By Land, Air - and Also by Sea

Should a future war between Israel and its enemies begin with attacks on civilians, as defense officials expect, an aerial response will be insufficient. Efforts must be made to improve the IDF's naval warfare capabilities.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The next war Israel wages will be tougher and will exact more casualties than previous wars, outgoing director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin warned this week, in his last appearance before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Israel, he added, will probably not fight against one country, but rather on two or three fronts simultaneously.

The current, rare situation of security calm is liable to deteriorate swiftly into an extensive clash, which will spread from one arena to another, Yadlin predicted. An Israeli or American operation against Iran, for example, will immediately impact Hezbollah, Hamas and even Syria. A lower-intensity outbreak of violence in Lebanon or Gaza could have implications for the region as well. Despite the measures taken to bolster the defense of the Israeli civilian population since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, it is more exposed and more vulnerable than in the past. In the future, a central goal of the enemy will likely be to launch a massive attack on the population all over Israel.

Various exercises conducted last year by the defense establishment included scenarios envisaging tens of thousands of civilian casualties in a future outbreak of hostilities in the region. In his remarks, Yadlin, who is stepping down after completing his five-year term, made do with general warnings.

Any shift in the security balance can be at least partially attributable to conceptual changes on the part of Israel's enemies, notably their preference for an approach known in Arabic as mukawama (resistance, attrition ), rather than an attempt to defeat the Israel Defense Forces on the battlefield. Mukawama is grounded in technological developments: For instance, precision munitions are now readily available and relatively inexpensive, and there is a better ability to locate and control large-scale missile launches. The threat to Israel's entire territory has increased significantly in recent years and it's safe to assume that the accuracy, range and destructive capability of the enemy's weapons will continue to improve. The next technological development - the installation of GPS in a range of rockets and missiles, enabling accuracy within dozens of meters from the target - is already close to being achieved by Hezbollah.

The IDF's primary response to the threat against the country remains the air force. In the wake of the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War, should a military confrontation break out, all reserve units will be called up immediately and ground forces will be quickly deployed. But at the start of any such flare-up of hostilities - particularly if it encompasses Syria, too - it is the air force that will have to ensure Israel's military superiority by attacking the enemy's surface-to-air systems, a very high-priority mission. That is liable to take several days, however, during which the civilian population will face heavy barrages and will have to grit its teeth. In this critical period, the air force will be able to divert only limited forces to deal with rocket launchers.

"The aspiration will be to shorten the war," senior officers tell Haaretz. "But the question is whether we will have all the tools to do that. The working assumption is that the use of large-scale firepower will vanquish the enemy. But it's far from certain that this is what will actually happen - in addition to which the physical elimination of rocket launchers entails sending in ground forces on search-and-destroy operations that will take weeks. Israel needs effective, immediate, large-scale firepower disposition. We cannot make everything dependent on the air force. The firepower disposition has to be decentralized and its internal balance realigned, because at present it relies entirely on air power."

Ground artillery has undergone something of an upgrade over the past decade, but not enough. Meanwhile, another component of the changing IDF has not received due consideration: namely, the navy. The CEO of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Yedidia Yaari (a former commander of the navy ), and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (a former chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee ), talked about the navy's role in this context at the start of the last decade. The present naval commander, Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom, is promoting a move now that includes not only the use of more advanced surface vessels and submarines, but also a significant improvement in the ability to bomb the land from the sea.

The uproar over the Free Gaza flotilla last May did an injustice to the navy. Indeed, one problem is that its many successes are kept secret. In the past two years there have been many hints but, owing to censorship, little concrete information about naval operations in distant waters. The operations about which there is some knowledge, albeit partial, involve interdiction of weapons-smuggling efforts from Iran to Gaza and to Lebanon, mainly in the Red Sea and off the coast of North Africa.

The rebuilding of any weaponry systems involves budgets, of course, but also certain basic conceptions. In General Staff meetings, Vice Admiral Marom said that the IDF is overly dependent on precision munitions launched from planes, known as JDAM. "Who said every bomb has to undergo a pilots' course?" he asked.

Naval officials warn of the limitations of exclusive dependence on airborne firepower; the difficulty of waging ongoing combat when airbases are being shelled with rockets; weather problems (mainly relating to visibility ); and the limited number of planes and pilots as compared to the range of missions that could be launched in many arenas simultaneously.

As an alternative plan, a new "mixture" is being proposed: It would involve integration of a maritime force in land combat with the aid of highly accurate missiles. According to a plan formulated by the navy, it will be possible to create an initial capability of sea-to-surface missiles possessing JDAM accuracy with warheads identical to those used by the air force. At the same time, limited resources will have to be allocated also to upgrade the Artillery Corps' rocket capability.

Transforming the sea

Discussions on such subjects are being conducted mainly in the General Staff forum, the planning and operations branches, as well as in the navy and air force. A rare public expression of these discussions can be found in an article written by a former deputy commander of the navy, Commodore First Class (res. ) Gideon Raz. In the latest issue of "Military and Strategic Affairs," published by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, Raz quotes the late Maj. Gen. Israel Tal: "Air power is no longer sufficient in itself. The Israel Navy must transform the sea into part of the country's strategic depth."

Raz calls on the chiefs of the defense establishment to think outside the box. "Israel's western flank [the sea] is the only open border, the Achilles heel of Israel's enemies and the IDF's great opportunity," he writes, listing the advantages of seaborne warfare: the navy's permanent presence in that arena, the difficulty of locating vessels , the ability to operate even in poor weather conditions, evasive capabilities, minimal exposure to enemy fire (in contrast to land bases ), and the ability to carry large amounts of ammunition on one platform. Other armies, Raz adds, have already understood this, not least the United States military, which has increased its use of sea-to-surface missiles such as the Tomahawk.

"Nowadays, in order to strike at targets deep inside enemy territory, the air force must be utilized, in most cases," he writes. "Is this the most effective mode of operation? Is it not the case that a long-range ballistic missile can offer a more effective, faster, more economical and lower-risk response, given the probability that our airbases will be under threat from enemy missiles and rockets, on the one hand, and that quality enemy targets will be protected by dense missile systems, on the other hand? The large-scale use of rockets and missiles by the enemy creates a new situation in terms of the activity of ground crews on air force bases."

Raz elaborates: "We can assume that it is the enemy, not the IDF, that will initiate and launch hostilities, and therefore that the first hours and days [of any future confrontation] will oblige the Israel Air Force to engage in preventive operations, which will take priority over the diversion of resources to attack targets deep in enemy territory. The enemy possesses capabilities of launching volleys of rockets and missiles that are liable to shut down land systems, airports and logistical deployments for some time."

Raz quotes an IDF assessment according to which Hezbollah is deploying to launch about 1,000 rockets a day during any future fighting. In the face of this threat, he writes, the army must deploy to utilize firepower, based on both statistical and real-time assessments. "The IDF operations branch also sees the advantages inherent in giving the navy the capability to utilize firepower from the sea as an element in the ground battle. There is a recognition of the advantages of ships that are there, ready to act."

The navy already possesses the technical capability to install a launch infrastructure on missile boats and other vessels, writes Raz: "It would seem that the navy intends to adopt and adapt to its platforms the missiles and precision munitions systems which are being acquired by the IDF."

While there are great opportunities for the IDF in the west, there are also major threats, Raz notes in conclusion: "If the IDF proves unable to translate its maritime superiority and the open border in the west - it will have to operate in more difficult conditions in an arena in which it no longer enjoys the advantage it had in the past. The 'box' in which Israel is situated will become ever smaller. It is thus incumbent on the IDF to look ahead and act accordingly."

In his article Raz draws in part on conversations with the commander of the navy, his deputy, the GOC Northern Command, and the head of the doctrine and training unit in the General Staff. But ultimately it is someone else will make the final decisions. Someone who - like Raz and Marom - is also a former navy man: the next chief of staff, Yoav Galant.