What Israel's Next War Will Look Like

The outgoing head of the IDF's computers and communications branch outlines the army's approach to cyber warfare and dealing with Hamas and Hezbollah in future confrontations.

An Israel Defense Forces cyber war room.
IDF Spokesperson

Maj. Gen. Uzi Moscovitch, who this month concluded four and a half years as head of the Israel Defense Forces’ C4I branch – the IDF’s teleprocessing directorate – was never one for caution or diplomatic restraint. Now that he’s on discharge leave, at the age of 52, wrapping up 34 years in the army, a conversation with him can be conducted more openly. Moscovitch tells Haaretz about the place of cyber operations, defensively and offensively, in the General Staff’s current plans, and describes the next possible confrontation, as he and his colleagues see it.

“We can predict with high probability that in the next five to seven years, there will not be a war here of conventional armies, of the kind we became accustomed to in the past and which the IDF was designed to face,” Moscovitch asserts. “There are no conventional wars today: Countries are not conquered. Even great powers almost never conquer territories openly anymore. A revolution has taken place: From clashes between the great industrial armies, we have reverted to war against organizations and militia forces – even if in the case of Hezbollah, the organization has steep-trajectory firing capabilities at the level of a state, if not a great power.

“We see a similar pattern in the Gaza Strip,” he continues, “with the whole alignment of defense and steep-trajectory munitions concealed amid civilian surroundings and underground. If in the past, we were called on to cope with an enemy capable of concentrating a force and attacking powerfully on the ground, with the ability to seize territory, today we are facing dozens of smaller organizations. It’s not an existential threat, but it's become more difficult to pinpoint the enemies and deal with them.”

A different response was required for the new military reality, for which the IDF did not begin to deploy until after its relative failure vis-a-vis Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. A key feature is a change in the way intelligence is collected, and more particularly in its dissemination to the units – a development that was of great significance in Moscovitch’s realm of responsibility.

In the past few years, as a result of a process spearheaded by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the former director of Military Intelligence (now head of Northern Command), the IDF formulated a new concept of intelligence warfare. Its main feature is rapid integration of intelligence and other information on a vast scale, from diverse sources, and then “pushing” a large part of it forward, to the combat units. MI was partly influenced by the trauma of 2006, when it emerged that not enough information was available about Hezbollah’s deployment and that an important segment of the intelligence that did exist was not transferred to the field units in time, for fear it would leak to the enemy.

The change, whose roots lie with then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and then-MI chief Amos Yadlin, was given great momentum under Kochavi, during the term of Benny Gantz as chief of staff, and was first put to the test in Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war in Gaza. “From the moment that MI connects with the end units and doesn’t make do with having intelligence sit in GHQ [general headquarters], the implementation of the concept depends on teleprocessing,” Moscovitch says. “You need a teleprocessing infrastructure, information systems, the ability to integrate and filter information.”

The model is already working well, but a reverse risk is now developing, he notes. “In my view, we are flooding the company commander at the end of the chain with too much information. The same problem exists in the business world – ‘big data’ – where more information is collected than the end user can filter and handle efficiently in real time.”

Concrete wall near border with Lebanon.
Noa Shpigel

Even though a clash with Hezbollah does not appear to be an immediate danger, given the Shi’ite organization’s continued involvement in the civil war in Syria, a war in Lebanon is the primary operational challenge that the IDF is preparing for.

“When you look at southern Lebanon,” says Moscovitch, “you see 150 to 170 villages in which Hezbollah has built combat systems since 2006. According to a cautious estimate, each such village has 40 to 50 areas that you will have to deal with in a war. It can no longer be the rake-up method that the IDF used in the first Lebanon war, in 1982. At that time, the chief of staff, Raful [Rafael Eitan], told division commanders: Within a week you are positioned on this-and-this line. Today, the enemy is scattered and decentralized. The fact that you have crossed the rocket-launching space with an IDF ground force doesn’t mean they will stop using that space. The old method will not reduce the threat to the Israeli civilian rear within a reasonable time. The problem is that the home front is taking punishment and bleeding, and it’s possible that a confrontation will be dual-sector [including also rocket fire from Gaza].”

Intelligence was transmitted effectively in the Gaza Strip in 2014, but the IDF suffered from other problems there: flawed operational plans, disparities in the General Staff’s fire plan, and hesitation at the senior political and military levels. Dragged into a war against Hamas, both senior echelons had difficulty deciding on the primary goal: to cripple Hamas’ rocket-launching capabilities; to destroy the organization’s tunnels (a goal that was set only after 10 days of fighting); or to end its rule (an idea to which the leadership, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, objected).

Moscovitch, who declines to comment on this analysis of the Gaza war – even though he is considered one of the war’s harshest critics in internal General Staff forums – maintains that the IDF will be better prepared in a future confrontation with Hezbollah, but admits that obstacles still loom. “There are thousands of targets there that we know about – we have extraordinary intelligence. Let’s say that under optimal conditions, most of the civilian population in southern Lebanon flees to the north. Even then, after a short period, you have already attacked most of the targets known to you, but rockets still continue to be fired at the civilian rear. Here you’ll need intelligence and the ability to deal rapidly with time-sensitive targets” – in other words, mobile rocket launchers or embedded launchers whose location is only revealed after rockets have been fired from them into Israel.

That, says Moscovitch, “will be the tipping point in the campaign. Intelligence will go on working, but a great deal will depend on the effectiveness of the teleprocessing systems: on the ability to transmit rapidly, in real time, information from the sensor that identifies the launcher, to intelligence, which analyzes the image, to the computer of the plane that will bomb the target. The C4I branch has been engaged with this a great deal in recent years, together with the other in-laws of the process: MI, the air force and Ground Forces Command.”

The prevailing view in Western armies is that, with regard to inter-branch capability and the real-time integration of intelligence and firepower, the IDF is at the forefront of the technology, ahead of most armies. The concluding element of that capability is related to everyday life, to what’s known as “networked IDF” – the systematic removal of blockages, which is supposed to make possible more efficient coordination between the General Staff and the various branches and units, while also saving large amounts of money that were wasted on dualities (similar capabilities that the different corps and branches created separately). Moscovitch, who presented the plan to the General Staff forum three years ago, argued that the continuation of the makeshift approach pursued by C4I for years in order to bridge parallel systems would lead the IDF to a dead end.

“The most significant development since then is that we removed some of the walls between the branches, though we haven’t toppled them completely,” Moscovitch reveals. “I can at least guarantee that the blockages that were removed will not return. In the past, it operated like a relay race, in which the baton somehow always fell near the end. For many years, each branch lay its own fiber-optics communications network, irrespective of the fact that another branch was doing the same thing a kilometer away. If a kilometer of fiber optics costs nearly 200,000 shekels [$53,000], we lost a great deal of money. Unifying the activity will save hundreds of millions of shekels and also serves military activity, such as by heightening the coordination with MI.” The close friendship between Moscovitch and Kochavi also helped advance these moves.

This means cyber warfare

The third level of the changes, and perhaps the most sensitive of them all in terms of organizational politics in the IDF, relates to the future of cyber operations. In this regard, an unavoidable dispute sprang up between Moscovitch and Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the current MI chief, owing to the natures of their respective duties. At present, cyber warfare is divided between defensive capability, which falls under the purview of the C4I branch, and collection and attack capability, for which MI – and in particular its Unit 8200 (focusing on signals intelligence) – is responsible.

Last July, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot decided that a cyber warfare branch would be created. Because of opposition by MI, the new branch was not designated as autonomous. In the meantime, while discussions over the final format continue, the existing gulf between C4I and MI remains intact, and a cyber warfare unit headed by a brigadier general (Yaron Rozen, from the air force) was established, which is accountable to the deputy chief of staff.

Maj. Gen. Uzi Moscovitch.
David Bachar

The final decision that will be made is “critical,” Moscovitch says, adding, “It’s far more important for the IDF’s future than the unification that was decided on between Ground Forces Command and the technological and logistics directorate.” Shortly before his retirement from the IDF, Moscovitch submitted four possible solutions to Eisenkot and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. He favors the fourth, most far-reaching option: an independent cyber warfare branch.

MI advocates a different proposal, in which a cyber warfare branch, headed by a major general, would be subordinate to the MI chief. Moscovitch makes no secret of his view that this proposal “would be worse than leaving things as they are. We preferred to make the move in two steps, but now it’s necessary to prepare for its completion through the establishment of an independent branch. That is obligatory given the importance of cyber operations in future wars – the first signs of which are already visible internationally.”

Without saying so explicitly, Moscovitch is apparently referring to the recent cyber attacks that international media attributed to Russia: Disconnecting Turkey from the Internet for a full day, followed by serious disruptions to the country’s banking system for three weeks, apparently in revenge for the downing of a Russian fighter jet on the Syria-Turkey border last November. Shortly afterward, on Christmas Eve, a third of Ukraine’s territory was cut off from the electrical power grid for a week – a mysterious attack that was also viewed in the context of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Israel’s future clashes with its enemies will also take place in those realms, in both defense and offense. “At present,” says Moscovitch, “when we talk about offensive cyber warfare, it’s mostly in regard to collecting intelligence. Ten years down the line, things will look different. In a world that is increasingly opposed to the use of kinetic military power [attack by firepower, and even more, offensive ground maneuvers], we will see a transition to softer patterns of the use of force. And the more technological and communications-oriented the adversary becomes, the more you can do against him.”

Moscovitch is hinting that the IDF’s ability in this realm does not lie where most Israelis might expect it to, given Israel’s branding as the “startup nation” and the admiring reports in foreign media outlets about the impact of the Stuxnet computer virus – a joint Israeli-American operation against the Iranian nuclear project a few years ago.

“Based on what I read in the media,” says Moscovitch, “when it comes to offensive capability, there is Russia, and only afterward the rest of the world. As a country that is a cyber power and has no special desire to get entangled in unnecessary wars, we need to be, and are capable of being, in a different place. Cyber operations will not be a substitute for combat in an anti-tank trench, for a tank in narrow alleys, for a pilot or for drone operators. But it can facilitate their activity and perhaps partly spare the use of military power.”

Moscovitch spent most of his IDF career – he was drafted into the Armored Corps as a combat soldier at the start of the first Lebanon war in 1982 – in the field, in armored units. He commanded a regular armored brigade in 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield, during the second intifada, and afterward, unusually, served as the commander of three armored divisions consecutively. He came to C4I on a professional basis (he’s an aeronautical engineering graduate from Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and also holds an MBA), but after four and a half years, it seems as if one’s perspective on the character of wars changes a little – even if the IDF is still occupied for much of the time in the pursuit of knife-carriers or in uncovering the latest armed Palestinian in Hebron or Nablus.