Keeping an Eye on Gaza While Preparing for the Next Lebanon War

Israeli air and ground forces are synchronizing their operations as a way to defeat wily Hezbollah in a short war. But the ground forces had better improve.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hezbollah members in southern Lebanon, February 2016.
Hezbollah members in southern Lebanon, February 2016. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made his seasonal threat this week on a solemn occasion: the 24th anniversary of Israel’s assassination of his predecessor, Abbas Musawi. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Nasrallah dodged an Israeli attempt to assassinate him in a bombing that relied on incomplete intelligence. But this week Nasrallah spoke in relative security.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war saved Bashar Assad’s regime. The Shi’ite-Alawite axis supporting the dictator, including at least 5,000 Hezbollah fighters in the vanguard, is chalking up significant achievements by surrounding Aleppo in the north and approaching Daraa in the south.

Nasrallah’s threat this time – to use a Haifa Bay ammonia facility as an“atomic bomb” to create a balance of power between Hezbollah and Israel during a war – is aimed at preserving the balance of deterrence in the north. Hezbollah’s limited response at the beginning of this year to the assassination of Samir Kuntar reflected the organization’s need to continue focusing on Syria.

In his speech Tuesday, Nasrallah tried to convey strength both for internal and external consumption. The Lebanese are paying a hefty price for the Syrian war – the death of Shi’ite fighters, Islamic State attacks in Lebanon and above all the hosting of over a million refugees. Nasrallah reminded the Lebanese who’s defending the country against Israel. He also signaled that Israel better not increase its involvement in Syria due to Assad’s recent successes.

Actually, Hezbollah’s conduct along the border is cautious. Yes, Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have attacked Israel at Har Dov and in the Israeli part of the Golan Heights via Druze and Palestinian cells.

But these attacks were in response to what Hezbollah saw as Israeli excesses – attacks on its people, the detonation of explosives inside Lebanon, and an air strike in Lebanon near Syria. The many air strikes attributed to Israel against Hezbollah convoys and arms depots on the Syrian side (the most recent coming near Damascus Wednesday night) has elicited no response from Hezbollah.

Alongside the focus on Syria, there appears to be another reason for Hezbollah’s relative restraint: the balance of deterrence on the border.

On one side is the huge rocket arsenal Hezbollah has accumulated since the end of the Second Lebanon War. On the other side is Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s “Dahiya doctrine” on asymmetric warfare in an urban area. As head of Northern Command in 2008 he warned of the tremendous destruction Israel would wreak on Beirut’s Shi’ite quarter and Shi’ite villages in the south if another war broke out.

Military Intelligence’s assessment for this year holds that the risk of a Hezbollah-initiated war remains low. But MI has revised its assessment of the risk of a miscalculation leading to war in the north to “medium.”

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a giant screen during a rally commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs' Leader Day in Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 16, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Although the more likely scenario for a near-term escalation involves the tunnels coming from the Gaza Strip, the main enemy that the military is preparing for is Hezbollah. The Syrian army, which in the past was the Israel Defense Forces’ main concern, is now a guard force spurred on by the Russians and Iranians. It’s doubtful it can challenge Israel.

A change in the air

Israel’s main card against Hezbollah, both as a deterrent and in a war, is its firepower that has improved in recent years with the upgrading of the air force and intelligence. This is a tremendous system based on massive investments of money and time. It allows for an attack immeasurably greater than that by the IDF in Lebanon in 2006 and against Hamas in Gaza in 2014.

About two months ago, Eisenkot fired the artillery commander in the north, Col. Ilan Levy, who left in his car classified documents. The car was stolen with the documents, and even though the papers were found and returned, Levy was sacked. In a first, to replace Levy, Northern Command chief Aviv Kochavi appointed an air force officer.

The appointment reflects the understanding – shared by air force chief Amir Eshel – of the need for synchronized firing from the air and ground. The air force is currently able to attack a much larger number of targets during fighting each day. It can take in, analyze and apply precise intelligence much better, sending out more sorties daily, with greater flexibility to switch among targets and missions.

Much of the preparing is for densely populated urban areas in conjunction with ground forces. The heavy bombardment of the Shujaiyeh neighborhood in the 2014 Gaza war seems to portend the next battle.

Another major move will be on defense. About five years ago, as the first Iron Dome missile-defense batteries rolled in, antiaircraft efforts changed. There are now two subsystems – one against missiles and rockets and one to ward off aircraft.

This summer another change is expected before the entry of the new mid-range interception system, Magic Wand. The air force has concluded that the new systems, along with extensive improvements in other weapons systems, create a unified system against the two kinds of threat. The change is designed to reduce the number of stations between the top command and the field, and to shorten the time to address both kinds of threat.

‘Maneuver angst’

For many years now, Israel’s decision-making system has favored using air power over ground forces. The reasons are familiar. The air force conducts the battle from afar and is perceived as technological and precise. Even more, it accounts for fewer losses on the Israeli side.

Israeli society’s decreasing tolerance for soldier deaths since the ‘90s has greatly influenced the IDF. The air force’s high quality of planning and implementation give it an inherent advantage in the battle for resources. The fact that the last four heads of the IDF Planning Directorate have been air force officers also did it no harm. The IDF identified its strong points in the air and intelligence and showered them with resources, with the government’s encouragement.

Israeli soldiers work on their Merkava tanks at an army deployment point near the Israeli-Gaza border on August 20, 2014.Credit: AFP

In the meantime, a troubling gap opened with the stagnating, if not ebbing, ground forces. The results were clear in 2006’s 34 days of the fighting in Lebanon and 2014’s 51 days of fighting in Gaza. It was hard to miss the dissonance between the leaders’ declarations of a short war with a clear victory and the prowess shown in the field.

In the latest edition of a journal published by the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, ground forces chief Guy Zur discusses this gap with surprising candor. He presents the main points of a process he has led over the past two years – called Ground on the Horizon – to change the land army. He describes how he watched the decline of ground maneuvers in the IDF, first as head of Division 162 in the Second Lebanon War and then as planning chief at Central Command.

“The thing etched in my memory was the decision-makers’ difficulty in getting the land maneuver underway. It became clear quite quickly that in every case the postponement of the ground attack to the last minute looks like a reasonable and sometimes very correct decision. If it is possible to achieve the operations’ strategic goal, deterrence, via firing across the border alone without endangering our forces, it seems this is always the preferred alternative,” he writes.

As Zur puts it, “The contribution of every armament with which the air force equips itself is concrete and clear. The relationship between the achievement and every shekel invested appears to be not only very clear but also worth it. The land army, by comparison, is a huge mass of forces, and adapting a ground force to the new warfare is very costly and complex.”

An upgrading of the land army requires improved urban warfare, greater efficiency against explosive devices and antitank missiles, and improved logistical provisioning – “and all in tremendous multiples without it being clear what the operational and strategic benefit is,” he writes.

According to Zur, “Something felt unhealthy. Cumulatively, it seemed as if both Hamas and Hezbollah enjoyed relative immunity in their territory, and from one round to the next they show steadily improving capabilities.”

Israel has been through a Lebanon war and three Gaza operations in eight years, each with a sense of hesitancy regarding deploying force. And each ended with a sense of bitterness. Among ground-force officers, the catchphrase was “maneuver angst” for the IDF’s take on deploying ground forces deep in enemy territory.

Zur had a disturbing sense that the situation had to change. “It was clear to everyone how the concept of winning had become elusive, in an era when the enemies are not the regular Arab armies,” he writes.

“At the same time, in the absence of such a concept, it seemed we were doomed to more and more ‘bitter’ operations, frustrating waits, (overly) belated decisions on overly limited ground operations . Attack maneuvers on land became the last, and undesirable, resort. On the one hand, the state sees as risky operations that exact too high a cost in human lives. On the other hand, they are relevant to a limited extent regarding the major threat from the enemy: the launching of rockets at the home front.”

The last war in Gaza exacerbated this sense of crisis. Zur details the considerations of ground-force commanders and the need to “reject the temptation to continue to develop our comfort zones.” Instead, the idea is to change, but understandably he’s less forthcoming on the solution.

The solution, he writes, “is not more of the same” – more missile-defense systems for tanks and more armored vehicles. His preferred alternative: “The right combination of air and ground forces, in a unified command-and-control system and rapid decision-making that could create tremendous effectiveness even facing an enemy whose art is evasiveness.”

The article, like Eisenkot’s recent speeches, indicate that the land army is preparing mainly for the challenge of fighting Hezbollah, with adaptations for dealing with weaker enemies, from Hamas to groups linked with the Islamic State.

Such an enemy hides, is well prepared on defense in difficult terrain and bases its attack on massive firepower throughout the Israeli home front. Thus, according to Zur, two things are necessary without significantly increasing troop numbers: “striking hard at [the enemy’s] centers of gravity and efficiently suppressing his activities in territories very large in size.”

The riddle, Zur writes, is how to accomplish these two things at the same time. And the IDF has to ensure a low casualty rate and act quickly so that Israeli civilians won’t have to stay in shelters for weeks.

“I think Ground on the Horizon has formulated a good and innovative answer to the question of how to defeat the enemy,” Zur concludes. He stresses the potential of networked combat – coordinated action on air, land and sea sharing intelligence via a central control-and-command system. This would dramatically improve the ground forces’ effectiveness.

Additional ideas include establishing a commando brigade (which indeed got underway in January), bolstering tactical ground units, and changing logistics support doctrine.

The army, he writes, must pick and choose. It can’t strengthen all units equally at once. “This is not about magic or a promise that carries no risks .... We have not eliminated the uncertainty of the battlefield,” Zur writes. “The path to implementing the plan is long and complex.”

Still, the very fact the IDF has acknowledged a deep crisis in deploying land forces in an extensive war – a matter that much of the top brass had played down – means the problem is probably about halfway to being fixed.

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