The deluge of military announcements that rained on the Israeli public last week must have come as a surprise, as people were busy with the beginning of the school year and preparations for the High Holidays. Almost every day, TV channels showed clips from the General Staff exercises taking place in the north, quoting senior officers holding forth on the definition of victory on the battlefield, while mentioning horrific potential scenarios such as the commandeering of an Israeli community by Hezbollah. Also included were threats by the defense minister, promising to deliver a decisive blow to our enemies. All this was accompanied by the usual warnings from the prime minister about the Iranian threat, issued as he was touring South America.
As the maneuvers ended on Wednesday, the army had an opportunity to organize its thinking. The exercise, the first of its kind since 1998, was designed to examine and arrange the working of headquarters at above-divisional levels, an area in which the IDF did poorly during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In the event of a future war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, orders given to division and brigade commanders have to be very clear. They must reach targets they are assigned to, deep inside Lebanon, within the time allocated, while damaging Hezbollah units and their assets in a designated area and limiting its ability to fire rockets into Israel, knowing that these will continue to fall until the final day of the war.
At the General Staff level, the IDF will need to create an effective defense against a possible public-image achievement by Hezbollah, such as a surprise opening strike. At the same time, the army will deliver massive firepower inside Lebanon, relying on accurate intelligence. The intent is to send in large ground forces within a short time to operate inside Lebanon. All this must be done while maintaining the legitimacy for a military operation, including public support at home and at least some international understanding for Israel’s considerations. The IDF will strive to shorten the campaign to minimize suffering on the home front, trying to end the war under conditions that will provide political leaders with significant achievements in the field that should allow for a long-term and amenable diplomatic resolution.
This doesn’t mean that Hezbollah will cease to exist at the end of the war, as some cabinet members may be fantasizing. However, when the IDF reviews its last campaigns, despite patent failures (in Lebanon) and partial disappointment (in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza three years ago), it finds that these were followed by a relatively stable security situation, obviously within the context of the limited expectations that characterize this region. The forecast by intelligence services remains the same. The balance of strategic capabilities has shifted in Israel’s favor, although security margins have eroded. The regional reality is so unstable that any local event could easily deteriorate into war, something that is true on almost all our fronts.
The people who planned these maneuvers did not sufficiently take the weather into account, although wars do sometimes break out in summertime here. On Tuesday, midday temperatures in the Beit She’an Valley climbed above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). In the tent temporarily used by Division 162 headquarters, on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, officers and enlisted men were sweltering under their battle dress, which they had been wearing for several days.
General: Victory to be achieved by movement
Brig. Gen. Oded Basiuk, the divisional commander, is a 42-year-old Armored Corps officer who assumed his post last June. Like many members of his military cohort, the experiences that shaped him were campaigns against guerilla and terrorist organizations, first in southern Lebanon, then during the second intifada, followed by the round of campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza. Meeting him was a reminder of another occasion, in which one of his predecessors, Brig. Gen. (later Maj. Gen.) Guy Tzur, spoke with military correspondents on the last day of the 2006 war in Lebanon. The divisional commander, whose forces had barely crossed the Saluki River and had stopped advancing a day before the cease-fire went into effect, was sent to face the media to laud the final military move, which had turned out to be a failed gamble.
Senior officers from the level of brigade commander all the way up to the Chief of Staff were in the eye of the storm at the end of that war. Basiuk, who was a battalion commander in Brigade 7, personally witnessed a clash between another divisional commander, Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, and Brigade 7 commander Col. Amnon Eshel. That clash led to the termination of the military careers of both men.
This week, Basiuk said the exercise had included most aspects of war “except the smell of gunpowder.” Movement was carried out in small units which did not use live fire, but whose purpose was to allow commanding officers to practice their skills. Opposing them were “enemy” forces representing Hezbollah elite (Radwan) units, as well as rocket-firing squads.
“The General Staff believes that victory will be achieved by movement. This is what I and the division know how to do and that is what we are supposed to do, utilizing the capabilities at our disposal to advance into enemy territory. I realize that there is someone on the other side who is also thinking and planning. I don’t dismiss him, but I have to do better than him. I have to understand the system that is fighting us, to find and sometimes create vulnerabilities in order to exploit them. Ultimately, the division must be part of the campaign to defeat Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.”
Basiuk seems well aware of the importance of the battles waged in the public eye over images in recent campaigns, and of the limited tolerance of Israeli society for the possibility that a war will lead to more extensive casualties. “In the event of war, the other side will attempt to achieve something that will look like a quick victory,” he says, hinting at the possibility that Hezbollah will try to take over a community lying close to the border. “I suggest that we stay away from a frame of mind that the enemy wants to put us in. Clearly, we’ll have to make rapid and significant achievements. It won’t be a stroll in the park. Part of our preparations involves mentally preparing soldiers who have not experienced war, including dealing with casualties. However, when I look at our capabilities, with excellent infantry units, Merkava Mark 4 tanks, extensive and high-quality intelligence – we have nothing to be ashamed of in comparison to any other army.”
The corps-level maneuvers, which had been planned a long time ago, ultimately took place after the Syrian civil war has effectively been decided. The Assad regime has survived. The camp supporting him, led by Iran with massive Russian support, has so far come out with the upper hand in the largest campaign being waged over hegemony in the Middle East. In Syria, the areas under ISIS control are continually shrinking while the regime is expanding its hold eastwards. Still, fighting is expected to continue for some time and it’s doubtful that President Bashar Assad will be able to again unite all of Syria under his rule.
Overall, the bloc of Sunni states in the Middle East is in retreat, finding it difficult to translate its advantages in population size and economic resources into military achievements. In contrast, Iran is consolidating its hold on Syria, as the American contribution to defeating ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the northern Syrian city of Raqqa enables the Iranians to gradually realize their vision of creating a continuous land bridge across their sphere of influence, ranging from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus, all the way to Beirut.
These successes would not have been achieved without Russian assistance. Moscow has invested $5 billion in Syria so far, sending 3,000 soldiers and advisers and deploying dozens of fighter jets. The talks it led in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, yielded a cease-fire, which, although enforced only to a degree and only in some areas, highlights Moscow’s dominance, with Washington trailing behind. Russia has achieved its goals. It supported its protégé Assad while ignoring the terrible war crimes the regime committed, and it is now working to promote its economic and security interests in the region. At the same time it has consolidated working relationships with other forces in the Middle East, some of which are mutually hostile, such as Iran, Turkey and Israel.
In Syria, Hezbollah is an important player in the winning camp, aware of its contribution to victory. For several years, almost 8,000 combatants, a third of its regular forces, have been in Syria. Israeli intelligence services estimate that the organization lost 1,800 fighters in the war, with 8,000 others wounded. In this campaign, in which only the strongest survived, Hezbollah commanders at all levels acquired valuable combat experience. In battles waged in August in the Qalamoun Mountains along the Lebanese-Syrian border, Hezbollah for the first time employed thousands of soldiers fighting in organized units, taking days to dislodge ISIS fighters in a well-planned campaign that included units from the Lebanese and Syrian armies.
In improving its armaments, though, the organization may have been less successful. In recent years, Iran and Syria have made great efforts to arm Hezbollah with precise rockets capable of hitting targets within a radius of tens of meters on average. The arms factory that was recently bombed in western Syria was producing such rockets. In seems that so far these production efforts have been fruitless, mainly due to vigorous operations that included attacking arms convoys and warehouses inside Syria.
Several floors underground at General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv, the well-protected intel-gathering department was on duty throughout the recent maneuvers. For the first time, this unit was involved as an independent entity directing forces on the ground. The unit’s commander, Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan, told Haaretz that the exercise completed the conversion of his unit from an enabler – a body at the disposal of commanders, whose role is to connect headquarters to different units – into an independently-run division with the role of coordinating the command of different units, supplying them with abundant information and intelligence they can use while fighting, while also affording protection against cyberattacks.
The dependence of the IDF, and of the entire country, on advanced technologies becomes even more critical in times of war. This department and its different units need to protect not only against information leaking out, but to defend the survival of systems so that the army can continue fulfilling its missions.
Padan, who began his service as a combatant and commander in the General Staff’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, compares these defensive measures to the protection of a physical border. “When you have a system with a fence, a watchtower and illumination, a routine develops, one which an attacker can read and penetrate. Our defense has to be much more flexible and active so that systems aren’t broken into,” he says.
In terms of command, the main test is in the operation of all systems as divisions are deployed for a deep ground maneuver. “This is our biggest challenge, one we didn’t have to face in Operation Protective Edge since operations then were restricted to the border area,” says Padan, who commanded Division 162 in the 2014 Gaza campaign. “Then, I didn’t have such a wealth of intelligence or of technologies,” he adds. The scenario facing his department in these maneuvers included physical damage to communications infrastructure as well as cyberattacks that damaged national infrastructure, including energy.
The intel-gathering department is waiting for another decision by Chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot – on whether to establish a separate cyber division and to unite under its wing different departments dealing with defensive and offensive measures, as well as data collection. These units are now spread out across military intelligence and data-collection units. Eisenkot is expected to deal with this issue in three months, but people in the General Staff say things are slowly moving towards the creation of one unified division, whether it takes one or five years to complete.
On Thursday, several decisions by Eisenkot regarding improvements in combatants’ benefits were made public. They include a clearer distinction between frontline soldiers and ones serving in supporting roles. A further distinction will now be made between soldiers spearheading the action, in actual assault roles, and those in other combat positions that are less dangerous. This is part of an effort to restore the status enjoyed previously by frontline combatants. Among the planned benefits are increased salaries, provision of better equipment and the financing of academic studies following demobilization.
Another plan that gained approval was the inauguration of an eight-year term of service for the army’s four elite units – the General Staff’s Sayeret Matcal commando unit, the naval commandos, the air force’s Shaldag commando unit and its 669 combat search and rescue unit. This will include two years of academic studies. The units will thus become more professional standing army units.
Value of ultra-Orthodox soldiers
These decisions were publicized, by chance, in the same week in which the High Court of Justice struck down the arrangement exempting yeshiva students from army service, ordering the Knesset to pass a new law regulating the matter within a year. By the end of this year, the army will complete the recruitment of 3,500 ultra-Orthodox men. This is an impressive number in comparison with the previous decade, but for the third year in a row it will not meet the quota set in the last arrangement made with the Orthodox. The General Staff is not keen on putting all yeshiva students from Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit in uniform, and commanders are sufficiently aware of political realities to realize that this will not happen. Looking at things differently, as compared to the past, however, the army is not indifferent to the consequences of the court’s ruling. Ultra-Orthodox soldiers contribute to the army and their presence somewhat lessens the inequalities in sharing the national burden of service. Their military service increases their chances of finding employment and integrating into Israeli society after demobilization.
The rise in recruitment of Haredi men, particularly into combat units, is already bearing fruit for the army. Every such battalion that is stationed in the field for most of the year, such as the Nahal Haredi (Netzah Yehuda) battalion, saves the army calling up 18 reserve battalions a year. The reinforcement of units dealing with routine security and border defense alleviates the pressure on frontline combat units such as Golani, Nahal and armored brigades, allowing their soldiers to train for a possible war rather than taking up most of their time at checkpoints or on guard duty. Eisenkot is striving, for the first time since 2000, to enable these units to spend equal amounts of time in training and on duty in the field. This depends on continued quiet on the security front and on assured recruitment numbers for units dealing with routine security, ranging from Nahal Haredi units to the Border Police.
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