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December 24, 2020 7:10 am

The IDF Must Revamp Its Strategies

avatar by Gershon Hacohen

Opinion

The IDF’s new ‘Ghost Unit’ conducts an exercise. Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Office.

The IDF’s large-scale exercise at the end of October marked a milestone in its preparedness for war. The exercise was also meant to serve as an experiment for the new operational concept that is forming in the IDF to deal with the changes taking place in the war arena. The changes afoot in the military have prompted criticism for years by experts in 20th-century warfare who see them as an abandonment of the fundamental classical conventions of military doctrine.

The critics view the approaches developing in the IDF as suffering from an “undue influence of postmodern thought.” Such claims do not, however, deny that substantial changes have been unfolding for three decades in terms of weaponry and methods of conducting war.

What has changed? Everyone expects that if a war breaks out, the IDF will again score a lightning victory as in the good old days of the Sinai Campaign and the Six-Day War. Yet something significant has changed since then.

A briefing that Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan gave before the Sinai Campaign captures the change that has emerged since those days in the enemy’s modes of combat. Here is what Dayan said about the key to victory:

A rapid advance is of overriding importance for us because in that way we can make the most of our advantage over the Egyptian army. I am not talking about the advantage that each individual has over his Egyptian adversary, pilot against pilot, tank crew against tank crew — but about our entire army. The Egyptians operate schematically and their headquarters are located behind the lines, so that every change they have to make in deployment, such as creating a new defense line and shifting forces not according to the original plan, means they have to take out time for thinking, discussion, and decisions in the main headquarters. We, for our part, can operate with more flexibility and less military standardization. … That advantage, if we make the most of it, will allow us — once the war begins — to keep fighting the Egyptians before they can redeploy in keeping with the changes that have taken place at their front.

Hezbollah has grasped the logic Dayan presented and striven to subvert it. Over the 20 years since the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah has formulated an approach to warfare that reflects its awareness of the fact that the speed of the IDF’s offensive maneuver is the key to its operational advantage.

True, the attempts to overcome the IDF’s superiority had already begun in the October 1973 war with the military logic of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, which resulted in the failure of the IDF’s counterattacks at the Suez Canal front on October 8 and 9. What Hezbollah has done is step up this approach to pose an unprecedented operational challenge to the IDF.

This challenge is based on three systemic efforts:

  • Continuous and wide-scale rocket/missile fire against population centers and military targets across Israel.
  • A dense defensive deployment aimed at exacting a high price from attacking IDF forces to the point of casting the whole purpose of the ground offensive into doubt.
  • The third effort, which had not yet come to fruition by the outbreak of the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, aims at a wide-scale attack by commando forces on communities and IDF positions in Israeli territory all along the front.

In this way, Hezbollah has successfully thwarted Dayan’s operational concept. With its continuous defensive deployment along the mountain roads and in the villages, Hezbollah reduced the momentum of the IDF offensive. At the same time, by using a decentralized command and control system that affords functional independence to the subsectors during combat, the organization came up with a solution to the problem of isolation and disruption of its main command posts.

Taken together, these three efforts challenge the IDF’s traditional capabilities to the point of strategic confusion about the purpose of its activity and the casting of doubt on the relevance of the ground offensive. That doubt is reflected, among other things, in the realization that even if an IDF ground offensive reaches Beirut, victory will not be ensured because Hezbollah’s contingents in the subsectors through which the maneuvering forces will pass will probably keep fighting even under siege conditions.

Removing the threat in its entirety would require a large order of battle and considerable time. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s precision rocket/missile fire would likely continue, paralyzing the Israeli home front, including fire from positions in northern Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The terms for opening ceasefire talks may well humiliate Israel and cast it in the role of the defeated side.

The IDF General Staff does not deny the challenge, and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is working hard to conceptualize the problem and present it in its full implications. Kochavi is demanding an innovative breakthrough in the IDF’s operational approach.

The state of being in a quandary has always been an engine of creativity. Were it not for a water shortage, Israeli agriculture would not have given birth to the drip-irrigation method. In facing Hezbollah, whose war-fighting approach centers on its adversary’s difficulty in advancing through hilly and populated areas, the IDF needs to come up with an innovative breakthrough. As the General Staff has realized, that entails making the most of Israel’s special technological advantage alongside a sophisticated integration of its aerial, maritime, and ground forces.

During the first decades of statehood, special creativity in combat methods was not required of IDF commanders. In those years, the Arab armies operated according to a British or Soviet doctrine in a format that had been devised after World War II. In fighting armies that functioned within this framework, basic classical conventions applied. Indeed, the fighting in the 1967 Six-Day War looked essentially like a further round of the battles of World War II.

The combat methods Hezbollah has adopted since then — with considerable success — call for an innovative adjustment by the IDF. Given the unprecedented nature of the threat the organization now poses, IDF commanders cannot look to other armies for a tried-and-true solution. If the IDF keeps operating according to the conventions of the last century, it could find itself defeated.

Moshe Dayan saw the Israeli commander as responsible for the momentum of the IDF’s maneuvers. “I can point on the map to the Suez Canal,” he said, “and tell the commander: this is your objective, this is the route you will take, do not contact me for help during the operation, what we can allocate to you I have already received and there is no more … you have to reach Suez in 48 hours.”

That is exactly what has changed. Given the enemy’s new ability to disrupt the advance of IDF forces, what the division headquarters and territorial command require today are new capabilities to safeguard and support advancing forces with the close assistance of intelligence and of fire. Advanced technology means a groundbreaking answer to these demands can be provided. That is why innovation is an operational necessity for the IDF and the imperative of the moment.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years. He commanded troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.

A version of this article was originally published by Israel Hayom and The BESA Center.

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