Flexibility key for IDF amid drastic cuts, changing region

Security and Defense: Budget cuts have sparked debate on what form IDF should take.

By
July 20, 2013 08:13
Tanks fire rounds as part of an intensive ‘master gunner’ course.

Tanks training 370. (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)

 
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On the face of it, the reductions in key components of the IDF, driven by defense budget cuts, look discouraging.

Air force squadrons – some with long and glorious traditions – are being axed. So are tank units and Artillery Corps units. The Israel Navy, already a small force, will be downsized.

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Between 3,000 and 5,000 career soldiers will be let go.

All reserve duty and training has been called off for the remainder of 2013.

Two months after the government approved a NIS 3 billion cut to the national defense budget, and with the army bracing itself for a continually reduced budget, the changes are being felt across the military.

The cuts have sparked a debate on what form the IDF should take as it faces an uncertain early 21st century, marked by regional chaos; a massive rocket threat to the Israeli home front; turbulent, unpredictable arenas to the north and south; and most important of all, an Iran building up its nuclear program in the peripheral east.

Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz presented his proposed reforms to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The cabinet has yet to approve the proposals, and some of the more cynical commentators believe the changes are designed to unnerve ministers and reduce the cut to the defense budget.



But defense chiefs are adamant about their genuine determination to push through with the reforms and play their part in lowering the national deficit.

The questions, then, are: Why are the cuts being made where they are? Are the units being cut less important? The answer is that the IDF is using the cuts as an opportunity to adapt itself to a new environment, one where size is less important than accurate firepower, intelligence, new technology, and highly skilled, better-trained combat units.

According to this thinking, gone are the days where organized, hierarchical Arab armies pose a threat to Israeli sovereignty. The Syrian military (or what is left of it) is strained beyond breaking point, as it fights for the survival of the Bashar Assad regime. The Egyptian military, which is an undeclared tactical ally seeking stability and maintenance of the peace treaty, will be busy securing Egypt domestically for years to come.

The coming era, so goes the logic, is one in which a smaller technological military will be sufficiently capable of dealing with the threats that surround Israel.

However, such thinking must not be accepted at face value. If the turmoil that erupted in the Middle East over two years ago has shown one thing, it’s that predictions are folly. Things change quickly. Hierarchical organized Arab armies could once again pose a threat in the future, even if this appears unlikely now.

Hence, as defense chiefs openly acknowledge, these changes are little more than a calculated risk.

On the one hand, the IDF has to continue its multi-year force-building process, involving strategic acquisitions such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (which is expected to replace F-16 fighter jets), and continue to invest in homemade Merkava Mark 4 tanks and advanced Namer armored personnel carriers.

On the other hand, the IDF cannot ignore regional changes, and has to take into account budgetary constraints. It’s a fine and complex balancing act.

The idea that a military should change purely because of its surroundings might be too simplistic if one asks Col. Dr. Meir Finkel, director of the IDF’s Ground Forces Concept Development and Doctrine Department.

Finkel’s superbly researched book, On Flexibility (published in 2007 by Stanford University Press), offers insight into the thinking that is playing a major role in preparing the IDF for future challenges.

Finkel states that Israel’s national security is predicated on the following factors: “Limited geographical depth, a plethora of enemies and confrontation fronts, a small but high-quality, technologically developed society, and limited economic resources that preclude a protracted war.”

These factors led to the development of a warfare doctrine that “strives for deterrence, strategic warning based on intelligence gathering, a lightening victory in enemy territory, and force planning based on a limited conscript army, a large, well-trained reserve force… reliance on intelligence layout for strategic warning, and offensive branches such as armor and air.”

In most militaries, Finkel argues, planning is based on a realistic appraisal of force structure, security requirements, strategic and technological trends, and a compromise with budgetary constraints.

In addition to this appraisal, militaries aim to keep themselves up to date.

But Finkel challenges the idea that planning for the next war should be based on the prediction of the nature of future battlefields.

“Uncertainty is one of the most basic elements in war and is inherent in every combat situation, frequently taking the form of surprise,” he notes.

“Surprise on the battlefield can stem from the enemy’s intention or an assessment failure by the victim, even when the enemy did not intend to spring a surprise,” Finkel warns.

The book notes that reliance on past lessons in planning for future wars often turns out to be a source of mistakes. “With surprise as a war principle, deception as a tool for achieving surprise, and friction on the battlefield and during the force-planning process, it seems that force planning must be based on the assumption that surprises will always occur,” he wrote.

In light of these factors, Finkel cautions against relying on an early detection of surprise through intelligence gathering, and trying to predict the future battlefield.

The main cause for uncertainty is human nature, he asserts.

The ever-increasing technology in war has made things even more complex, Finkel adds. He goes on to propose a model for force-building, which is based on instilling the military with the ability to recover swiftly from surprises, due to a built-in flexibility.

Any attempt to prepare for a future war by amending a doctrine, technology and weapons system “is of dubious value,” he wrote. What is most important is creating an “atmosphere of openness to new ideas and a mindset conductive to dealing with uncertainty.”

Moreover, Finkel argues, a successful doctrine, which avoids dogmatism, should give equal value to all forms of war: Offensive, defensive, advance and withdrawal.

Such a military will produce a culture of flexibility, as well as commanders that have the mental capabilities to cope with surprises on the battlefield, which will surely come.

This mindset, according to Finkel, will be key to future battlefield victory – no less than the number of tanks and artillery units in the field.

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