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The Israeli Army Has Big, Ambitious Plans. But There's Only One Problem

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An Israeli soldier looking through Binoculars, illustration.
An Israeli soldier looking through Binoculars, illustration. Credit: Elbit Systems

The Israel Defense Forces revealed a series of ambitious plans for its ground forces Monday. As part of the changes included in the multiyear plan dubbed Tnufa (Hebrew for momentum), a new division will be formed next month that will give expression to innovative combat concepts, which the army describes as multidimensional.

When senior officers speak about the plans, it recalls futuristic war movies about future wars – drones, robots, precise weapons and reliance on detailed real-time intelligence. Most of these elements have been used by both the IDF and a few Western armies, but this is an attempt to combine them in the hope of achieving better results on the battlefield.

The changes in approach are based on a shift that has already taken place in the combat theater: Any future operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip or even Palestinian forces in the West Bank will take place in crowded urban areas. The enemy will hide among civilian populations and will make heavy use of the area below ground. The key is the ability to find the enemy units quickly, even though they will avoid open areas, where it would be easier for the IDF to exploit its air and technology superiority.

The army’s test, as sketched out by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, will be the pace at which it can deprive the enemy of its military capabilities. This will require, among other things, fast ground maneuvers in built-up areas, despite the risk of heavy casualties while seizing control of the area.

The ideas that have been formulated by Kochavi and are now be implemented by Ground Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, seek to bring the IDF’s multidimensional capabilities (air power, precise fire, intelligence, cyber warfare and more) to the level of the combat units at the forefront, the battalions and the companies. That’s what the new Refaim unit will be contending with, as part of the new division being built around it, the 99th Division. This division will also integrate and larger and improved version of the Kfir Infantry Brigade, which until now had primarily handled policing duties in the territories, alongside a commando brigade, a paratroop brigade and an armored brigade, all made up of reservists.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, June 2020.Credit: IDF Spokjesperson's Unit

By coincidence, although it’s somewhat ironic, all these big plans are being publicized less than 24 hours after the release of the shocking statistics about the second quarter’s GDP. The pace of the plunge, some of which will surely be corrected in the third quarter, was 28.7 percent on an annualized basis. In a period of three months, Israel’s economy regressed four years.

This, of course, is the Achilles heel in Kochavi’s multiyear plan. The chief of staff has already announced the diversion of budgets within the army out of a desire to get Tnufa up and running as soon as possible, without waiting for the security cabinet to find time to discuss it in depth. But Tnufa cannot operate in a vacuum.

Israel is presumably facing its worst economic crisis since at least the 1980s. Implementing the multiyear plan requires many resources, and the IDF is no longer a top priority. The General Staff will be forced to reconcile itself to a new reality that will be imposed on it against its will.

The disaster in Beirut two weeks ago will also serve those who’ll argue against providing the army with more funds. The Middle East is groaning under the burden of economic and coronavirus damage and Hezbollah will also be facing budget difficulties when it plans its military empowerment for the coming years.

But the IDF’s difficulties also lie on the domestic front. When this government, or the one after it, will finally start issuing the decrees necessary to pay for the emergency outlays, there will undoubtedly be a focus on cutting public sector salaries and perhaps the temporary undermining of budgetary pensions. The army will be on the list of potential targets. On the other hand, today’s times provide one advantage for the army, as more standing army officers of quality are seeking to extend their commitments because opportunities in the civilian market have contracted.

The Air Force diet

The ones who are acclimating to the new circumstances more quickly than the military overall, it seems, is that foreign-but-friendly force, as the ground forces refer to the Israel Air Force. There they realized at a relatively early stage that their cheese was being moved. It’s true that the overwhelming majority of weapons procurement for the IAF comes from the American military aid budget, in dollars, and thus doesn’t seem to be at immediate risk. But with regard to anything purchased in shekels, the air force knows not to expect any pleasant surprises in the next few years.

That’s the reason why Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Nurkin decided to significantly advance plans for streamlining and structural changes, some of which were originally meant to start only in three to five years’ time. In November 2019, as is customary in the air force, Nurkin approved the trends defined in the air force’s vision for 2035. But in recent months, because of the coronavirus and the economic crisis, they’ve gone back to the drawing board.

Among the decisions that were made: Moving up the shutdown of the F-16 squadron; moving combat and drone squadrons between bases so that similar systems will be located closer together, which would save money; moving gradually to a national air defense system, rather than relying on regional batteries to intercept missiles and rockets; and keeping command headquarters lean, rather than taking on more people even if the air force’s needs expand.

The IAF can make all these changes in its own backyard with just a nod from Kochavi. What is still stuck in the pipeline, as a result of the transition between multiyear plans and the political instability, is implementing the U.S. military aid agreement, much of which affects the IAF. There isn’t an immediate problem of funds here, but rather of decisions. By the end of the year a number of decisions have to be made, first and foremost on the mix of warplanes the force should have (apparently a mix of more F-15s and additional F-35 squadrons) and choosing the next cargo helicopter. The security cabinet is meant to find time for this soon, after repeated delays.

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