With Russian Anti-aircraft Missiles in Syria, Israeli Army Prepares for More Surprises

The IDF girds for cyberwar, massive rocket barrages, attacks on strategic infrastructure, attacks by ISIS, and a wider Palestinian uprising.

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Russia's S-400 air-defense missile systems are carried aboard trucks at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria on November 26.
Russia's S-400 air-defense missile systems are loaded at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria on Nov. 26.Credit: AFP/Russian Defense Ministry
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A General Staff officer said Wednesday that many developments in the region in recent months had taken the army by surprise, so the army was striving to adapt.

The developments all stemmed from the upheaval in the Arab world that began in December 2010, said the officer, who was discussing the Israel Defense Forces’ multiyear plan with reporters.

“We didn’t think even in our dreams that we’d see S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in our backyard,” he said, referring to the advanced missile system Russia said it was deploying in north Syria last week after a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey.

“Nor did we think cruise missiles would be flying over Syria,” he added, referring to Russia’s airstrikes on rebel groups.

The circumstances have changed radically, he said. The IDF must adapt to them and to other unexpected developments, and take into account changes in Israeli society such as a declining tolerance for unnecessary military spending.

The IDF’s multiyear plan is designed to let the army develop new capabilities over the next five years. It must prepare the army for a possible major confrontation, the seething violence in the West Bank, and spontaneous attacks by youths at West Bank checkpoints.

Israeli soldiers stand guard in front of Palestinian stone throwers during clashes in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, October 5, 2015.Credit: AFP

So while preparing for a possible clash with Hezbollah, which now seeks to equip some of its 100,000 rockets with accurate navigating systems, the army must find a way to handle, for example, the 16-year-old boy and 20-year-old woman who came to West Bank checkpoints this week carrying a knife and an ax respectively.

The multiyear plan, which still must be submitted to the cabinet, diverts resources to handling the threats Israel may encounter in the coming years. These include cyberwar, massive rocket barrages, an attack on strategic infrastructure, border incidents, attacks by the Islamic State, and of course a wider Palestinian uprising.

So far, marginal issues of the multiyear plan have caught the media’s attention, like the future of Army Radio or the plan to shut down military academies. On Wednesday it turned out that the IDF plans to operate only five of its German Dolphin submarines. When the sixth due in 2019 arrives, the IDF will decommission the oldest one, which it received 20 years ago.

Around five years ago, then-defense minister Ehud Barak twisted the General Staff’s arms into buying a sixth submarine, despite the objections of the chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi. Back then, Israel was preparing for a possible attack on Iran, and foreign media speculated that the submarines could strike a “second nuclear blow,” thereby increasing Israel’s deterrence.

The decision to limit the submarine fleet to five reflects a change in Israel’s priorities, even if the IDF is still preparing for possible confrontations with countries that aren’t immediate neighbors.

The General Staff says capabilities for an operation in Iran could be used in other war scenarios, and the nuclear threat is no longer the army’s top priority. At least in the next few years, dealing with the repercussions of instability on the borders and in the territories comes first.

The army is working to improve coordination among its various branches – ground, air, sea, intelligence and cyber. But a lot of work appears needed for the IDF to have a decisive answer for these many fronts.

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