Infantry soldiers from the Givati Brigade are put through their paces with new, high-tech weapons and computers at the army’s urban warfare training base, in this IDF photo from 2005

Yael Bar Hillal/IDF via Getty Images

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The Gates of Gaza

Israel must abandon the failed idea that technological wizardry will guarantee its security

by
Michael Doran
and
Can Kasapoğlu
May 14, 2024
Infantry soldiers from the Givati Brigade are put through their paces with new, high-tech weapons and computers at the army's urban warfare training base, in this IDF photo from 2005

Yael Bar Hillal/IDF via Getty Images

On April 29, 1956, two assassins, an Egyptian and a Palestinian, ambushed Ro’i Rothberg, the security officer of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Luring him into the fields, they shot him off his horse, beat him, and shot him again, ending his life. They then dragged his lifeless body as a gruesome trophy back to Gaza, where it was desecrated. Unlike Iran and its proxies today, however, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Gaza at the time, did not ransom Israeli corpses. The day after Rothberg’s murder, the Egyptian authorities transferred his mutilated remains to United Nations mediators who, in turn, passed them back to Israel for burial.

Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan delivered the eulogy at the funeral. Steely eyed and unsentimental, Dayan attributed Rothberg’s death to the victim’s own lack of vigilance, which, he suggested, was symptomatic of a laxness in the whole society. Craving peace and normalcy, the Israelis were allowing themselves to imagine that their neighbors shared the same aspirations. “Let us not cast blame on his murderers today,” Dayan said. “It is pointless to mention their deep-seated hatred for us.” There was nothing the Israelis could do to make the Gazans willingly accept the establishment of the Jewish state. “Ro’i [Rothberg]—the light in his heart blinded him to the gleam of the knife. The longing for peace deafened him to the sound of the murders lying in wait.”

The residents of Nahal Oz, Dayan said, carry “the heavy gates of Gaza on their shoulders, gates behind which hundreds of thousands of eyes and hands pray that we will weaken so that they may tear us to pieces—have we forgotten that?”

On Oct. 7, when Hamas paragliders sailed over Israel’s 40-mile “smart fence” with its state-of-the-art radar systems, remote control machine guns, and underground sensors, they encountered on the other side no meaningful forms of military resistance from what is often accounted to be the fourth most powerful military force on Earth. Instead of being greeted by tanks, helicopters, and heavily armed brigades, the Hamas invaders found themselves among young revelers at the Nova music festival, whom they slaughtered like lambs.

Following the attack, both friends and foes of Israel greeted the absence of any organized military response, which lasted for many hours, with incredulity. As news spread of lightly armed Hamas forces penetrating beyond the immediate border areas to major Israeli population centers like Ashkelon, everyone wondered: What happened to the IDF?

The answer is that, over the prior two decades, Israel’s military had deliberately remade itself by stripping away exactly the kinds of conventional force assets—large combat formations, overwhelming firepower, and heavy armor—that could be expected to repel a large-scale cross-border attack. Israel had replaced its old army with a new one, based on new theories of warfighting that had become current in the West since 9/11. In place of its former doctrines and force structure, Israel had adopted a more modern military approach favoring a “small and smart” force reliant on precision airpower, special forces, and technology-centric intelligence. As a result, almost without exception, Israel’s leaders failed to foresee not only Oct. 7, but also the kind of war the military is now fighting: not quick, surgical strikes lasting for several days at most, but a multifront conflict requiring the taking and holding of contested land positions over the course of months and possibly years.

The simple truth is that just eight years after winning its independence, Israel, a fledgling state with a tiny economy, enjoyed more operational sovereignty than it does today.

For seven months now, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been fighting simultaneously on seven fronts (in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen). In Gaza they have deployed large, mechanized formations into urban areas. With respect to the conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, they have readied themselves to do the same should circumstances demand it. No one planned for this kind of war. As a result of this lack of vision and forward planning, Israel does not have the right force structure, defense technological industrial base, or alliances to ensure a longer-term victory.

Some part of the debate inside Israel around these realities surfaced in early April when Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich wrote a letter to the prime minister withholding his support for a $9.5 billion purchase of a squadron of F-35 aircraft and a squadron of F-15 aircraft. Smotrich refused to approve the purchase until the government convened the finance committee to examine the security budget. “The war challenges many basic assumptions in the security budgets and requires renewed thought. Following the war, the defense establishment requires huge budget additions and the Finance Ministry’s position is that fundamental assumptions and priorities need to be revised accordingly,” Smotrich wrote.

Unfortunately for Israel, weapons systems, force structures, and established alliances cannot be remade in a day. In that respect, the military paradigm resembles a network of railway tracks with a limited array of switches. The tracks assist the IDF in moving forward, but they also constrain it, sending it down predetermined lines regardless of whether those lines lead to the destination that is most desirable strategically. Laying new tracks will cost Israel time, measured in years; money, measured in untold billions of dollars; but also lives, measured in the thousands.

Some of the flaws in Israel’s “small and smart” paradigm came emblazoned with a “Made in Israel” stamp, but just as many were imported from the West, particularly from the American war colleges where Israel has long sent its professional officer corps for training. The Israelis have borrowed liberally from the Americans and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) who, for some two decades before the Ukraine war, endorsed the belief that large-scale and prolonged wars between states were a thing of the past.

The “war on terror,” with its focus on substate actors clearly influenced this thinking, which persisted even as Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, in Syria, together with Iran, in 2015, and in Libya in 2017. It persisted even as China engaged in the largest and fastest military buildup in history. “We are working to build deeper and more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence—including China, India, and Russia,” says the U.S. National Security Strategy, published by the Obama administration in May 2010. “[W]e want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia, and we will act accordingly, with the expectation of reciprocity from Russia,” stated NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept. This document remained the authoritative statement of NATO strategy until 2022, when the alliance began to depict China, Russia, and Iran as more threatening.

So long as “partnership” was the watchword when describing the West’s relations with China, Russia, and Iran, then it seemed obvious that the scale of warfighting would shrink. “State-on-state conflict will not disappear, but its character is already changing,” stated an authoritative British strategy document in 2010. “Asymmetric tactics such as economic, cyber and proxy actions instead of direct military confrontation will play an increasing part, as both state and nonstate adversaries seek an edge over those who overmatch them in conventional military capability,” it continued. In other words, warfare as we commonly imagine it—that is, as two big armies facing off against each other for months or years on the battlefield, like we see in Gaza and Ukraine today—had all but disappeared. A series of running battles, short and sharp, had replaced it.

Note the causal explanation in the quote above. Big wars will not happen, so the thinking went, due to the technological superiority of the Western countries. The assessment rests on two key assumptions, namely, that technological advantages deter states; and that technological superiority itself can be the sole determinant of victory in war. In recognition of this assumption, we will name this military paradigm—the one that most NATO powers and the Israelis adopted—“Star Wars.”

The Star Wars paradigm fosters the misguided belief that the new renders the old obsolete. Emerging technologies, such as algorithmic warfare, eclipse traditional warfighting assets, like tanks and howitzers. Because it replaces traditional combat formations, which are bulky and expensive, with small, agile forces, bureaucrats, ever on the search for ways to cut budgets, found the Star Wars paradigm inherently attractive. Generals, for their part, were drawn to the paradigm, because the new tools, in addition to their inherent effectiveness, were also much sexier than the traditional instruments of war. Generals gravitated to conferences in Silicon Valley, where they secured lucrative consulting careers, after retirement, with high-tech companies. If given the choice, who wouldn’t prefer to log their training hours in virtual reality simulations rather than dragging howitzers through the mud in the freezing rain?

Indeed, the new Silicon Valley tools were supposedly turning the howitzer into a weapon of yesteryear—in part by enhancing deterrence through improved intelligence. According to the Star Wars paradigm, technologically inferior forces had no chance of winning against technologically superior powers, because the great electronic eye in the sky never sleeps; it sees all. On the computer screens of high-tech militaries, enemy forces would stand out like sharks in a well-lit aquarium: fearsome in appearance but visible from all sides and at all times. Technological advancements generated an intelligence officer’s wet dream: total battlefield transparency married to flawless information superiority over the adversary.

Then came the paragliders over Israel’s smart fence. If one designed a military paradigm specifically with the intention of duping the Israelis, one could have done no better than Star Wars. The paradigm played to their vanity. It told them, subliminally, that the activities at which they naturally excelled (special operations and clandestine intelligence collection), the institutions that they most revered (Mossad, the Air Force, and Special Forces), and all the ventures that made them as rich as Europeans (high-tech startups)—are precisely the elements that gave them, like Samson, superhuman strength. The Air Force, intelligence services, and special forces have long been the glittering stars of the national security culture of the “Start-Up Nation.” The Star Wars paradigm taught that it is the stars who win the wars—and virtually no one else was necessary.

The healthy alternative to the Star Wars paradigm, which has so visibly and spectacularly failed to assure Israel’s security, is “Mad Max.” This alternative paradigm states that new and old weapon systems will merge, thanks to innovative concepts of operations. Mad Max understands that the 21st century battlefield is home to T-64 tanks, which fought their first battles in the early 1960s, as well as state-of-the-art cyber-electronic warfare. Mini drones that are commercially available across the globe can spot for Cold War-era artillery.

Never underestimate technologically inferior adversaries, the Mad Max paradigm counsels. High-tech tools and weapons will never be the sole or even the primary factor determining the winner of wars. This dictum is especially true for the wars of the Middle East, where great powers external to the region determine the balance of power on the ground.

Following the Oct. 7 attack, both friends and foes of Israel wondered: What happened to the IDF?

Because war remains today what it has always been, a political activity, we cannot gauge the true advantage of any weapon—be it new and technologically advanced or old and rusty—without first considering the political-military strategy that it serves. Victory comes not to him who kills the most enemy soldiers or who fries the most motherboards but to him who converts what transpires on the battlefield into the most beneficial political arrangements. Losers on the battlefield frequently win wars, by bleeding giants until they are too exhausted to continue fighting. For example, in Vietnam, the second Iraq War, and Afghanistan, the U.S. repeatedly outmatched its adversaries militarily but lost the wars, nevertheless.

The digital revolution has enhanced the powers of technologically advanced countries in many ways, but it has also exposed them to new risks while also delivering surprising new tools to underdogs. Even the poorest of powers, thanks to the internet and smartphones, now enjoy a bonanza of open-source intelligence that just a few years ago was not available to even the richest of states. Cheap drones purchased off the shelf can offer startling reconnaissance capabilities to Ukraine against Russia. Cyber-enabled supply chains and GPS present an otherwise ragtag group like the Houthis opportunities to disrupt global commercial shipping. The list goes on.

The Star Wars paradigm also rests on the assumption, often unstated, that taking and holding territory has somehow become a secondary part of warfighting. While it is certainly possible to name wars that have been won without territorial conquest, they are few and far between. Almost inevitably, the magnitude of such victories is small, because victors who impose their will from over the horizon—from the air, sea, or through economic leverage—lack the physical presence on the ground that is necessary to shape a new political order.

The Mad Max mentality cultivates a heightened sensitivity to the phrase “on the ground.” With minor exceptions, armies translate battlefield victories into lasting changes either by seizing territory or threatening persuasively to do so. In the brave new digital world, traditional warfighting assets—large combat formations, replete with artillery, rocket systems, engineering units, and heavy armor—will not disappear, because only they can take and hold territory decisively.

Under the influence of Star Wars, Israel neglected its role by allowing its land forces to atrophy. In 2018, Brigadier Roman Goffman, who was then the commander of the 7th Armored Brigade, took the extraordinary step of airing his concerns about this issue openly before the senior leadership of the IDF at a command conference. “Chief of Staff,” Goffman said, referring to his senior most commander, General Gadi Eisenkot, “I first want to tell you that we [in armored units] are ready to fight. There is one problem. You don’t activate us … [T]here is a very problematic pattern that is developing here, namely, the avoidance of the use of ground forces.”

Eisenkot sat in the front row of the audience flanked by the top leaders of the IDF. Behind them sat hundreds of senior officers who greeted Goffman’s remarks with smirks. But he continued undeterred. The nondeployment of ground forces, he argued, “ultimately affects the will to fight. What makes us into combat commanders over time is friction with the other side.” Absent friction with the enemy, he continued, the military enters a state of “clinical death.”

On Oct. 7, the Israelis tasted what Goffman meant by “clinical death.” The Israeli military had at its disposal a glittering arsenal of exquisite weapons, including a large squadron of radar-proof F-35s, whose capacities previous generations would have considered to be the stuff of science fiction. As it turned out, however, none of these weapons was of the slightest use against terrorist bands, armed mainly with Kalashnikovs, who were intent on murdering, raping, and kidnapping civilians.

With its 2022 Strategic Concept, NATO began the arduous and ongoing process of abandoning the faulty notions that major conflict between states is over, that wars will be short and asymmetrical, and that holding territory with large, mechanized forces is no longer central to warfighting. But the Strategic Concept still has some surprising deficiencies, not least of which is its treatment of Iran—or, more accurately, it’s telling nontreatment. The document only briefly addresses Iran’s missiles in a lone passage on weapons of mass destruction. It contains no mention, for example, of Iran’s attack drones, which had been upsetting the military balance in the Middle East for years—and which in the months following the document’s publication began striking targets in Ukraine daily.

While the Israelis had a much deeper and more nuanced appreciation of the Iranian threat, thanks to their Star Wars assumptions they, too, failed to develop a military paradigm that grappled successfully with it in all its dimensions. As Iran now matches off against Israel directly, it possesses four advantages that, each on its own, surprised Israeli war planners. When merged into one, they present a threat to Israel of a magnitude that the country has not faced since the days of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser—an existential threat.

The first of these is an advantage in political warfare. American elites, particularly young elites, have grown increasingly hostile to Zionism. Traditional voices of support for Israel (and for Jews) no longer receive a sympathetic hearing in cultural and educational institutions. Thoroughly steeped in progressivism, these institutions catechize the young to regard Zionism as racism. Iran clearly recognizes this development as an opportunity. The digital revolution and the spread of smartphones provide it, not to mention China and Russia, with new, cheap, and highly effective means to disseminate propaganda in real time to Western media and social media personalities and institutions who enthusiastically spread it, often without the slightest inkling of its origins, directly to an unsuspecting public. For a significant segment of the public, globally, the conflict in Gaza is war between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian babies. Western powers and Israel have been slow to recognize the threat, let alone to combat it.

Second, Iran’s “resistance axis,” for the first time ever, is now behaving as something close to a military coalition working toward the united goal of saving Hamas and weakening Israel. The IDF had long assumed that the resistance axis would remain what it had always been: a disaggregated network of actors each of which operated according to the restraints dictated by its immediate environment. The assumption of disaggregation allowed the IDF to approach the Iran threat as four discrete challenges: 1) disrupting the Iranian and Iranian-backed forces on the ground in Syria; 2) delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons program; 3) deterring Lebanese Hezbollah; and 4) deflecting Hamas from a resumption of terror attacks. Missing entirely from this list are the Iran-backed militias in Iraq and, especially the Houthis, the deterrence of which Israel has no apparent solution. But most important of all, what is Israel’s plan to fight the resistance axis as a unit? It has none.

Third, Iran has created what military analysts call an “offense-dominant” military regime, a balance of power that favors offensive action. What, precisely, is “offense dominance”? Imagine that you have a Kevlar vest, a top-of-the-line product, which costs $2,000. And imagine that I, your enemy, have an old revolver that shoots six bullets, at $2 each. I empty the cylinder of my revolver into your vest, which stops five of the six bullets. With an 83.3% interception rate, your vest performed even better than advertised by the manufacturer. This happy fact would give you reason to celebrate, if you weren’t dead, laid to rest by my sixth bullet.

Like a cheap revolver against an expensive vest, Iran’s drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles give it an offensive advantage. When combined in the same strike packages, those weapons can overwhelm the finest missile defenses in the world—a capability that Iran demonstrated on April 13, when it launched over 300 warheads at Israel.

The Star Wars paradigm fosters the misguided belief that the new renders the old obsolete. Emerging technologies, such as algorithmic warfare, eclipse traditional warfighting assets, like tanks and howitzers.

Many analysts presented the attack as a great failure by Iran and a great success by Israel and its coalition partners. Some of Iran’s weapons failed to launch or went astray, so the argument goes. The synchronization of drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles left much to be desired. Israel and its coalition partners, therefore, shot down almost all the munitions that were on track to hit their targets. The four Iranian ballistic missiles that did manage to penetrate the net failed to do significant damage. No one died. Then, with great economy of force, Israel responded on April 19 by taking out an Iranian air defense system protecting the Natanz nuclear facility near Esfahan. The Israelis, the argument continues, demonstrated to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that his bullets cannot penetrate their vest, and that they are armed with better guns. He, therefore, was supposedly wowed and deterred.

To be sure, the Israelis and their coalition partners, showcased impressive capabilities. And the poor performance of Iran’s weaponry very likely disappointed Khamenei. But before exaggerating the significance of his disappointment, let’s observe that this entire line of analysis is rooted in the dubious Star Wars assumption that we can glean the power and effectiveness of a low-tech adversary’s weaponry by comparing them to our high-tech equivalents. To repeat: The Mad Max mindset reminds us that the true power of a weapon can only be understood in the context of a larger political-military strategy.

Khamenei is conducting an exhaustion strategy that seeks to embroil Israel in a long war of attrition. At the same time, he is driving a wedge between Jerusalem and Washington. Whereas the Star Wars analysis invites us to see the April exchange as a single boxing match to which there will be no sequel, it is more helpful to understanding to see it as but one bout in a lengthy series of bouts with no obvious end in sight.

In several areas, the trend lines are working against Israel, starting with the rising lethality of Iranian drone and missile capabilities. Two decades ago, the mere mention of Iran’s missile program elicited giggles from Western analysts. Today, no one is laughing. In the last decade, Iranian weapons systems have increased by leaps and bounds, a trend that the military cooperation with Russia is only accelerating.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is sharing technology with Khamenei, including critical subsystems for drones and missiles, that are elevating Iran’s weapons to a new level. The data that Iran is gathering from the Russo–Ukrainian War is also helping it to improve its Shahed loitering munitions, which are already getting stealthier. When they first appeared over the skies of Kyiv, the Ukrainians had a near perfect interception rate. Today the rate has dropped to 80%. Meanwhile, the endurance of the Shaheds will soon increase, as will their size and versatility.

In the April 13 attack on Israel, Khamenei did not make use of at least two lethal assets. His next barrage that he launches might include, for example, two missiles that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unveiled last year: the Khorramshahr 4 and the Fattah 1. The Khorramshahr comes with a massive, almost 4,000-pound-weighted warhead. The Fattah 1 has a design philosophy that enables it to maneuver both in and out of the atmosphere, not to mention other features that will likely stress Israel’s air and missile defense system.

“Stress” is the key word. While the missile barrage that Khamenei launched on April 13 may have killed no one, it stressed his adversaries in several ways, including economically. Informed observers estimate that on that night Israel alone spent over a billion dollars—a hefty bill for just a few hours work. We have no information about the cost to the entire coalition, but Biden administration officials have testified before Congress that the United States Navy has spent nearly a billion dollars over the last six months intercepting missiles and drones launched by the IRGC and its terrorist proxies.

The defense economics skew in favor of Iran. Its attack drones cost $20,000 apiece. A David’s Sling Stunner interceptor is estimated to cost $1 million, while a Patriot MSE interceptor is at least $3 million. Iran’s weapons are also plentiful. Its arsenal of drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles is massive, one of the largest in the world.

Playing catch with terrorists is a sucker’s game. To avoid loss, the Israelis must intercept everything lobbed in their direction. Iran risks nothing by attacking and needs only one lucky shot—against, say, HaKirya, Israel’s Pentagon in downtown Tel Aviv; or Dimona, its nuclear reactor in the Negev—to inflict on Israel a national tragedy. Therefore, Israel’s “success” on April 13 was misleading. The circumstances were as optimized for high interception rate as they will ever be. Seeking international legitimacy for its planned attack, Iran telegraphed its intentions, allowing the United States and Israel to prepare in advance. In the future, Iran may seek the element of surprise. In the meantime, its weapons will do nothing except grow more lethal.

Because Iran depends on no outside power for its defense industrial production, it has total freedom of action. Autarky affords Iran what we will call “operational sovereignty,” the ability to decide entirely on its own which risks to incur. Thanks to his sovereign defense industrial base, Khamenei, if he chose to do so, could probably launch a massive barrage at Israel every night for two weeks straight.

Israel, by contrast, suffers from diminished operational sovereignty—because of its dependence on the United States, which scrutinizes every step that Israel takes toward Iran. The IDF cannot flawlessly defend the nation against Iran’s “defective,” “unreliable,” “substandard,” and “inaccurate” weapons without the help of USCENTCOM, the combatant command that organized the coalition defense of Israel. Moreover, Israel co-manufactures the interceptors in its Iron Dome system in the United States, giving Washington the option of withholding resupply to influence Israeli policy.

Which brings us to the fourth surprising advantage that Iran enjoys in its contest with Israel—namely, a beneficent American policy. In some pro-Israeli and Israeli circles, the word “beneficent” in this context will raise hackles. It smacks of ingratitude and comes across as an unwarranted polemical attack. Biden, so his supporters argue, has backed Israel’s war against Hamas, Iran’s proxy. He has dispatched aircraft carrier groups to the Middle East to deter Iran and its surrogates. He has ordered the American military to carry out punitive raids in Iraq and Yemen. He is promoting Saudi-Israeli normalization, and on April 13 he presided over a major coalition effort to defend Israel from a historically unprecedented barrage of missiles and drones. Biden did all of this, moreover, while turning a deaf ear to those in his party who have demanded that he take a tougher line against Israel. How could any fair-minded person look at this set of actions and see it as beneficial to Iran?

The beneficence derives not from Biden’s feelings and intentions toward Israel or Iran, whatever they may be, but how his policies objectively help Khamenei to advance Iran’s exhaustion strategy—objectively, based on the fundamentals of military science. The president restrained Israeli and American responses to acts of aggression by Iran’s resistance axis. By now, the press has reported on these restraints so extensively as to leave us with no doubt. A partial list of Biden’s red lines toward Iran include the following:

  1. After Hezbollah attacked Israel on Oct. 8, 2023, the Biden administration pressed Israel immediately to respond proportionately and not to escalate, and it has frequently repeated the message.
  2. The administration encouraged Israel not to attack the Houthis, Iran’s proxies in Yemen, in response to their attacks on Israel.
  3. In response to Houthi attacks on international commercial shipping and on American naval vessels, the administration refused to attack Iran directly, and avoided attacking Iranian liaison officers in Yemen.
  4. President Biden pressured Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu not to launch a preemptive strike on Iran as it readied its missiles to attack Israel on April 13.
  5. President Biden urged Israel not to launch a counterattack after the April 13 barrage.
  6. In response to hundreds of attacks by Iranian proxies from Iraq and Syria on American forces, including an attack that killed three Americans in Jordan, the administration refused to attack Iran directly and ensured that the punitive strikes that were carried out against Iran’s proxies did not target Iranians.
  7. The administration has, through lax enforcement, effectively lifted sanctions on Iranian oil sales to China and has refused to reverse course in response to Iranian aggression against Israel or American forces.

The scholar and strategic analyst Edward Luttwak quipped that these seven red lines spell out a Biden doctrine: Iran is free to attack any country with missiles and drones but no country, including the United States, is allowed to attack it back.

Seen from Tehran, the Biden doctrine announces with a bullhorn that the U.S. steadfastly refuses to hold Iran responsible for orchestrating a seven-theater war against Israel, a war which has, among other things, killed three American soldiers, wounded dozens more, and interdicted shipping through the Suez Canal.

The Biden doctrine has grave implications with respect to military science. An axiom of deterrence teaches that it is impossible to counter an offense-dominant capability with purely defensive measures. Only offensive action can redress the balance. Kevlar vests can shield you from an attack, but to deter one you must wield a gun and convince your would-be attacker that you won’t hesitate to pull the trigger. To prevent Iran from shooting drones and missiles—directly or indirectly through its proxies—Netanyahu must convince Supreme Leader Khamenei that Israel will attack back, and that Iran will lose things it holds dear if its aggression continues. The restraint that Biden places on Israel, however, renders Netanyahu’s threats unconvincing.

“Take the win,” Biden reportedly told Netanyahu after the successful interception of Iranian missiles and drones on April 13. However, from Khamenei’s perspective, Israel did not win the exchange. On April 13, Iran changed the rules of engagement with Israel without suffering any meaningful consequences whatsoever. Israel’s “counterattack” was a mere gesture. Iran took the shot, but Israel, despite its high-tech Kevlar vest and gleaming guns, did not.

Over the last 68 years, Israel’s essential security challenges have changed less than its miraculous economic and technological advances would suggest. Deterring Israel’s enemies and gaining great power support—or, to state it another way, insulating the country from great power pressure—remain the two essential tasks of national security. The architects of Israel’s Star Wars paradigm created a military that is technologically astounding but that is not optimized for either of these tasks in a Mad Max world.

The simple truth is that just eight years after winning its independence, Israel, a fledgling state with a tiny economy, enjoyed more operational sovereignty than it does today. At the end of October and beginning of November in 1956, the IDF conquered Gaza in just eight days, while taking the entire Sinai Peninsula at the same time. A few months later, President Eisenhower threatened Israel with economic sanctions if it refused to withdraw. Moshe Dayan, the IDF chief of staff, told David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister, that the Israeli military had enough food, fuel, and ammunition to withstand an international embargo for six months. Today, the IDF has taken over seven months just to conquer Gaza, and the job is still incomplete. Could today’s Israel, either the military or the home front, survive for six months under international embargo, let alone while fighting a war?

To be sure, comparing capabilities in 1956 and 2024 is a case of apples and oranges. In the battlefield geometry of Gaza in 1956, the Egyptians presented Israel with no subterranean warfare capabilities. Even if today’s IDF had been fully expecting a long ground war and had tailored the force for that specific purpose, the tunnel dimension of the contemporary conflict would make it impossible to defeat Hamas in just eight days. Nevertheless, the Star Wars paradigm has fostered an Israeli way of war that has severely circumscribed the IDF’s operational sovereignty.

The primary weaknesses of the current Israeli way of war include, first, an overreliance on air and missile defense, high-end precision strike capabilities in surgical attack roles, and an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity that is chiefly technology-centric. Overconfidence in this suite of assets lulled the IDF into accepting as normal the routine launching of rockets into Israel by Hamas and the expansion of the Lebanese Hezbollah’s arsenal without either of these developments triggering a ground incursion by Israel. More generally, the IDF failed to take the full measure of the offense-dominant regime that Iran has developed thanks to its disruptive military capabilities. Iran has grown especially adept at building mixed strike packages that, by combining missile warfare assets together with drone warfare assets, saturate and overwhelm the sensors and interceptors of air warfare systems.

As a result of these and other disruptive capabilities, Iran and its Arab minions have garnered an achievement unmatched by any of Israel’s earlier enemies: They have imperiled the normal life of civilian communities inside Israel—in the north along the Lebanon border and in the south in the Gaza periphery. Despite Israel’s high-tech military capacity (or perhaps because of it), the IDF failed to disrupt this threat until it was too late. This failure to appreciate the gathering storm led the IDF to content itself for years with punishing Hamas and Iran’s Syrian proxies almost exclusively from the air, while avoiding direct conflict with Hezbollah and Iran itself.

Iran will gleefully battle Israel to the last Palestinian or Syrian fighter. The only way to deter the Islamic Republic is to take the fight to Iran itself and to its most treasured asset, Hezbollah. But Israel’s principal ally and great power patron, the United States, strongly opposes any such approach. Therefore, an additional deficiency in the existing Israeli military paradigm is the overdependence on the United States. Israeli combat plans and doctrines take for granted Washington’s near-unconditional support—a commodity that, as any newspaper reader can plainly see, does not exist. Since the start of the conflict, Biden prioritized restraining the Israeli military operations directed at Iran and its proxies over deterring Iranian aggression.

For months, rumors circulated in Jerusalem that the Biden team, aiming to restrain Israeli military operations, was withholding, or threatening to withhold ammunition. Whether those rumors were true in the past, we now know that they are true in the present, having been verified by the president himself. “I made it clear that if [the Israelis] go into Rafah—they haven’t gone in Rafah yet—if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities—that deal with that problem,” Biden said on May 8 in an interview with CNN.

Rafah is the final stronghold of Hamas that has not fallen to the Israelis, and it guards the passages, official and unofficial, to Egypt, the main arteries of the Gazan economy. Unless Israel takes Rafah, it cannot decapitate Hamas, destroy it as a military organization, or lay the basis for an economy that is not entirely under the control of Hamas. It cannot, in a word, win. Biden’s policy, therefore, is laying the groundwork for the survival of Hamas, and with it, of Iranian influence.

Given Biden’s use of military aid as a straightjacket, the Israeli reliance on the American defense sector as its principal supplier of warfighting equipment and ammunition is fast becoming a liability. Can any Israeli leader honestly affirm to the Israeli voters that the United States would never withhold, say, critical air and missile defense interceptors, to force Israel to stand down against Iran—a bit less gently than it did on April 13, 2024?

The Star Wars paradigm told us that technologically advanced powers will ride roughshod over their technologically disadvantaged enemies. The Ukraine war and the fighting in Gaza are crystal balls that belie this view. Future wars will resemble the First World War more than anything we have seen in the last century. They will be long, costly, and bulky: long, because defenses like Hamas’ tunnels and Russia’s trenches are hard to overcome by attackers who are visible to cheap, commercially available drones; costly, because the tempo of warfighting will be intense, consuming tons upon tons of munitions; and they will be bulky, because they will require traditional warfighting capacities such as artillery firepower, heavy armor, and large combat formations that can seize territory.

Disruptive military technologies, like man-portable air defense systems and antitank guided munitions—to say nothing of the drone, rocket, and missile warfare assets of the kind that Iran deploys and transfers to its proxies—are becoming widely available and ever more lethal. These technologies deny territorial control to small and moderately sized combat formations. Because the complete suppression of them is very challenging, and nearly impossible, they allow disadvantaged belligerents to bleed larger powers asymmetrically.

Battlefields are increasingly urbanized, making the suppression of disruptive military technologies ever more complicated. Engineering units, therefore, will play major roles, in building and destroying subterranean warfare complexes and in hardening and breaching lines of defense.

All of this is unwelcome news for Israel. The structure of Israel’s society and economy predisposed the IDF to build a “small and smart” army. Israel’s expenditure on research and development as a proportion of GDP is one of the highest in the world, amounting to some 5% annually. Between 1999 and 2014, some 10,000 startups mushroomed. In 2021, investments in Israeli startups rose to $26 billion. The most basic instincts of a tech-savvy society militated in favor of thinking that Star Wars would work—by using Israel’s high-tech complex as a massive force-multiplier.

Sound economic thinking based on demographic realities also pushed the Israelis in the direction of the “small and smart” military. The IDF warfighting doctrine calls for a blitz strategy implemented with air assets and special forces. The Israeli way of war calls for delivering maximum firepower by the smallest number of people. The diminutive country cannot field large combat formations without mobilizing reserves. But mobilizations deliver two blows to the economy: They burn public monies at a very high rate while simultaneously removing the most productive members of the economy from the workplace.

There is no magic bullet solution to Israel’s predicaments, which are structural in nature. Nonetheless, the contours of a viable strategy are available. In the coming years, Israel by necessity will switch to a hybrid model that maintains the most lethal elements of the Star Wars military while conducting Mad Max reforms, which will prioritize a partial return to large combat formations capable of taking and holding territory, particularly in southern Lebanon.

“Operational sovereignty” will form the basis for testing the usefulness of any reform. Will a proposed new program or asset enhance Israel’s capacity to fight under conditions of embargo or will it increase Israel’s vulnerability to outside political pressure, including, especially, from the United States?

Israel will therefore diversify its defense technological and industrial base, allocating for and funding expendable and cheap weapons that best serve long-war situations. For example, to keep the upper hand over the rising Iran threat, Israel will produce, on its own and in huge numbers, the interceptors for its air and missile defense systems that are currently co-produced with the United States. At the same time, it will devote more attention to developing—again, on its own—offensive assets, including missiles designed to give Iran and its proxies a taste of their own medicine.

Israel will also boost its defense industrial production of principal warfighting equipment, such as 120-mm class main battle tank rounds, 155-mm class artillery shells, heavy mortars, and antitank guided missiles. Moreover, these munitions, and the defense industrial base to produce them, will prioritize cheap and plentiful solutions over expensive and exquisite state-of-the-art weapons. These reforms will come at a cost to the Start-Up Nation. Money and man hours that currently fuel the high-tech economy will be transferred to defense industries that will drain the public purse while producing no indirect benefits to the export economy.

In addition to being long, costly, and bulky, wars will also be broadcast instantaneously. In a digitalized information environment, political warfare, which accompanies actual conventional warfighting, now has many more images to work with and many more agents to manipulate those images. This, too, is unwelcome news for Israel, which has a very large number of enemies who seek to drive a wedge between it and the United States. Israel and its friends, therefore, will begin fighting the information war as if it were a real war, devoting large assets to not just explaining and justifying Israel’s actions but also to delegitimating and neutering its detractors.

When Moshe Dayan delivered his eulogy for Ro’i Rothberg, Israel had already fought the War of Independence against Egypt, not to mention the other Arab states. Before making peace, Egypt would fight four more major wars against Israel, including the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That conflict opened with a major and devastating surprise attack. Then, too, Israel failed to see the Egyptians coming, because it believed that its military advantages made it impervious to attack by a technologically inferior foe.

Properly understood, this war is the second major Israel-Iran war—the 2006 Lebanon war being the first. It is also in a sense a second War of Independence. Israel’s wars with Iran, like the wars with Egypt, will be many in number. Preparation for the long contest with Iran will force the Israelis to undergo a self-transformation more than a little reminiscent of 1948.

On Oct. 7, the residents of Nahal Oz and the rest of Israeli society paid a price far beyond their imagining for abandoning the kind of vigilance that Dayan sought to summon at Ro’i Rothberg’s funeral. In the years to come, Israelis will rediscover the steely eyed and unsentimental attitudes that Dayan displayed in his eulogy—or else they will die. “This is the fate of our generation,” Dayan said. “This is our life’s choice—to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.”

Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

Can Kasapoğlu is a nonresident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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