Dr Hamid Hussain, a well known and well respected military historian happened to be working on a piece about the IDF when Oct 7 happened. Here is his updated piece.
23 October 2023
Last few months, I have been working on different facets of Israeli & Palestinian societies. I had just completed a piece about transformation of IDF but 07 October events necessitated addition of this seismic event; the aftershocks of which will be felt for a while. Despite horrific violence, unfortunately for students of history and conflict, it is just continuation of human activity since killing of Abel by Cain. Nothing is inevitable in history. It is our actions that shape the history.
In times of extreme pain on each side and anger, frustration and outright hatred of partisans and onlookers is not conducive for a meaningful conversation. That will probably occur later. It is a sterile review of military dimension devoid of any emotional or moral judgements.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war”. Plato
Change Before You Have to – Transformation of Israeli Defense Forces
“History doesn’t stop. By the time we build capabilities from our vision against terror armies, we will be facing a new challenge because the enemy adapts.”
Israeli army Brigadier General Eran Ortal, February 2023
Militaries change overtime due to changing political and security landscapes. Conflicts also force a change as every conflict shows the deficiencies of the existing doctrine. Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has gone through several such transformations in the last seventy-five years as part of changing trends of Israeli society and threat environment.
Since the establishment of the state of Isarel among hostile Arab neighbors and internal struggle with Palestinians, it faced unique challenges as adversaries did not accept Isarel’s right to exist. Israel has a very small geographic area with no depth and a small population compared to its large neighbors. This necessitated adoption of a concept proposed by the founding father David Ben Gurion that was based on deterrence, early warning, and decisive battlefield victory. The goal was to quickly take war into enemy territory with speed and maneuver to encircle and destroy adversary’s military forcing a quick collapse followed by a ceasefire and peace agreement. This required a very robust intelligence to pre-empt adversary’s initiative and large-scale destruction of adversary’s forces that will ensure deterrence. This concept served Isarel very well in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 in its wars with Arab neighbors.
In 1980s, the threat changed where Isarel now faced Palestinian guerrilla attacks mainly from Lebanon. Israel established a security zone on Lebanese territory but very soon realized that holding large swath of land exposed ground troops to prolonged guerilla attacks and this approach entailed high casualty rate that Israeli society modeled on a western democracy platform was not willing to acquiesce. The force was now re-designed to use precision strikes from air and artillery platforms based on robust intelligence. Decimation of Syrian anti-aircraft structure in the 1982 First Lebanon War convinced the planners about the soundness of this approach. It achieved an important goal of removal of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon far away from Israeli borders to Tunis.
However, emergence of a new native Lebanese adversary Hezbollah created a new security challenge. In 1993, Operation Accountability lasting about a week and in 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath lasting two weeks against Hezbollah featured only artillery and aerial attacks with no meaningful ground maneuver. For eighteen years, Israel occupied the Lebanese territory as a security zone to create a buffer to protect northern Israeli cities from Hezbollah rocket attacks, but Israeli society based on a citizen army questioned this approach as IDF lost more than 600 soldiers and finally in 2000 Israel pulled its troops out of Lebanon.
In 2006 during the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah, code named ‘Operation Change of Direction’ Israel launched large scale air, artillery and rocket strikes with the hope that this will be adequate to achieve the goals. There was hesitation from both the political and military leadership as during debate about use of ground troops, IDFs Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Moshe Kaplisnky warned that this may result in 400 casualties. This dampened the thought of inserting ground troops. It became clear very quickly that air power was not adequate to stop rocket attacks. This forced Israel to introduce ground forces, but it was done gradually and very hesitantly. The result was the introduction of 30’000 troops near the tail end of the conflict suffering the heaviest casualties in the last seven days of the 34 days of conflict before ceasefire.
Declining risk of large-scale conventional conflict in view of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan necessitated change in defense posture. The eruption of Syrian civil war in 2011 with fragmentation of society and collapse of Syrian armed forces removed the last conventional military threat to the state of Israel. In 2000s, the main challenge was Palestinian resistance in occupied territories. The IDF reduced the size of its combat infantry forces and expanded the constabulary forces to guard Israel’s borders and police occupied territories.
In 2011, IDF introduced a new operational doctrine and established independent brigade groups instead of division sized formations. The new brigade battlegroup formation has its own command-and control headquarters and consists of six battalions, including infantry, armor, artillery, and combat-engineering forces. The mission was primarily border-protection and routine security missions across Israel’s borders and in occupied territories. The Kfir Brigade with five battalions and then four more battalions; Bardelas, Caracal, Lions of the Valley and Jordan Valley were raised primarily for police duties. This also changed the training doctrine and instead of open field combat infantry training for maneuver, training was more focused on constabulary duties, routine policing security missions, protecting the Israeli settlements, and preventing infiltration attempts into Israel. Experience of conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas where they took their military infrastructure underground to avoid air superiority of the adversary forced changes in training. Israel introduced specialized training in urban warfare and fighting techniques in tunnels and underground fortifications by introducing its own combat doctrine to counter the new Hamas and Hezbollah operational doctrine. In 2011, the IDF established the Depth Corps by bringing all elite commando units under a unified command.
In 2015, IDF Chief Benny Gantz launched the Gideon multi-year plan (GMYP) to shrink, modernize, and reform the Israeli military to meet the asymmetric, nonstate adversary threats. The IDF’s standing and reserve strength was reduced. In the changed security threat environment, the most dramatic impact was on Armored Corps, artillery, and Israeli Air Force (IAF). Ten reserve armored brigades were decommissioned and in addition to elimination of active armored brigades the number of armored companies in each brigade was also decreased from six to three and armored brigades were converted into combined armed small task forces. Defense budget saw a steep cut decreasing from $19 billion in 2016 to $16.5 billion per year in 2020.
IAF’s traditional role has been to secure complete dominance of the skies by denying air space to adversary air force and ground attack missions in support of ground troops. Now, it focused on long range strike missions far beyond Israeli borders to interrupt weapons supplies to Hezbollah through Syria and possibility of air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. This change of mission also required a change of tools in the toolbox. IAF decommissioned several combat squadrons of F-15, F-16, and Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopters. It added fourteen F-35 Lightning II fighter jets to the existing inventory of nineteen jets and doubled its fleet of C-130 J Super Hercules aerial-refueling aircraft as these tools are more suitable for the changed mission.
Artillery role has dramatically changed where its equipment and manpower has been drastically reduced. It has now taken the lead in protecting the Israeli territory from missile threat and improve strikes of its own platforms. It operates a new Detection Unit to identify, monitor, and report on the trajectory of missiles and rockets fired into and out of Israel. It uses a variety of sensors to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of artillery guns, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and precision-guided missiles.
Artillery operates UAV units for reconnaissance and offensive operations. Unit 5353 (Sky Rider) is the reconnaissance unit, that operates UAVs equipped with advanced communication features that allow it to pass real-time tactical intelligence directly to formations on the battlefield. Unit 5252 (Zik) is the assault UAV unit, that operates a muti-role UAV capable of collecting intelligence and launch precision guided munitions.
Israeli navy was also re-oriented in view of vanishing threat from a conventional navy. The core mission of protection of Israeli coast where major cities and critical infrastructure is located is constant, but the tools needed to protect it from militants have changed. Discovery of offshore gas fields added protection of offshore platforms and pipelines to navy’s core mission. Israeli navy decommissioned all its destroyers and small patrol and missile boats replaced large missile boats. The only conventional strategic option of a second or third nuclear strike against an adversary requires a robust submarine fleet and Isarel doubled it when it purchased three additional submarines.
Technology revolution of the last two decades mesmerized military planners all over the globe including Israeli defense establishment who are at the forefront of this revolution. Technology is just another platform like armor, air forces or artillery but it is assumed that technology will solve all the headaches. It was a seduction and Israeli strategic community assumed that hi-tech will dominate the future battlefield. All facets of military establishment including operational, analysis and intelligence domains were flooded with advanced communications, sensors and computers with rapid analysis, pattern recognition and deep learning algorithms. Israel aimed for domination of cyber domain with defensive and offensive capabilities.
At the perception level, these physical changes in response to changing security threats created a new thought process among the security establishment that was subtle. Military and intelligence establishment repeatedly conveyed to the political leadership that conventional threats are the thing of the past and the protection of Israeli citizens from rockets originating from Gaza and Lebanon and internal policing of occupied territories is reasonably performed by the defense forces and what is left is the political problem of the Palestinian issue that is responsibility of the political leadership. Civil-military relations have been strained in the last two decades as security leaders tried to restrain right-wing hawkish political leaders from aggressive military options as it could result in wider confrontations.
This new security mindset meant that total defeat of the adversary was not the primary objective. Containment of the Palestinian issue where violence is kept below a threshold so that it is not interfering with day-to-day Israeli life is considered good enough. On operational level, this meant that Israel would avoid large scale confrontations, use deterrence in terms of ‘price tag’ to simply kill three to five times the number of Israelis killed by the adversary, install, and improve multiple layers of defense along the land and sea borders and secure air space against rockets. This new doctrine of ‘self-fortification’ gave false sense of security as physical concrete and steel barriers above and below the ground and even below the sea water were augmented with advanced sensors, cameras etc. and a multi-layered air defense system gave the sense of re-assurance. October 07, 2023, shattered that illusion.
There were many in the Israeli security establishment who criticized the ‘self-fortification’ doctrine. In 2019, Colonel Yehuda Vach pointed to the simple fact that a nation that fortifies itself with fences, barriers, and walls is a nation that lives in fear and fortifications project fear rather than strength. Major General Yitzhak Brick, whose position as IDF chief ombudsman provided him the opportunity to examine the operational readiness in an interview with Avi Jager in 2021 also expressed his doubts about self-fortification concept. Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, a part of the General Staff’s Operations Directorate is in house think tank and in February 2023, its outgoing commander Brigadier General Eran Ortal, said that “our military situation is eroding, not improving” and that “time is not on our side.”
Many senior IDF officers recognized the growing strength of Hamas and Hezbollah and considered IDF existing doctrine not up to the future task. In 2019, IDF Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi started a yearlong self-examination process involving senior brass. This conclave came to the sober conclusions that IDFs complete military superiority was eroding and Israel’s adversaries mainly Hamas and Hezbollah were closing the gap as technology available on store shelves was now available to everyone.
In 2020, Kochavi launched a new four-year project named Tnufa in Hebrew (Momentum) that envisioned use of overwhelming force to quickly end a potential conflict by destroying adversary’s capabilities for decisive victory. It was not a new concept as this has been Israeli defense doctrine since 1948. The only difference was that instead of a state controlled conventional army, the recipient address was changed to non-conventional entities Hamas and Hezbollah and a junior league player Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Israeli army re-branded Hamas and Hezbollah from non-state guerilla and terror entities to ‘organized, well-trained armies’, that are ‘well equipped for the missions’. Political leadership, although enticed by the ’wining concept’, had its own doubts as the project had a price tag of $1.2 billion per year. Many senior officers had doubt about the concept of decisive victory against entities like Hamas and Hezbollah. The argument was that it was not possible to develop a comprehensive intelligence capacity to locate all underground structures of rocket launch and regardless of the fire power of all arms, it was not possible to destroy all the targets making decisive victory a moot point.
October 07, 2023, surprise attack of Hamas indiscriminately killing men, women, children, and elderly in Israeli border communities shocked the world. Israelis are still in shock and in the first phase of extracting a terrible revenge to elevate the morale of the nation. Focus is only on Gaza and to keep Lebanese front quiet. In the current crisis, there are only two choices for Israel. First is to embark on a large scale decisive military operation occupying large swath of Gaza, dismantle all underground infrastructure and eliminate as many Hamas leaders and foot soldiers as possible. This approach involves risk of high number of casualties of Israeli troops that may not be acceptable to Israeli society and many Palestinian casualties that may not be acceptable to international audience that will bring pressure on Israel to halt the operation without completion of its task. The second option is a limited military operation of ground ingress of 5- 10 miles from north into Gaza, destroy underground infrastructure and advertise this to domestic and international audience as completion of military objective. In the ground offensive, Israel will use its newest formation of a ‘multi-dimensional unit’ called ‘Ghost Unit’ that has not been used before in combat. This will be complemented by assassination of Hamas leadership figures inside Gaza in first phase and then expand it to leaders based in diaspora. This is not a perfect solution but in the Middle East, no one, no matter how mighty, gets all his wishes fulfilled. Both options do not answer the fundamental question of what to do the day after, whether to re-occupy Gaza or leave. Re-occupation is not practical even in short and medium term and status quo ante will return after the departure of Israeli troops. The jury is still out about the exit strategy and a pressing issue for military and political leadership.
2023 looks no different than 2006. In 2006, Israel-Hezbollah war started when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister declared that objective was safe return of two soldiers and complete destruction of Hezbollah. That conflict ended as most inconclusive operation of Israel’s history despite dropping more ordnance than used in 1973 Yom-Kippur War. It was almost two years later in 2008 that the dead bodies of two abducted Israeli soldiers were exchanged for four Hezbollah militants in Israeli custody and Hezbollah is still the strongest military entity in Lebanon. In 2023, there are two hundred Israeli civilian and military hostages in Gaza and declaration is same with safe return of all hostages and complete destruction of Hamas. If history is a guide, then Israel is for a great disappointment regardless of the outcome of current conflict.
In the next few months, when the dust settles and blood dries down on both sides of the border, then reality will sink in. It is a seminal event of modern Jewish history that has touched a chord among Jews all over the world. Killing of poor Jews with no means to defend themselves in the ghettoes of eastern Europe by villainous mobs is one thing, but killing of hundreds of Jews in their homeland in the presence of the strongest army of the region is a totally different thing. It will usher in seismic shifts in the military and political course in Israel for the next few decades. In the short term, many military and political heads will roll and after that a new security doctrine will emerge. It is very likely that hawks will rise to occupy important military and intelligence positions to formulate new defense plans. Former Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Kobi Michael points to the strategic challenge as decision makers use historical experience selectively to fit in existing ‘cultural filers’ that will support existing policy preferences rather than looking at all alternatives and re-examination of conventional wisdom. We don’t know if Israel will move further to the right or inch towards the center and on this hinges the trajectory of regional conflicts of near future.
In simple terms, the self-fortification concept created complacency and ignored the basic tenant of strategy that the adversary is also learning. Battlefield is only one dimension of modern conflict as it has expanded over every aspect of human interaction. Palestinian resistance has moved the battlefield from the arena where Isarel has superiority to the arena where superior tools of war fighting lose their sharp edge. The second and more important is that it has changed the rules of how to measure success. Hamas has scored the point by reversing the logic that if the adversary is going high tech, try to achieve the goal by going low-tech. Even if Israeli military operation is successful in all its objectives, in the minds of the outside observers and especially Palestinians, Hamas is the victor in the latest round. The whole concept of deterrence is left up in the air hanging.
Israel’s strategy of the last three decades has been to preserve the status quo from the position of strength while Hamas as well as Hezbollah and their backer Iran’s aim is disruptive change from the position of weakness. At the end of the day, Israelis and Palestinians must decide about their future and no outside force can impose an order on unwilling parties engaged in mortal combat. If today looks bad, there is no guarantee that tomorrow will be better. Gradual ascendancy of messianic themes among Jews, Christians and Muslims is a new dynamic to the conflict. Those of us who are familiar with the unholy history of the holy land and have walked on the stones of the holy land soaked over the centuries with blood are witnessing just another episode of each party trying to wash blood with blood. In this saga the roles change where the victim becomes oppressor and then the oppressor in turn becomes victim. Neither the six million Jews are going anywhere nor six million Palestinians despite each side’s delusion that some day they will wake up and other will vanish. They must exorcise their own demons to find a new path to co-existence and until then this cycle of violence will continue and each side will learn the wrong lesson from the latest confrontation.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin
- Jager, Avi (2021) “The Transformation of the Israel Defense Forces,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 74: No. 2, Article 4.
Available at: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol74/iss2/4
- Samaan JL. ‘Decisive Victory’ and Israel’s Quest for a New Military Strategy. Middle East Policy. 2023;30:3–15.
- Benjamin S. Lambeth. Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah, 2011.
- Alon Paz. Transforming Isarel’s Security establishment
- Kobi Michael. Limitations of Strategic Maneuver: The Israeli Case.
Acknowledgements: Author thanks many from diverse backgrounds for insightful information.
21 October 2023
Defence Journal, November 2023