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'Today, the Israeli Army Plans With Bravado but Executes With Fear'

In the wake of a report into readiness for war that shook the IDF, a veteran officer warns: In a future Lebanon war, some Israeli soldiers won't be able to handle the load

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli reservist shoots during a drill, December, 2017.
An Israeli reservist shoots during a drill, December, 2017.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The person whom I’ll call A. is a senior officer in the reserves and has served for years in vital reserve units. About a month ago he got in contact with me for the first time in many years.

“Have you read the reports by Yitzhak Brik? He’s right in every word,” the officer said, referring to the ombudsman of the Israel Defense Forces. This week he found time for a whole interview.

Brik, who is retiring after 10 years on the job, knocked the military off balance with his harshly critical reports and letters on the IDF’s preparedness for war. Brik warned that the IDF isn’t ready, harshly criticized the state of the ground forces (mostly the reserve units), attacked the IDF’s poor organizational culture and warned that its manpower policies will drive out the young and finest officers.

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This week the IDF released two reports by committees examining the issue; they were appointed by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in response to Brik’s claims. Even though the two committees identified many problems and shortfalls, just as Brik did, their bottom line backed Eisenkot’s position. The IDF is properly prepared for war, they said.

A. said that personally he has no reason for bitterness; he’s doing quite well in his civilian career. And the IDF, where he still serves many days a year, treats him well. His soldiers show up for reserve duty out of a deep commitment. But he’s less enthusiastic about the army’s organizational culture.

Defense officials spend a great deal of time patting themselves on the back, A says. “A terrible culture has been created in which everyone is outstanding, everyone is good,” he says.

“At every discussion concluding an exercise or training, all the commanders are in love with each other. There isn’t a single battalion exercise in which a big step forward isn’t achieved, not one brigade exercise isn’t excellent,” he adds.

“You were great, thank you for coming, take a plaque and go home happy. It has become a festival of storytellers. There’s no connection between what we tell ourselves and reserve units’ true capabilities. I don’t remember a single training exercise in which someone got up at the end and said: We failed; it was bad.”

Over the past two decades, something strange has been happening in the IDF, A. says.

“Straight talk, caustic, like Brik’s has disappeared. At a certain stage, at a certain level of command, it’s not worth it for an officer to tell the truth. No one wants to argue. When I finish an exercise at the base, I write an opinion about their performance,” he says.

“In recent years, I’ve been careful. They give us a grade too, and in the end it determines for me whether the unit meets the operational fitness standard. You don’t want it to come back and haunt you. The army has lost the ability to voice and digest criticism. Everything has become one big hug; pat my back and I’ll suck up to you.”

Playing make believe

Everyone is proud of the training, A. says. “But go check out what a reservist carries in an infantry exercise: a few magazines of ammunition and a little bit of water,” he says.

“Usually there are no hand grenades or [personal combat gear]. After that, in real combat, reservists discover that they have to carry dozens of kilos on their backs, and some of them can’t handle the load,” A. says, adding that the IDF “is playing make believe” with entire formations.

Reserve training on a few and defective armored personnel carriers. There aren’t enough technical units for maintenance. Who knows how to fix a broken tank tread? In wartime they send recovery teams from the ordnance school who rush around and fix things, because the others don’t know how,” he says.

“In the battalions there were once professional commanders of headquarters companies. Today you have to assign combat officers to those jobs. In most cases, a headquarters company commander who gets out of the professional army isn’t interested in continuing in the reserves,” A. adds.

Israeli soldiers on the northern border with Lebanon, near Metula, December 18, 2018.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“It’s very hard to keep combat support soldiers in the reserves; a communications noncom, as opposed to Givati [infantry troops] or paratroopers, has no real motivation to serve” in the reserves.

Lacking trained technicians, the army improvises. Battalion commanders in the reserves tell how some mechanics now repairing tanks and armored personnel carriers were technicians during their regular service – but for helicopters or missile boats that are no longer in service.

This year, combat soldiers in most reserve battalions trained for five days, A. says. Commanders trained more. There was once a model of two weeks training a year for combat soldiers.

“And to call it five days is a bit of an exaggeration. We begin training seriously only on Sunday afternoon. From Thursday morning we’re busy doing what we have to do to go home, and by midday you can no longer find a single professional soldier left at Tze’elim,” he says, referring to a training base.

“What level of professionalism can you reach? There’s no way to learn and assimilate combat doctrine or new technology this way. Would you trust a doctor who works in his profession only five days a year? A journalist who writes only one week a year?”

Arrogantly and cowardly

A huge gap has sprung up between what is said, both externally and internally, and the true capabilities.

“Once they taught us that we needed to plan cautiously and carry it out courageously. I’m worried that the IDF today plans arrogantly and operates cowardly. Division commanders are living in a dream world. In a war, when they wake up, what will happen to them is what happened to Erez Zuckerman and Gal Hirsch,” A. says, referring to division commanders who retired after the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Looking back, it looks suspiciously like the IDF doesn’t want to deploy the ground forces’ reserve formations during a war, he says.

2002’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank during the second intifada was the last time reserve brigades operated successfully, A. says.

“And at the time they mostly entered the less dangerous cities in the West Bank and the 5th Brigade still got into serious trouble in the battle in the Jenin refugee camp. What happened in the Second Lebanon War, everybody knows. In Operation Cast Lead in Gaza they activated very few reserve units, mostly to take control of areas that had already been captured by the regular army,” he says, referring to the fighting in the winter of 2008-09.

In Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, ground troops didn’t enter Gaza, A. notes. In Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the IDF sent one reserve brigade to Gaza from the officers training school, “and they stopped them, too, pretty quickly after a few incidents of friendly fire.”

According to A., this also related to Israelis’ diminishing tolerance for casualties.

“[Former general Moshe] Chico Tamir wrote in his book on the security zone in Lebanon, ‘Undeclared War,’ that the IDF gradually stopped sending reserve units into Lebanon, and this is how a bubble was created there that was cut off from the government and the public,” A. says.

“There’s a fear of multiple casualties in fighting. The high command doesn’t want reservists to start protests and bring out everything. No one today is capable of imagining a reserve battalion that continues advancing deep into Lebanon after suffering 30 dead.”

In the Gaza Strip, military operations somehow work, A. says.

“For us, Hamas is a desirable enemy: weak, under siege. We control its water, electricity, and the entry [into Gaza] of medication. In Lebanon we won’t lose either. We’re too strong. We have an excellent air force, intelligence, enormous firepower. No forces in the area can defeat us,” A. says.

“Hamas won’t invade Ashkelon and Hezbollah won’t reach the Daughters of Jacob Bridge [over the Jordan River]. An infantry or armored battalion in the IDF reserves still has great power compared to the enemy. But Brik is right: There’s no connection between the wonderful presentations the IDF has learned to prepare and the true capabilities of a large part of the reserves.”

White elephant in the IDF

On Monday, the General Staff met with members of the committees examining military preparedness: IDF Comptroller Ilan Harari and a team led by reserve generals Avi Mizrahi and Doron Almog.

Several of the participants suggested that when the conclusions were presented to the media the following day, the reserve officers should stress that they completely rejected Brik's criticism. Almog responded sharply, saying the chief of staff had asked them to check the IDF’s preparedness, and that’s what they did. They found the gaps, so now close them, Almog said.

Almog wasn’t at the press conference. Only Mizrahi and Harari came, accompanied by several reserve officers. Critics and the subjects of the criticism all in the same room – and they all made sure to fondly look back on the times they served together.

It was apparent that Mizrahi and Harari, both honest and decent people, found it hard to forget the grief caused them by Brik, who in several letters cast doubt about their sincerity and objectivity. Part of the press conference turned into an argument with Brik; at the height Mizrahi shouted: “The chief of staff doesn’t deserve this! The IDF doesn’t deserve this!” Thus Eisenkot got the headlines he wanted.

In the media coverage, the issues the committees pointed to, which correspond with many of the points raised by Brik, were marginalized. But the list is long and serious. One of the most grave is a system by Israeli defense electronics company Elbit that connects different commands, units and armored vehicles during combat.

Over the past 15 years, the army has invested around 10 billion shekels ($2.64 billion) in the project. Some units have taken to the system well, but reservists are struggling to keep up with the technology. Reserve commanders in charge of infantry, combat engineering and Armored Corps units describe the system as a white elephant and call expectations to use it a fantasy.

Another issue, which the IDF is aware of, is a shortage of thousands of trucks. This is far from trivial. In every war, the army’s mobility depends on trucks and tank transporters.

To fix these issues, the Mizrahi-Almog committee recommended a solution that Eisenkot has been reluctant to adopt – an annual addition to the budget of 2.5 billion shekels that would bolster the ground forces.

The committee suggested that the addition come from a source outside the defense budget. When you compare the enormous sums invested over the past decade in the air force, Military Intelligence and cyberunits, it’s clear the ground forces are lagging.

But the story isn’t just about the money: The upkeep of the ground forces’ infrastructure, compared to the air force, is messy and expensive. Recurrent hitches betray a flawed organizational culture.

Ground forces still rule

In meetings with members of the committees, reserve battalion commanders made it clear: If you need us we’ll come to the battlefield only equipped with sticks and stones. If our troops know that they’re fighting for their homes, everyone will show up despite the heavy rocket fire expected on the home front.

Mizrahi and Almog, in their concluding remarks in the different forums, used this statement to reiterate what they consider a key point: in a war with Hezbollah there will be no victory without deep and extensive maneuvering on the ground. The air force is great, but to win a war the military will need the ground forces deep inside Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t really agree. When Netanyahu lays out his vision for the military in 2030, the ground forces aren’t a high priority. To him, the future is cyberwar and improved firepower.

In the middle of the press conference, Mizrahi let slip an interesting statement. “I was in the General Staff in 2009,” he said. “And back then we hardly trained.” This is odd: Those were the years following the Second Lebanon War when the IDF said the ground forces were up to snuff again.

As is his way, Mizrahi was telling the truth. Especially during the periods of the army chiefs who represented the center-left’s biggest hopes – Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and former defense ministers Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon – the ground forces weren’t deeply rehabilitated.

Eisenkot inherited a difficult situation. He was handed a large, unfocused military whose ground capabilities were low, which unfortunately was made clear during Operation Protective Edge – the 2014 Gaza war.

The chief of staff, who will finish his term in mid-January, is a man who has trod uncharted territory. Eisenkot was the one who resolutely decided that the ground forces were essential to achieve victory in a war; he provided more budgets and significantly bolstered the units of soldiers on active duty.

The current dispute pertains to the gaps that have yet to be closed. A year ago, a report by a subcommittee headed by MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) noted a discrepancy between the various operative plans in the various arenas and the actual means the army had to do the job.

Shelah told Haaretz this week that to complete the ground forces’ rehabilitation, the army needs “an entire concept: a concept of how to operate, an updating of the operational plans, an extensive and detailed plan to build the ranks. The government has to be involved in this – it should dictate to the army the achievements required of it in a war.”

Also, the disagreement between Eisenkot and Brik had become personal, a development that had to end, Shelah added.

How much will these issues be addressed? In an election period, not much, despite the many generals whose names adorn party tickets. For those who only skim the newspaper headlines, the IDF seems to be doing just fine. That’s what the officers said at the press conference. Now take some scissors, cut out those stories and save them for when they’re relevant by the next war.

What do common Israelis understand? Whom do they believe? This may be a topic for a public opinion poll not on the number of seats parties might win in the next election. Here’s my unscientific observation: The senior officers back the chief of staff, but many reservists, the common soldiers, believe Brik. This is a divide the army will have to bridge in the coming years.

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