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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

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Israeli soldiers control a Skylark drone during a drill on Jan. 16, 2012, near Bat Shlomo, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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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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PhillipNagle says:

The Israelis had an ally in the Lebanese Christians and they ended up deserting them. The price of that treachery was the failure in the Lebanese war.

ShalomFreedman says:

A very good and interesting article. I would have appreciated however more about Hizbollah Syria and Iran’s capabilities and what precisely Israel will have to contend with.
Also the budget cuts are apparently going to reduce what this article clearly believes is a most important pillar of defense i.e. The proper training of the reserves

Séamus Martin says:

An excellent article… apart from the fact that it takes no account of the new realities occasioned by events in Syria and assumes the next war will be against Hezbollah. As Alexander the Great once postulated, the most effective way to neutralise an enemy is to turn that enemy into a friend.

Hezbollah is now engaged in a life or death struggle in Syria against an enemy who is a much greater threat to Israel. Apart from the tiny Shebaa farms territory, Hezbollah has no territorial claims against the State of Israel, and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has long been on record as stating that Palestine must liberate itself. And there is simply no longer any upside for Hezbollah, Syria or Iran in aiding a Sunni movement such as Hamas, betrayers of Assad.

Israel continues to fret about Hezbollah and Iran, yet despite the rhetoric of old, these powers no longer have anything to gain from a confrontation with Israel, something which would only benefit those extremist Sunnis who have shown themselves to be the immortal enemies of Shias and Jews alike. Surely it is time for Israel to show some imagination and at least explore the new possibilities arising from what is going on in Syria.

Reptilian2012 says:

Hamas doesn’t have to fight Israel, Abbas didn’t have to decline Olmert’s 2007 offer, Arafat didn’t have to launch two intifidas to thwart the Oslo Accords, and Hezbollah didn’t have to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in 2006. These factions are one and the same, it is impossible to make peace with madmen.

TomJV says:

I shiver at the thought of what sort of answer I might get, but I have to ask. If it is impossible to make peace, then what for solution do you imagine to this problematic situation?

Reptilian2012 says:

The solution would be eliminating the incentives Israel’s enemies have to attack her and the means with which they do so, rather than providing them with more of both by hopelessly trying to appease them.

Séamus Martin says:

Describing one’s enemies as madmen is rarely conducive to achieving real, long-term security. Each side usually sees its own position as rational. So we can vent or we can actually knuckle down and achieve something.

Séamus Martin says:

I envisage a de facto, tacit alliance of Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq and Iran – basically the Shia powers – with Israel aligned against Sunni extremists, whether those take the form of Al Qaeeda or some of the Gulf monarchies. Shias have been viciously persecuted for over a thousand years because of their religious beliefs. Much like Jews, come to think of it. And in the Middle East, both have a common enemy who hate them with a passion.

Séamus Martin says:

Reptilian 2012, you need to broaden your vision and be open to the new possibilities opening up because of what is happening in Syria..

herbcaen says:

In the next war, Israel needs to bring tons of salt to the front to plow into Hezbollah owned land, just like the Romans plowed salt into the land of Carthage.

jzsnake says:

Great idea just ask Chamberlain.

Richard Provencher says:

Why Israel is unable to locate the stock of missiles sitting underground in Palestine is beyond me. That is the first step for the military, find them and bomb them, from within.

TomJV says:

I hope you will forgive me for still finding that a little abstract. What might those incentives be? What falls under those means you are mentioning? And what does eliminating comprise?

Reptilian2012 says:

Hamas, Hezbollah and their Iranian paymasters are bent on Israel’s destruction, as were the seven Arab nations who invaded Israel in 1948. Israel had to win several wars to before the latter group decided to stop its aggression.

Given the so-called qualitative advantage that Israel maintains today, it would be possible to get the same message across faster and more smoothly than the first time around. Such a move would involve cutting off the supply lines of Iran’s local affiliates, and dealing a fatal blow to their and their supporters’ morale.

TomJV says:

And would you imagine that to be done militarily or rather through Israel’s intelligence services?

Randall Ward says:

Wars must be won. Germany and Japan in WWII are good examples. Israel is in a tough position in the world and is too worried about world opinion. Crush your enemies if you are able. If I were the head of Israel I would give the Gaza strip one warning and if more rockets were fired I would remove, yes remove, every single human being from the Gaza strip to the interior. The Gaza strip would be new part of Israel. After that action their would be no more rockets from anywhere. But if their are more rockets then enlarge Israel again. I am not a Jew but Israel should do what is best for Israel. Better that a wound heals than bleed forever.

Reptilian2012 says:

Whichever prevents a war from erupting every few years.

Reptilian2012 says:

Israel always does, and they always restock.

TomJV says:

I actually meant war when I said military – I’ve got a bad habit of mincing my words – but I assume that you mean a war on, or uncomfortably close to, Israeli soil.

Reptilian2012 says:

Naftali Bennet described the issue very well in a recent interview on Israeli TV. He compared Hamas et al with a piece of shrapnel stuck in your butt: you can cut it out and suffer pain for years, or you can keep it there for now and endure the soreness until an opportunity to remove it arises.

privatedick says:

Part of the problem is just what you say: the missiles are hidden in very sensitive target areas. We saw that in Cast Lead, where the missiles were stockpiled in mosques and schools. The resulting “Israel blows up mosques and schools” narrative was too unpalatable for Israel to repeat. Rest assured, the stockpiles are known and targeted, and will be eliminated when the price is high enough to justify the blowback.

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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

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