity, and not just as a tool in the toolbox that should be avoided.

The Paratroopers Brigade has been a right-wing marker in the IDF for its performance, boldness and determination since the 1950s. And its commanders, as well as the commanders of the other units in the 98th Paratroopers Division, should be as enthusiastic for action. It’s reasonable to assume that they will not be authorized to act in every front and under any conditions, but this aspiration is the soul of a fighting army.

Chief of Staff Kochavi alongside field-level officers like Dolf, must establish this spirit, and seek contact with the enemy across the border, on the ground, when necessary and possible. This is valuable, both in creating deterrence among the enemy and in instilling a sense of capability and daring for the operational forces and for the entire army.

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", Marchs 14, 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)

The IDF Exercises in Cyprus and Crete / by Gabi Siboni & Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

The Israel Defense Forces recently completed a large military exercise on the island of Cyprus, and a smaller training exercise in Crete was held several months earlier. Although the commanders of the exercise did not refer to this specifically, the topographic outline of Cyprus is clearly similar to that of the Lebanese mountains, and in general, training in unfamiliar territory, and particularly when it resembles areas beyond the border where the troops may well have to operate, is highly important. The exercise presumably created tension with Turkey; in addition, the government heads of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece met earlier this month in Greece, in yet another trilateral meeting since the leaders of the three countries met in Nicosia a year ago to establish a new geopolitical bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean, partly as a counterweight to Turkey.

The Israel Defense Forces recently completed a military exercise on the island of Cyprus. The exercise involved some 500 soldiers from the Commando Brigade, including the Egoz Unit (which specializes in operating on rough terrain, fieldcraft, camouflage, and counter-guerrilla warfare); teams of dog handling soldiers; combat engineering soldiers; and another 200 air force personnel. Reports indicated that the exercise included flying the forces from Israel's Nevatim Air Base in C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, joining up with Black Hawk helicopters in Cyprus, and from there flying to an ongoing exercise in the Trodos Mountains. The soldiers practiced incursions, land and urban warfare, taking control of areas from which rockets are fired, and tunnel warfare. The reports also stated that IDF forces were joined in the exercise by 100 fighters from the special forces of the Cypriot National Guard.

For several years the IDF has carried out joint exercises with foreign armies in friendly countries, such as the Red Flag aerial training that takes place in the United States. Most of the participants and equipment used in these exercises are from the air and marine branches. In addition, the Israeli Air Force holds a series of joint training exercises with the Greek Air Force, which enable it to practice long range missions and capabilities when facing a system of Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, such as possessed by the Syrian and Iranian armies.

Ground forces were first involved in this activity about 6 months ago, when the Maglan Unit, also part of the Commando Brigade, carried out a smaller training exercise on the Greek island of Crete. Press reports of the training in Cyprus provide a glimpse of the development of IDF training methods and the advantages of training in neighboring countries, in both military terms and strengthened regional ties.

One IDF commander told the press that the advantage of training on foreign territory was its unfamiliarity to all the solders and commanders. The commander of the Egoz elite unit said, "We landed deep in enemy territory and received our mission on the plane on the way to the destination. We had a range of enemy scenarios and many different type of terrain for fighting." The Cypriot Air Force even deployed anti-aircraft systems to simulate a real threat to the IAF helicopters.

Although the commanders of the exercise did not refer to this specifically, the topographic outline of Cyprus is clearly similar to that of the Lebanese mountains. Training in unfamiliar territory, and particularly when it resembles areas beyond the border where the troops may well have to operate, is highly important. The training areas within Israel are very limited, which makes it very difficult to create an environment that meets the IDF needs for training ground fighting against Hezbollah in the north and Hamas and jihad organizations in the south. Landing by helicopter, maneuvering, navigating, and fighting in unfamiliar territory far from home create a significant challenge for the commanders and the troops, and an opportunity to develop campaign knowledge and fighting capabilities.

The decision to strengthen the commando element of the army reflects a further understanding. MK Ofer Shelah, a former Paratroopers company commander, describes the importance of incursions as a means of dealing with the current IDF threat references in his book, Dare to Win. In his view, "Building the IDF as an attacking, initiating force in the 1950s and the pattern of the IDF’s actions led over the years to the concept of the incursion. Contrary to automatic connotations, an incursion is not just a nighttime raid by a small force that returns home at dawn. Rather, it is the whole concept of operating the force in mobile actions of various sizes, in order to undermine the enemy and create a surprise, a sense of being chased and vulnerable, after which they go back over the border."

Although there were no public statements to this effect, the exercise presumably created tension with Turkey, which chose to hold a training exercise for the Turkish Navy south of Paphos. In spite of the reconciliation agreement between Israel and Turkey signed in 2016, and the return of ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv, Turkey continues to maintain close ties with Hamas. Turkey houses a headquarters of the Hamas military wing, which in 2014 was the element that instructed Hamas activists to kidnap and murder three teenagers in Gush Etzion, which ultimately led to the war in the Gaza Strip (Operation Protective Edge). Although the reconciliation agreement requires Turkey to prevent any terrorist or military activity against Israel from its territory, including fundraising, Ankara has failed to comply fully with this clause. The senior figure in the military wing, Saleh al-Arouri, has left the country, but military activists continue to operate against Israel from Turkish territory. The Erdogan government has ignored Israeli protests about this.

Israel's cooperation with Cyprus is not limited to military activities. The countries have signed an agreement to provide assistance in emergencies. Indeed, Cyprus was the first to send firefighting planes to Israel during the Carmel fire disaster in 2010. In 2016, when a giant fire broke out in the town of Paphos, Israel in turn sent an aid delegation, including three firefighting planes and an IDF transport plane. The Israel Navy has also held a number of joint exercises with the Cypriot Navy. Ties between Israel and Greece grew stronger following the deterioration of relations with Turkey, and the process accelerated after the Marmara incident in 2010, which was perceived by the Greeks and the Cypriots as an expression of Turkish assertiveness. As a result, in 2011 the Greek government stopped about a dozen ships from leaving Greek ports for another protest flotilla to the Gaza Strip.

In 2016 there was a summit meeting in Nicosia between the leaders of Greece, Israel, and Cyprus with the aim of creating a new geopolitical bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean, partly also as a counterweight to Turkey. The third trilateral meeting between the government heads took place earlier this month in Greece. At the last meeting in Saloniki, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that if the countries succeeded in implementing the idea of the East-Med pipeline (an ambitious idea to build a gas pipeline with a length of 2,000 km reaching Italy and passing through Cyprus and Greece), it would be a "revolution."

The disclosure of the joint activity to the media likely lies in the desire by Israel – as well as Cyprus, and Greece – to send messages to countries and non-state organizations in the region at this time. The first message concerns the drive to exploit the potential of the gas reserves in the Mediterranean, which is a top priority for all the countries involved and is a source of tension between Greece and Cyprus on one hand, and Turkey on the other. In addition, the close ties between Turkey and Qatar and Hamas, the tension due to the electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip, and the belligerent rhetoric from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in recent months may all have prompted Israel to publicize the exercise. This exercise joins a series of sudden exercises conducted by Israel recently in both the north and the south, including with the Galilee Division and with reserves formations, designed to strengthen the forces' readiness for unexpected escalation.

From the military aspect, the exercise highlights the importance of more intensive training in unfamiliar territory, including for additional ground units, and even for integrated fighting involving infantry, armored corps, artillery, and engineering units. There is a process in the IDF for operational thinking and building the force with the aim of returning maneuvers on the ground to the center of attention as an important tool for reaching a decisive victory in the next round of hostilities. The special operations and training of the Commando Brigade could support the main effort in the campaign, but could not replace it. Therefore it is extremely important to extend and upgrade training for the IDF's main ground troops and develop models for joint training exercises for these forces overseas, in spite of their high cost relative to the cost of training in Israel. It is these forces that bear the main burden of the effort to maneuver, whose purpose is to strike the enemy, capture territory, limit fire from captured territories into Israeli rear territory, seize and destroy military infrastructures, and undermine the survival of the enemy government.

Dr. Col. (res) Gabi Siboni, former Commanded of Sayeret Golani and head of the Military and Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

Gal Perl Finkel is the coordinator of the Military and Strategic Affairs program at the INSS.

(The article was originally published  as an "INSS Insight" No. 945, June 28, 2017)