Are the Israel Defense Forces Finally Ready for the Next Lebanon War?
Israel’s failures in 2006 foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead in a fractured Middle East—and the coming wars there
After these wars—the military is fond of calling them “asymmetric” or “hybrid” conflicts—it is usually more difficult to determine who came out victorious. Even after Cast Lead and the next Gaza operation, Pillar of Defense, in late 2012, Hamas claimed victory. Although it suffered severe blows on the battlefront, the Palestinian organization could claim political success (as measured by its growing support in the Arab world and the de facto recognition of the Gaza regime by some non-Arab states), as well as military steadfastness in the face of Israel’s superior air and ground forces.
In an age of asymmetric warfare, which takes place simultaneously on the battlefield and in the media and political circles, Israeli generals seem plodding and insular and generally unwilling to learn from the mistakes of others. While every IDF officer will proudly tell you that President Barack Obama acquired from Israel some of the ideas behind the drone war against terrorists on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, hardly any of them can explain the lessons learned by the Americans, the Brits, or the Canadians in 11 long years of fighting (often misguidedly) in Afghanistan and previously Iraq.
In particular, the ground forces, once one of the IDF’s main sources of pride, have not improved at the same pace as the air force and the military intelligence, which were quick to recognize their mistakes in Lebanon. Changes, of course, are more easily made in such smaller, technology-based branches of the military. Air force squadrons have a small, mostly career-professional, core. They learn more quickly. The same goes for military intelligence that relies on a younger workforce (mandatory service and career officers), rather than in the ground forces, with their dependency on cumbersome reserve units. But even the regular-service army practices less than it used to before the beginning of the Second Intifada. Some of the generals claim that the IDF chooses to spend too much of its budget on expensive weapons systems, while spending too little on training. The reserve forces are also influenced by the growing economic rift: When the Israeli middle class protests the impossible cost of living, some of its members also wonder why they are not able to share the burden of military service with more parts of society. As a result, the IDF will soon also have to deal with the results of a new, ambitious, reform that will try to enlist the majority of the country’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Yeshiva students, an effort that will present challenges of its own.
Yet important changes have taken place inside the IDF, especially within Israel’s air force. In the last Gaza operation 100 percent of the bombs the air force used were precision-guided. The air force’s cooperation with the intelligence has gotten much tighter. The IDF calls these “short circles”: immediate air strikes—targeted killings and also hitting Hamas rocket units just as they launch rockets—based on fast, accurate information from both military intelligence and Shin Bet, the internal security service. The IDF has also invested in cyber-warfare, both on the defense side and it is reasonable to assume (though not discussed publicly) in offensive capabilities. The so-called C4I branch has a new cyber-defense department. Military Intelligence has a new cyber-department.
In 2011, the IDF established a new Special Operations Forces Command. Maj.-Gen. Shai Avital, a former commander of the IDF’s most prestigious commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, was pressed back into service to build the new command, named the “Depth Corps.” The intention, it seems, was to coordinate more effectively between elite units that operate behind enemy lines. During the 2006 war, the IDF had initiated more than 20 such operations, but their combined effect had been limited, mainly because these were improvised at the last moment, with no apparent strategic goals and not enough time for planning.
As a direct result of the Lebanon war, Israel also finally decided to invest in developing a rocket-intercepting system that would deal with short-range threats. The result, Iron Dome, has already proved itself operationally, successfully hitting 85 percent of the relevant rockets launched from Gaza last year. Soon, Israel will have a full multilayered intercepting system, the first of its kind in the world, though it will not provide the country with a hermetic solution to the tens of thousands of rockets obtained by its enemies. Another important technological breakthrough concerns the production and use of UAVs—a recent study has shown that the Israeli defense industry became the world’s leading exporter of drones while still supplying a large number of its products to the IDF.
The test of these capacities, and whether they add up to the army that Israel will need to fight a new kind of battle, is still ahead of us—and recent events in Syria suggest that this test may arrive sooner than many Israeli planners expected. Israeli units may soon be tested again on the ground, and both the current chief of staff, Gantz and the new Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, will quickly need to make up their minds regarding vast changes in the army’s structure. But since neither the chief nor the minister have previously been known as reformists, the question remains whether they would manage to implement the necessary changes before the IDF finds itself fighting another surprise war that will consign the 2006 war in Lebanon to the back bins of national memory. As Gen. Douglas MacArthur once put it, all military defeats can be summarized in two words: “Too late.”
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