New Israeli Army Chief Was Greeted With Iranian Rocket and Gaza Violence. Now Comes the Hard Part

An unstable Mideast, manpower challenges and an incendiary draft bill are only some of the issues Aviv Kochavi will have to tackle

File photo: Aviv Kochavi shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his inauguration as IDF chief of staff in Tel Aviv, January 15, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Once a paratrooper, always a paratrooper. As he prepared to take over as IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi devoured all the biographies and autobiographies of his predecessors in the position. In the time since – the two and a half months from the announcement of his appointment to when he became chief of staff, plus three months so far in office – Kochavi has held hundreds of preparatory meetings, convened the general staff for a seminar on the meaning of victory and formed team after team to examine the changes in the IDF he feels are required.

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Will the assortment of clever ideas now being raised coalesce into an orderly, effective multiyear plan? Will such a plan actually be implemented and optimally prepare the army for any future wars that should occur? The answers to these questions will only start to become clear towards the end of this year. And to be fair, it must be said that the answers do not depend solely upon the IDF.

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Kochavi arrived in the chief of staff’s office ready for his mission. It’s not just his reading list, but also the large number and variety of positions he previously held, including deputy chief of staff, head of the northern command and head of the intelligence branch. He was not the first choice of then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, nor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but both approved his appointment despite their hesitations and a power struggle between the two of them. His entry into the position was smooth. The generals readily accepted his leadership and the IDF well withstood its first tests under his command – an Iranian rocket fired at the Golan from Syria in late January, months of tension on the Gaza border – without the country getting dragged into war.

Now comes the hard part for the new chief of staff: formulating the ways in which the IDF should develop over the coming decade; launching a detailed multiyear plan for the coming five years; and most importantly, securing a defense budget that will allocate the necessary resources to pay for the chief of staff’s ambitious plans, which are liable to include much costly technology. It won’t be easy because the coming years look to be economically lean ones, with experts predicting that belt-tightening will be in order. And before we even get to that, there are the coalition agreements that must be signed, with major financial commitments to factions representing various pressure groups, such as the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers. Then there are all the other pressing problems that the public wants to see addressed, like the overcrowded hospitals and the poorly functioning public transportation systems.

It is reasonable to assume that the next decade will see a continuation of the instability in the Middle East that intensified with the shake-up in the Arab world at the end of 2010. This is accompanied by the increased threats of rockets and missiles aimed at the Israeli home front, the development of the terror groups surrounding Israel (Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, Hamas) into organizations almost at the level of armies, and the technological changes that put advanced weaponry at their disposal, some of it purchased on the private market. This can range from navigation systems to malicious computer programs.

The upheaval in the Arab world, along with the Iranian nuclear threat being deferred by the signing of the Vienna agreement in 2015, allowed the Israel Defense Forces to focus its multiyear Gideon plan on long-term processes, with less concern about a possible war with one of its neighbors or a confrontation with an outer-circle state like Iran.

But the long-term plan that will go into effect next year must also take into account a possible return of the nuclear threat (should Iran decide to abandon the nuclear agreement, a step it hasn’t yet taken despite the United States’ withdrawal from the accord a year ago), as well as possible regime change in those countries in Israel’s immediate circle.

Kochavi gave a hint about his intentions in his inaugural address on January 15, when he spoke about the need to improve the level of the IDF’s “lethality.” This is a military term that makes civilians who hear it uncomfortable, but there’s a lot of logic to it. Essentially, it means the pace at which enemy targets are destroyed. The point is to prepare the army for the greatest possible achievements in war – causing maximal harm to the enemy and seizing control (if necessary) of territory, in the shortest possible time with the fewest possible casualties. All this must take place while maneuvering through dense urban environments in which the enemy is hiding in the heart of civilian populations, while aiming at least some of its fire at Israeli population centers.

In his multiyear plan, Kochavi set two basic principles – readiness and change. Preparedness for a large-scale military operation or even war is to be upgraded (with the most relevant theater being the Gaza Strip). In this, Kochavi is continuing the steps taken by his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, to beef up training, munitions stocks and supplies. He has also decided to accelerate the pace of preparations for a confrontation in Gaza despite the ongoing efforts to reach an arrangement with Hamas, to update plans for all theaters and to conduct more extensive research on targets to be attacked in wartime.

The principle of change is based on a series of measures, among them changing the concept of how the IDF should operate during a war, developing multi-force maneuverability (in which the air force and the other forces are more involved in ground operations), creating a uniform computerized communications system for all the branches and forces, and the broader use of war simulators for large units. The army has another card up its sleeve: establishing a “multidimensional unit” that will combine infantry capabilities with fire, air power and intelligence. If this model works well, it could be expanded to other units, but for information security reasons, the IDF is not ready to say any more about it right now.

All of these ideas refer, directly or indirectly, to the elephant in the room – the ongoing decline in the status of the IDF ground forces, and the doubts, which have seeped into the political level, too, as to whether it is in fact possible to win a war by means of a major ground maneuver. The generals may preach this, but the politicians are skeptical, with some reason. There is also the awareness that Israeli society is less ready to tolerate heavy military losses now. The weakness of the ground forces and the fitness level of their reservist units were at the heart of the disagreement between Eisenkot and the outgoing IDF ombudsman Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik. Eisenkot did much more than his predecessors to begin addressing these issues, but people from the general staff now admit that the capabilities are still lagging far behind where they should be. Shortly after he took office, Kochavi also met with Brik to discuss his findings.

Conversations with many IDF officers, regular army and reservists alike, from a variety of ranks and positions, indicate that there is a broad consensus about the need for a real shake-up of the ground forces. A self-perpetuating cycle has arisen: The politicians are fearful to call for wide-scale use of the ground forces because they haven’t been sent into battle this way for many years. The disuse leads to a decline in operational experience (and capabilities to some extent) and this in turn further reduces the readiness to use these forces in the future. Of course, fewer wars and casualties over the past decade is a very welcome thing, but the removal of the ground maneuver from the arsenal could be a problem for Israel in the future.

The other crisis that Kochavi inherited has to do with manpower in the IDF. As frequently reported here over the past few years, the problem is more serious than the senior command acknowledges and includes decreasing motivation for combat service among conscripts, a lack of desire to sign on for extend periods of regular army service and a decline in the capabilities of significant parts of the reserves. Among certain groups – the relatively affluent, secular Israelis and residents of central Israel – the declining readiness to enlist for combat service and to sign an extension is so pronounced that the only matter of debate is its degree of severity. In some units, including combat units, the first adverse effects on the quality of the command can already be seen, particularly from the level of company commander and up.

In the present political climate, particularly if a weakened draft law that effectively endorses mass draft-dodging by ultra-Orthodox men is passed, these trends are liable to worsen. The IDF and the new chief of staff won’t be able to make them go away with complicated mathematical calculations intended to prove, as Netanyahu once remarked in relation to the Israeli economy, that if you deduct the Haredim and the Arabs, we’re in pretty good shape.