Precise Missiles, Cyber-attacks, Mass Border Invasions: Israel's Next War

A speech delivered this week by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz provides a window into the IDF in 2025; the question of war is when, not if.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Chief of Staff Benny Gantz delivered what might be the most important public speech of his term to a half-empty hall at Bar-Ilan University this week. Two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the platform of the 20th conference of the university’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies to display uncompromising rigidity on all the key issues facing Israel − from the Iranian threat to the Palestinian arena − Gantz sought to portray the face of the war of the future and of the Israel Defense Forces in another decade or so.

His speech was nothing if not ambitious. The audience might well have thought: What does he need this for? His remarks could easily be interpreted as an effort to scare the public. It’s not surprising that the next day’s press headlines indeed framed the speech as a horror-movie scenario. Some even linked it to the renewed battle the army is now waging over the defense budget.

Chiefs of staff in Israel frequently make public speeches, particularly as their term draws to a close. These can be divided, roughly, into two categories: remarks offered at official events ‏(commemoration ceremonies, memorial days and various national occasions‏), all of which are rather dreary variations on a series of state-oriented messages that were formulated even before the serving chief of staff did his basic training; and “strategic” speeches, in which the country’s No. 1 soldier offers a grim survey of the dangers lurking in Israel’s neighborhood and warns against budget cuts, which will weaken the IDF. But Gantz had a different purpose.

Gantz asked the audience at Bar-Ilan to pardon him for not tiring them out with talk about what he called “the traditional survey of the changes that have occurred in every arena and in every neighboring state.” Instead, he made do with a rapid summary of a few strategic trends. The Middle East, he said, is experiencing a period of what he called “instability squared,” which has completely unsettled the regional order.

He then ran quickly down the list of some of the changes: the toppling of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, where “the president who followed him is also no longer relevant”; the disconnect between the Gaza Strip and Egypt after the military coup in Cairo that ousted President Mohammed Morsi; the isolation of the Hamas leadership in Gaza; and the growth of a terrorism threat in Sinai. All these developments, he noted, “are only examples of what is going on in the southern sector. I could point to tendencies of change across the region.” As a result of the rapidly fluctuating situation, “we cannot commit ourselves to saying how the day that has just begun will end.”

On the other hand, he listed some surprising developments that could prove to be positive: the agreement to remove the chemical weapons from Syria; the possibility of diplomatic negotiations by the U.S. and other major world powers with Iran over its nuclear project; a possible settlement with the Palestinian Authority. These developments, he said, could lead “to what people greater than I have termed, in other circumstances, a ‘new Middle East.’” ‏(A rustle of unease seemed to run through the hall at this point: The Begin-Sadat Center is not home to the biggest fans of the Oslo Accords.‏)

States breaking up

From dealing with an arena of functioning regimes, Israel, according to Gantz, now finds itself having to deal with states that are breaking up into secondary components, existing “at a sub-state level but possessing significant operational capabilities.” In these conditions, Israel will have to judge its neighbors and its adversaries not by their declarations and intentions, but by their deeds and the outcomes they produce. That is, it must apply “the test of actions − not of nice-sounding abstractions.”

War as a phenomenon will remain what it was. The high friction with the enemy and the uncertainty will persist, but a gradual change in the modes of combat will take place, he went on. The IDF will confront an enemy possessing advanced capability, decentralized and camouflaged, and operating from within a civilian population.

Gantz chose to focus on what he referred to as the encounter between strategy and reality.

“I would like to tell you about the first morning of the war that the chief of staff of the future will face,” he said.

“At present, he might still be a division commander. In another 10 years, or maybe in two or three years, he will open his eyes at 4 A.M. after not many hours of sleep, after receiving a call from his bureau chief.”

What will he be told? The next campaign, according to Gantz, could open with a precisely fired missile that will hit the General Staff building in the heart of the Kirya ‏(defense headquarters in central Tel Aviv‏); with a cyber-attack that will cripple everyday services, from traffic lights to banking; with the detonation of a bomb in a kindergarten by means of a booby-trapped underground tunnel; or with a mass charge of Arabs at an Israeli locale adjacent to a border.

The chief of staff then went on to detail a scenario in a specific arena, probably not chosen at random: He spoke of a terrorist attack on the Golan Heights, where, after almost 40 years of total quiet, the border is now gradually becoming distressingly unstable. In this hypothetical scenario, an explosive device will be activated and an antitank missile will be fired at an Israeli patrol along the border, in a format that recalls the attack by Hezbollah that triggered the Second Lebanon War, in 2006. Three soldiers will be abducted, one of them a battalion commander. A jihadist organization − Gantz’s remarks implied that he was referring to an Al-Qaida-inspired Sunni group − will take responsibility for the event. As in 2006, an attack in one sector will enflame most of Israel’s borders “in an immediate multiple-arena campaign.”

For its part, Hezbollah will fire volleys of rockets into Galilee, and jihadist organizations will continue trying to penetrate from the Golan. ‏(Gantz did not explain how and why Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, would coordinate its actions with Sunni groups, which are on the other side of the fence in the conflict that is splitting the Arab world apart.‏)

The accuracy of the missiles will be greatly improved, Gantz added, “and if Hezbollah chooses to hit a specific target almost anywhere in Israel, it will have the capability to do so.” Volleys of rockets will strike Eilat. Hundreds of Hamas activists will try to overrun IDF checkpoints on the border with Gaza.

Along with the border battles, which will also have serious implications for the Israeli civilian rear, “a vast cybernetic war will rage that will affect not only the military but also the civilian systems.” It will be an “almost transparent” war, the chief of staff noted, as media on both sides will cover it intensively in real time.

Undesirable results

Israel will try to avoid inflicting casualties on enemy civilians, but will not be able to be completely successful in this effort. Every case in which civilians are killed will incite “delegitimization moves” against Israel in the international arena, and generate demands for an immediate cessation of IDF operations.

Gantz used the occasion of his speech to go on record with a cautionary note: “In some cases, the firepower we will face will not permit a full distinction [to be made] between civilians and terrorists, and that blurring will be expressed operationally in undesirable results, which, regrettably, constitute an integral element of war.”

Gantz’s successor will have to make a decision with regard to the dilemma between “the firepower he needs to employ in response to the assault, and the danger of a slide into a full-scale war.”

Given the serious damage that will be caused to the Israeli home front and the international pressure for a cease-fire, Gantz observed, “The hourglass gets turned over from the moment a war erupts. Israel pays a heavy price, in all senses, for every hour in which routine life is adversely affected. The clock obliges the IDF to work fast.”

Hovering in the background, as the chief of staff once noted before, is an increasing expectation by the Israeli public for “a quick and unequivocal victory.”

It is to meet these conjectured threats that the operational response is now being formed. Effectively, Gantz’s speech presented an abridged and declassified version of a document he recently drew up and circulated to the IDF top brass. Titled “The IDF in 2025,” it consists of a “vision and orientations” for the coming decade. The paper is a summary of the reform the chief of staff is currently enacting in the army, intended to address two intersecting processes: the regional changes he mentioned ‏(among them the weakening of the conventional threat posed by the armies of the neighboring countries‏), and the budget constraints, which do not allow the IDF to examine the necessary changes and implement them slowly.

Gantz views the present situation as providing an opportunity and also evidence of the necessity for making changes: These include reducing the order of battle in some units, reshaping the structure of the forces and cutting down day-to-day costs. He is emphasizing the need for the army to dare to change, but to do so responsibly, given the regional dangers.

In both the paper and in his speech, Gantz underscored the need to preserve the IDF’s ground-maneuver ability. At the same time, he placed a special emphasis on the use of technology-intensive means − above all those employed by the air force, as well as upgraded intelligence ‏(particularly, the ability to provide accurate intelligence during combat to the commanders of the frontline units‏), cyber-warfare and precision fire from land and sea.

Gantz also underlined the need to reinforce defense. Here, he referred not only to the cyber-front and to protective systems for vehicles such as the “trench coat” for Merkava tanks, but mainly to missile- and rocket-intercept systems, from the Arrow to Iron Dome.

The appropriate operational response to the threats is dependent on an improvement in “networking”: the transfer of information received from the range of intelligence gathering means and from intelligence sources, the command-and-control abilities in regard to the activities of the forces and to maintenance of a direct connection with them. That is, to ensure that the pilot and the company commander are identifying the same targets, and for the drone and the navy vessel to share intelligence and missions.

In the future, the IDF’s diversity of combat platforms will be bolstered by quantities of “autonomous, robot-like weapons in the air and at sea, and maybe even on the ground.” All the details of the complex picture that will be provided by the fighting forces and the cyber system will be under the control of the War Room in the Kirya, which will supply and filter the relevant information to the future chief of staff.

This is quite an impressive vision. Its realization, of course, depends on the decisions that will be made by political and security policy makers in light of the troubles facing the country, whether at Israel’s own initiative or as a result of actions taken by its adversaries.

In his speech, the chief of staff referred to the outbreak of war almost as a forgone conclusion, with only the timing still to be determined. He did not talk about the possibility that such a war would erupt as a result of an opening ploy by Israel, though that was the case in the two recent large-scale operations in the Gaza Strip: Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense. ‏(It could also be argued that the events in Lebanon in 2006 would not have been classified as a war if the Ehud Olmert government had decided to delay Israel’s response to the abduction of the reservists and choose a later, more effective time to settle accounts with Hezbollah.‏)

The relatively negligent role played by Iran in Gantz’s war scenario was unmistakable. The confrontation he described focused on Israel’s borders and on missiles striking the civilian rear, not on the nuclear threat from Iran.

End of the watch

Next week, Gantz will begin the final third of his term as chief of staff. A month ago, the government, as expected, approved the extension of his term for a fourth year. He now has available a General Staff where most of its members are his appointees. His apparent preferred successor, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, the deputy chief of staff, has the best prospects of succeeding him in February 2015. In the year ahead, in consultation with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the next round of appointments will be made, including major positions such as director of Military
Intelligence and GOC Northern Command.

The present comparatively quiet period will also be utilized to bring in a new IDF Spokesman, with Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz replacing Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. The latter is concluding a successful term of two and a half years, which, in a rare instance for this sensitive job in the past decade, was free of scandals and tremors. That is in part due to the character of Mordechai’s superior officer, Gantz, who, after the tempestuous terms of his three predecessors, has been able to avoid clashes with the big egos of the civilian policy-making sphere.

Still, it is hard to ignore the irony of the situation in which someone like Yoav Mordechai, who came from the MI unit that runs agents, was needed in order to restore the IDF Spokesman’s Unit to its original, purely military boundaries. The fact that Gantz is letting him go − Mordechai was one of the closest officers to him in the past few years − also attests to the relative security stability that currently prevails, notwithstanding the dangers that the chief of staff has pointed out on Israel’s borders. But as Gantz said this week, on any given day, he himself doesn’t know what kind of morning he will awaken to the next day, or whether the next flare-up will take place before he concludes his watch.

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